Monday, February 14, 2011

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Casting Coup Month: The Big Country

Best Supporting Actor - Burl Ives (WON)
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Jerome Moross

William Wyler is one of the most celebrated, accomplished directors in the history of cinema. A glance at his filmography reveals a man who was as comfortable in comedy as he was in drama, content to either adapt a modest stage play or stage a Biblical epic. At twelve Oscar nominations, he holds the record for most nominated Director in history -- and he's tied with Frank Capra and John Ford for most wins in the category. Wyler was always able to snag talent, and there's little mystery as to how: 36 nominations, 13 wins. No other director has that kind of track record with their actors. Three of his films -- The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur, Wuthering Heights -- showed up on AFI's 1997 list of the 100 Greatest Films.

I've only seen three of his film, of course, because I have HUGE gaps in my film knowledge (but I've seen Rabid Dogs and Xanadu, dammit!). You'll be seeing two of them here, starting with my introduction to Wyler: the western The Big Country.

The Big Country was another film recommended by my grandfather, who felt Gregory Peck's protagonist was similar to my late uncle; I agree. My uncle was, I feel, just as honest and honorable as retired sailor James McKay, who arrives in the West to marry Patricia Terrill, whose family is embroiled in a decades-old feud with the rough Hannassey boys. Folk sing/Rudolph snowman Burl Ives won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Hannassey patriarch, and though I think he's one of the pleasant surprises of a great Oscar win? Reportedly, the award had as much to do with his performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as it did here, and the only reason why he wasn't nominated for the Tennessee Williams adaptation was one Lesley Manville is familiar with: category confusion. But hey, at least he got it, and it's not a bad performance at that.

Because it's a film that many respect but few seem to know, it seems ripe for a remake. And with True Grit perhaps resurrecting the Western, the time is just right.

Who is He: Hannassey's oldest boy, a roughneck given to booze and bouts. Buck hates the Terrills and has designs on local teacher Julie Maragon -- he also likes to swagger and show off his masculinity. He fights dirty, though, and that'll come back to bite him.

Originally played by:
Chuck Connors ("The Rifleman", Soylent Green)

My Choice:
Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers, The A-Team)
Many a friend has criticized Cooper's smug film persona. Guess who that work for? A smug, muscular Western roughneck who people want to see taken down a peg? I get an actor I like in a film I admire, Cooper gets a great role, naysayers get satisfaction. Everyone wins.

Who is He: Wealthy ranch owner, father of Patricia. He and Hannassey are engaged in a feud over a valuable patch of land with an important water supply. Terrill has been trying to buy the land so that he can ban Hannassey from using the river and put the white trash out of business. Terrill dresses nice, but he's a snotty man who takes advantage of the lawlessness of the West.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Song of Bernadette, The Farmer's Daughter, Johnny Belinda)
Charles Bickford (A Star is Born, Days of Wine and Roses)

My Choice: BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actor (Apocalypse Now), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Subject Was Roses), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Bobby, The Departed)
Martin Sheen (Echelon Conspiracy, Untitled Spider-Man Reboot)
Sheen can give gruff disapproval like no one's business. He can also do the back-slapping like it's gruff disapproval. Terrill would be both, like his character in Catch Me If You Can combined with the one in The American President. And I never say no to more Sheen.

Who is He: A poorer ranch owner in a feud with Terrill over the river. Hannessey reacts strongly to Terrill's sabotage of his land, but he's surprisingly non-violent and honorable. He tries to keep his sons honorable, as well, but Buck is a hot-tempered one and difficult to reign in.

Originally played by: Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (The Big Country)
Burl Ives (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, TV's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)

My Choice: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Barton Fink)
John Goodman (The Big Lebowski, Speed Racer)
He's certainly imposing enough for the role, but Goodman is just an all-around great actor in need of more roles that can showcase his talent. Personally, I think he could even do better than Burl Ives here.

Who is He: Terrill's ranch-hand, a macho type who berates and insults McKay throughout his stay. McKay refuses to step up to the challenge, which makes Leach hate him all the more. For Leach, a real man lets everyone around him know his strength. He's in love with Patricia.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Actor (Ben-Hur), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor in a Drama (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur) and in a Musical/Comedy (The Pigeon That Took Rome)
Charlton Heston (True Lies, Hamlet)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner/WGA Award Nominee for Best [Original] Screenplay (Good Will Hunting), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (Shakespeare in Love)
Ben Affleck (The Town, The Company Men)
I believe him more as a macho guy than as a sensitive one (is it the chin?)

Who is She: McKay's fiancee, heiress to the ranch. She hates the Hannassey clan, and starts to lose interests in McKay when he refuses to get into macho theatrics.

Originally played by: Academy Award/BAFTA Award/Golden Globe Nominee for Best [Foreign] Actress [in a Drama] (Baby Doll)
Carroll Baker (Giant, How the West Was Won)

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Seabiscuit)
Elizabeth Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The Next Three Days)

Who is She: A teacher who happens to own the plot of land where a significant river runs through. The Terrills want to buy the land from her, but she insists on putting them on equal footing with the Hannasseys. Although she's friends with Patricia, she knows that the engagement to McKay isn't a good match...and she starts to fall for him herself.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actress (The Happy Ending) and Best Supporting Actress (Hamlet), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Foreign Actress (Guys and Dolls, Elmer Gantry), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy (Guys and Dolls), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Hot to Make an American Quilt)
Jean Simmons (Divorce American Style, Dominique)

My Choice:
Jenna Fischer (Blades of Glory, Solitary Man)
Beautiful, but accessible. Intelligent and noble. These are the characters Jenna Fischer plays, and that's who Julie Maragon is. "The Office" won't be around forever, either, and I would hate to see her go.

Who is He: Retired Maryland boat captain who comes to the big country to marry his fiancee, Patricia Terrill. How the hell they met and hit it off enough to become engaged, I don't know. James is an honorable and honest man -- even when he buys Julie's land, he still allows the Hannassey clan to use the river. When Buck and Steve challenge him to public fights, he refuses to engage -- he doesn't need to prove his manhood. Instead, he tries to reason; when that doesn't work, he deals with them privately. James McKay is so fucking awesome.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Actor (To Kill a Mockingbird), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor (The Yearling)
Gregory Peck (Roman Holiday, TV's Moby Dick)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner/WGA Award Nominee for Best [Original] Screenplay (Good Will Hunting), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actor (Good Will Hunting), Best Supporting Actor (Invictus) and Best Ensemble (Good Will Hunting, The Departed)
Matt Damon (EuroTrip, True Grit)
One of the few actors who could be as convincing a leading hero as he is a bookish type. To see him as the bookish, noble James McKay is no great stretch, I think. I, personally, would love to see Damon in more. Yeah, I know, he's in four things a year; doesn't matter. He's awesome.

Best Actor: Matt Damon
Best Actress: Jenna Fischer
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, John Goodman, Martin Sheen
Best Supporting Actress: Elizabeth Banks


TomS said...

It has been a while since I saw this "The Big Country", but I do love your choice of John Goodman for the Burl Ives role. And yes, it would be great to see Matt Damon and Ben Affleck team up on the big screen. I like Affleck..and he does have a macho chin. You are certainly on a roll!

Walter L. Hollmann said...

"You are certainly on a roll!"

It is tiring lol, but sooo much fun. I think I'll do more Casting Coups every month.