FILMS

Fathers and sons

Two movies celebrate the renegade male

Brian D. Johnson January 23 1995
FILMS

Fathers and sons

Two movies celebrate the renegade male

Brian D. Johnson January 23 1995

Fathers and sons

Two movies celebrate the renegade male

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

FILMS

Among Hollywood’s leading men, he possesses a singular combination of integrity, charm and undiminished good looks. Paul Newman, who turns 70 on Jan. 26, is in a class by himself— the only actor of his generation who can still bring high-wattage charisma to a starring role. Like a Gordie Howe gliding through the twilight of his playing days, he makes the magic look effortless. In Nobody’s Fool, Newman delivers what may be the most natural and understated performance of his career. Cast as a small-town curmudgeon who learns sensitivity, he seems to be playing himself more candidly than ever before. Newman gives a great performance, one imbued with a truthfulness that deflects the fdm’s innate sentimentality at every turn. It is a performance that has Oscar written all over it.

NOBODY'S FOOL Directed by Robert Benton

After a year in which Hollywood role models have included a cruising bloodsucker (Interview with the Vampire), a stoned hoodlum (Pulp Fiction) and a Ping-Pong-playing simpleton (.Forrest Gump), Nobody’s Fool presents a homespun hero who strikes a cagey compromise between cynical wit and family values. Adapted from the 1993 Richard Russo novel by writer-director Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde, Kramer vs. Kramer), the movie tells a whimsical tale of misplaced love between fathers and sons. Sully (Newman) is a 60-year-old construction worker who has run out of love, luck and money. After mangling his knee in a construction accident, he has trouble finding work. He amuses himself by feuding with a local contractor, Carl (Bruce Willis), and openly flirting with Carl’s frustrated wife, Toby (Melanie Griffith).

Stubbornly set in his ways, Sully keeps his emotions closely guarded. But a reunion with his estranged son, Peter (Dylan Walsh), and a young grandson makes him begin to rethink his priorities. Peter, an out-of-work professor with a troubled marriage, still resents his father for deserting their family when he was a child. Sully is still haunted by memories of his own loveless upbringing. Meanwhile, Sully’s best friend and coworker, a needy halfwit named Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince), evokes the neglected manchild in Everyman.

The narrative is pleasantly uneventful. Sully keeps stealing Carl’s snowblower; Carl keeps stealing it back. It is snowing constantly, with real snow, not the Hollywood stuff. In fact, with its wintry realism, eccentric characters and wistful mood, Nobody’s Fool could pass for a Canadian movie—if it were not for the star at its centre.

Newman is a quietly commanding presence, and his grace appears to have rubbed off on everyone around him. An unusually subdued Willis plays the chump. Griffith seems positively tickled to be cast as a sweet, young fantasy. And Jessica Tandy fills a small but precious role as Miss Beryl, Sully’s protective landlady. The relationship between Newman and Tandy has extraordinary resonance. Here are two screen legends passing in the night: Newman, entering his golden age, and Tandy (who died in September), foreshadowing her own exit. “I think God’s zeroing in on me,” says Miss Beryl, after a tree limb flattens her birdhouse.

With its folksy charm and father-son sentiment, Nobody’s Fool seems too earnest at times. But at the heart of the movie is an exquisite contemplation of mortality. At several points in the story, Newman’s character phlegmatically says, “I grow on people.” The same can be said of the actor himself, who has redefined the notion of aging gracefully.

LEGENDS OF THE FALL

Directed by Edward Zwick

While Nobody’s Fool promotes rugged individualism with a soft-sell approach, Legends of the Fall delivers the hard-sell version. It, too, is a tale of father-son bonding set in a bygone corner of rustic America, another movie that celebrates native intelligence and a vanishing breed of renegade male.But Legends is a sweeping epic in the old style, a family saga that sprawls across three generations. With elements of bodice-ripping romance and Wild Man warrior-lore, it is a pumped-up ponderosa western that seems, in the end, ponderous and preposterous. But strong performances, majestic Alberta scenery and an absorbing narrative make it eminently watchable.

The story, a frontier melodrama, tracks the fortunes of the Ludlow family. Appalled by his government’s treatment of Indians, Col. William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), a U.S. cavalry officer, quits the army and builds a ranch in the foothills of the Rockies. After his wife deserts him, he is left to raise their three sons. The eldest, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), is pragmatic and dutiful, while the youngest, Samuel (Henry Thomas), grows into a delicate idealist. The middle brother, Tristan (Brad Pitt), is the wild card; tutored by his father’s Cree scout, One Stab (Canadian Gordon Tootoosis), he is a deer-slaying, bear-wrestling nature boy with a bowie knife.

Life on the ranch is paradise—until a woman shows up. Susannah (Julia Ormond), a refined English beauty from back East, arrives on Samuel’s arm as his bride-to-be. She is instantly enchanted by the West, and by Tristan’s noble savagery—her fiancé may play a decent game of tennis, but Tristan knows how to break a wild mare. (On the open range, metaphors know no bounds.) Before Samuel can seal his romance with marriage, or even sex, he drags his two older brothers off to the First World War, leaving Susannah alone with the colonel and his puzzled Indian servants. By the end of the tale, through various twists of fate, all three sons become romantically involved with her.

The movie covers a lot of ground, from the trenches of France to the gangster warfare of the Prohibition. In one abridged subplot, Tristan drops out for several years to take an Odyssean voyage through the South Seas. Along the way, Legends runs through a gamut of genres—beginning like Bonanza and ending like The Godfather. But at heart, it is a western, one that worships the aboriginal spirit of the untamed warrior. The movie is based on a novella by American author Jim Harrison, who also wrote last year’s Wolf. Like Wolf's protagonist, Tristan is gouged by an animal—a bear— and from then on he seems possessed by a totemic madness.

After cutting his wild-man teeth in Interview with the Vampire, Pitt is both credible and compelling as Tristan. Hopkins, as usual, devours his scenes with voracious energy. And as the woman in a man’s world, Ormond works wonders with an underwritten role. Filmmaker Edward Zwick, however, directs with a heavy hand. Legends, like his 1989 civil war drama, Glory, is ironyfree. What is remarkable is that such hyperbolic drama should come from Zwick and producer Marshall Herskovitz, who have redefined domestic realism with their TV dramas, thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. The big screen, it seems, is reserved for more man-size adventures.