Boozin' & Brawlin'

Country singers often make compelling movie subjects

Feb 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Jeff Bridges’ Best Actor Oscar nomination recognizes more than just his nuanced, sensitive portrayal of down-on-his-luck Country singer Bad Blake in the film Crazy Heart. It also acknowledges that actors and actresses give some of their finest performances when playing Country/Roots musicians.

It might be because they — and their movies — are able to draw on all the colorful melodrama that fuels classic Country songs. And it might also be that the romanticized Country-music lifestyle — Nudie outfits, heartland road trips, small-town honky tonks with their boozin’ and brawlin’ — is just great material for actors to draw on. Especially when the musicians can’t live up to the pressures of their careers.

That’s what fuels Bridges’ turn in Crazy Heart, and it also fuels Robert Duvall’s Oscar-winning performance in 1983’s Tender Mercies, a Bruce Beresford film with which it shares many similarities. Duvall offers a sense of troubled quietude and edgy decency that never turns ostentatious or showy as Mac Sledge, a Country singer/ songwriter who has retreated from the life because of the toll the booze has taken on him.

He also leaves behind an ex-wife who hates him — Dixie, a Country diva played very well by Broadway singer Betty Buckley — and a confused daughter (Ellen Barkin). As a work-for-hire drifter, he meets and marries a hard-working Christian widow (Tess Harper) tending to a lonely roadside gas station in west Texas. The movie’s spare, almost-minimalist screenplay from Horton Foote won an Oscar.

I’d say Duvall gives the best performance ever as a roughed-up Country singer, but that would diminish the impact of Rip Torn’s fantastically bravura turn in Daryl Duke’s 1973 Payday. He’s hard-livin’, manipulative, charming but dangerous Maury Dann, on the road and on his last legs — though he doesn’t know it yet. Sadly, judging from recent news articles about Torn’s legal problems, it wasn’t all acting.

Country, more than any other music, is built on folksy pieties and demands blind patriotism from its superstars. That’s a surefire recipe for hypocrisy. Thus, the Country music world is ripe for films that use it as a base for social and political critiques.

One such movie contains an unforgettable performance — director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg’s 1957 A Face in the Crowd. It features Andy Griffith, in his motion-picture debut, as Lonesome Rhodes, a forcefully personable Country/Folk picker with a drinking problem, a leering attitude toward the opposite sex and a maniacal laugh. Patricia Neal’s Marcia Jeffries discovers him in a small-town jail in Arkansas. She puts him on her morning radio show, A Face in the Crowd, and the audience response is immediate. He mixes songs with down-home charm, even though inside he’s vicious.

Armed with a beat-up guitar and a few ditties like “A Free Man” and “A Mama Guitar Beats a Woman Any Time,” the cynical fauxpopulist moves from radio to TV, Arkansas to New York and entertainer to political force — a “demagogue in denim,” as a writer played by Walter Matthau calls him. Powerful advertisers and politicians flock to him. It all leads to a final scene steeped in gothic noir — part Sunset Boulevard and part All the King’s Men — in which ol’ Lonesome goes mad in his penthouse as a crony manipulates an applause machine.

The film, meant as an attack on how television’s cult of personality feeds know-nothingness, still seems relevant today. In a scene where Lonesome encourages a presidential candidate to rail that big government “weakens the moral fiber,” you can see today’s Tea Party movement and FOX News all too clearly.

Borrowing a page from A Face in the Crowd, Robert Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewksbury return to the theme of Country music’s relationship to right-wing populism in 1975’s Nashville. But while Face is written in the style of 1950s issue movies, where the characters tell you what they’re thinking, Nashville is a superlative Altman-esque organic mood piece — overlapping dialogue, ensemble cast, underplayed message, a feel for Americana and an eye for the complexity of relationships.

Among the many fine performances are several by actors playing Country stars: Henry Gibson as a still-powerful aging singing icon; Ronee Blakley as a fragile singer struggling with a breakdown; and Karen Black as her mean, tough-as-nails rival. The Movie Guide says Hank Snow, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette/Lynn Anderson inspired the roles. Whatever the case, they seem real — as does this epic about Music City, one of the best American movies ever.

After Nashville came a series of Country/ Roots-music biopics with dazzling star turns. Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for playing Loretta Lynn — and singing Lynn’s songs — in Michael Apted’s 1980 Coal Miner’s Daughter. Spacek is always believable playing Lynn as her character ages from a shy, 13-year-old mountain girl who marries too young into the older, headstrong Country superstar. In a smaller role, Beverly D’Angelo exuberantly plays Patsy Cline — who befriends Lynn — and also sings the Cline songs herself.

Jessica Lange is sassy and sexy as Cline in 1985’s Sweet Dreams, for which she received an Oscar nomination. But director Karel Reisz and writer Robert Getchell almost forsake interest in Cline’s career as a groundbreaking female singer in Nashville to concentrate on an exhaustingly soap-opera-ish depiction of her abusive relationship with husband Charlie Dick, played with oily, repulsive charm by Ed Harris. Lange lip-synchs to Cline’s recordings.

The 2005 Walk the Line, a biopic by James Mangold about Johnny Cash and wife June Carter, itself walks a line between its excellent performances and music and its predictable story arc (fame leads to substance abuse). Still, Reese Witherspoon — who won an Oscar — and Joaquin Phoenix, who was nominated, are electrifying in their roles and in their singing.

One thing is for certain: Given Crazy Heart’s success, there will be more films that mine the world of Country music for material. (And some already made but currently hard to see will get new life.) Let’s hope among the new ones will be some as good as what already is out there.