“True Grit,” In Revival

January 10th, 2011 § 0 comments

“He’s gone over the edge,” I hear you whispering. “Surely he understands that True Grit is a movie, not a piece of theatre. He only writes about theatre. And doesn’t he know that alternate, subsequent movies are remakes, not revivals?”

Rest assured, I am quite aware of the facts. I can absolutely distinguish between a film and play, just as I can distinguish between the book True Grit by Charles Portis, the 1969 film of True Grit, based on the novel, with a screenplay by Marguerite Roberts and directed by Henry Hathaway; and the 2010 film of True Grit, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. In the past two weeks, I have read the novel, watched the 1969 film on DVD and seen the 2010 film twice in the theatre. I have done so because I am utterly fascinated by the various versions, and believe they illustrate an issue that is essential to appreciating the multiple perspectives that can be brought to bear on oft-revived plays, even if in this case the medium is the movies.

When we see a theatrical revival, we are, in most cases, watching the same text interpreted afresh by a new set of artists – director, designers, actors and so on. I say “in most cases” because of late we have seen revivals that tinker with text: the last Broadway incarnation of Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind reportedly had the fat trimmed away, a vestige of an era when plays were regularly more discursive, and Shakespeare plays have often lost scenes that the director feels no longer play properly to modern audiences, or simply make the evening too long (the completeHamlet, anyone?). But even with minor textual tampering, the spine of the play remains.

The various productions then work from the text to showcase the director’s vision of an often classic work. Simon McBurney staged a nighttime storm that is normally only spoken of in retrospect in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons; Daniel Sullivan added a wordless scene of Shylock’s baptism to the recent Merchant of Venice; David Cromer briefly, startlingly abandoned the long-maintained spartan setting of Our Town. In some cases no scenes need be appended; shifts in period, pacing, casting and so on can reveal a piece of dramatic literature as new, and in many of those cases, knowledge of the earlier version helps the innovation to stand out in greater relief.

Now back to True Grit.

I had seen the 1969 film, which won as Oscar for John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the marshal who “likes to pull a cork,”, sometime in the 1970s. I no doubt saw it on TV, interrupted by commercials, in those pre-Netflix, pre-DVD, pre-VCR, pre-cable days of my youth. I also read the novel about that time as well. I am certain that I haven’t seen the film or read the book in at least 30 years.

So when I began watching the Coen brothers’ new version, which was promoted as being truer to the book than the Hathaway film, I was struck by constant feelings of déjà vu. The general shape of scenes, even dialogue, was startlingly familiar and, as I watched I had this sense of reliving a story I knew pretty well, even at 30 years remove. This sent me back to the first movie and, as I watched with my wife, who had not joined me for the new version nor ever seen “the original,” I began reciting dialogue along with the 1969 cast. Dadgummit, dagnabbit (I’m in the retro western spirit, I’m afraid), the two films were as alike as I suspected in their plotline and their dialogue, and a review of the novel only reinforced the many congruities of the ur-text and its adaptations.

And yet.

The new True Grit is, to my mind, in every way the superior film. The pace, the tone, the acting, the cinematography, the score – all hew much closer to the spirit of the Portis book and the dark and thrilling coming of age tale he laid out in 1968 (the Wayne film unnecessarily adds a few conventional scenes, notably at the very beginning and end). Many a film student can explain why this is a result of the fundamental changes in the Western that took place around the time the first True Gritwas released (the opening of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the inability of young filmmaker’s to see tales of the west with unabashed hero worship as we were mired in the Vietnam War) and they would be quite correct.

What the Coens have done is to take the same story, a majority of the same scenes and even whole swaths of dialogue, as did Roberts in 1969 (Cogburn’s first appearance in the book, in a courtroom scene, is actually presented as a transcript, looking exactly like a play or film script) and view them through the eyes of 2010, while the Hathaway film was a bit retrograde even when released, belonging more to the 50s than its own era. In theatrical terms, the 2010 True Grit is a revival of the Portis novel, just as the 1969 film was the original production, each a product of the sensibilities of those who made them.

Unlike theatre, where we cannot go back and see the original or other productions that may have been produced in ensuing years, film affords us the opportunity to watch an original and its revival, and given their fidelity to the particulars of the book, we can analyze each piece of creativity in its own light. Having written a few weeks ago about understanding the distinction between play and production, the three True Grits offer perhaps the simplest self-administered master class I can of, and each deserve attention from theatergoers – even those who eschew westerns and even movies – for precisely that reason. Frankly, the new True Grit is no remake, nor despite this blog’s title, truly a revival; it is a reinterpretation of a core script, the Portis novel (which carries many encomiums on it’s movie tie-in paperback praising the humor of the story, which is in evidence, but hardly prominent, in both versions).

If that’s not enough, then I can also recommend all three for the thrill of hearing a marauding Rooster Cogburn call out, as he rides into what may be oblivion, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch,” in the voice of John Wayne, in the voice of Jeff Bridges, and in the voice of your own imagination.

A final word on revivals, theatre and film.

The vast majority of theatrical production is lost to the ages, since theatre exists only as it is performed live; even in the 100 years or so that film has been available to record live performance, what is preserved of theatre is immediately transformed, and a piece of theatre filmed in performance cannot possibly convey the experience of seeing it live. Indeed, despite the efforts of many, recorded theatre can seem grotesque, because the actors are playing for an audience of many, rather than an audience of one, namely the camera. Film is in exactly the opposite situation, with only the earliest or least-cared for films lost to us (though preservationists may argue this point); while early films have disappeared, faded or burned, proportionally the fruits of filmmakers work lives on for each succeeding generation.

In many cases, the films of earlier eras surprise us when we see them, seeming dated, slow, overacted. I suspect, ruefully, that if we were able to magically watch the original productions of O’Neill’s great plays, or Shakespeare’s even, they might prove intellectually engaging from our 21st century viewpoint, but they would probably strike us much like old films often do. We may long for the ability to travel back in time, but that might well prove a disappointing trip. Films are relatively permanent, reflecting the period in which they were made. Theatre will always be of the present, reinvented each and every time a cast opens their scripts on the first day of rehearsal.

P.S. If you are at all intrigued by the various iterations of True Grit, I also commend to you an excellent, compelling essay by Stanley Fish, which appeared online only viaThe New York Times, in which he compares issues of heroism, virtue and faith as explored in each version. The follow-up comments are also worth scanning, and prove that all art is subject to multiple interpretations, even a single piece on its own.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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