The Popculturist hates to compare John Wayne and Jeff Bridges in the two True Grits, but it’s just so tempting.
You should know before I start that when comparing the Coen brothers’ new adaptation of True Grit to the 1969 John Wayne version, there is so much more to talk about than just John Wayne vs. Jeff Bridges. There are other performances to compare, of course — Kim Darby and Hailee Stanfield, Glen Campbell and Matt Damon, and Robert Duvall and Barry Pepper, to name a few. But then there are also questions of tone and cinematographic style to discuss, and themes, structure, and faithfulness to Charles Portis’ novel. It doesn’t come down to just Wayne and Bridges. Try as I might, though, I can’t stop thinking about anything else.
It makes sense, though, doesn’t it? After all, True Grit brought Wayne his first and only Best Actor win* and may very well bring Bridges his second. And, of course, Rooster Cogburn’s charge against Lucky Ned Peppers’ gang in the climactic scene is one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. But beyond all that, the two men’s performances are like microcosms of their respective films.
Consider John Wayne in 1969. In the thirty years since his breakthrough role in John Ford’s Stagecoach (not his first film, but the first anyone really thinks about), Wayne had become a living legend, star of over one hundred films, the kind of man whose name is used as shorthand for rugged masculinity even today. No one going to see him could fail to bring with them the concept of “John Wayne.”
Now, consider Jeff Bridges in 2010. In the nearly 40 years since his breakthrough role in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (not his first film, but the first anyone really thinks about), Bridges has established himself as one of the most talented actors of his generation, but despite his massive cult following, he still remains more a critical darling than a huge mainstream star.
And doesn’t that just describe the two films? After all, Westerns in 1969 were still a huge and vital part of the film world, the single most popular genre. But very quickly after that point their production slowed to a trickle, and though they may be going through something of a renaissance today, this movie in particular is practically an arthouse film.
Contrast the two men’s performances: Wayne’s Cogburn was drunk and coarse, but underneath it there a sense of decency shone through. Perhaps it was just that Wayne, himself, had become something of a father figure to movie-goers of his time. Perhaps it was just that his character was gentle enough to take care of a cat. But put that up against Bridges’ Cogburn, who beneath the booze and swagger has a real sense of menace, of wildness to him. It’s a darker performance and, likewise, his is a darker film.
I may be doing a disservice to the Coen brothers, and to the rest of the cast of their new adaptation; I fear I am. So at this point I’d like to open it up to the readers — what struck you about the new True Grit?
* As an aside, if you care at all about Westerns or John Wayne and you have never seen Wayne’s acceptance speech for his Oscar win, you should take a couple of minutes and watch it. Seeing the very archetype of American masculinity visibly moved to tears remains the most affecting moment in the history of the Academy Awards for me.