UPDATE: True Grit doesn’t open until December 22nd but started screenings this week just under the wire of critics groups and SAG nominating committee deadlines. It’s the last unseen film of this awards season thought to have a serious chance of cracking the Best Picture Oscar list, especially now that there are 10 nominees. Can Joel and Ethan Coen’s much anticipated new take on the John Wayne classic do what that 1969 Paramount film couldn’t? First, a little history. The first version of the Charles Portis novel landed just two Oscar nominations, for Best Song and Best Actor, winning the latter as a heartfelt career swan song for star John Wayne. But the fairly standard western was shut out of Best Picture, never a friendly territory for oaters. After all, other classics of the genre, like 1956’s The Searchers and 1959’s Rio Bravo (both also starring Wayne), couldn’t even manage a single nomination between them even though both are now included on lists of the greatest films of all time. Only Kevin Costner’s 1990 Dances With Wolves and Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven changed the Oscar outlook because they were untraditional westerns and that won them Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Director. Since 1992, no western has been nominated unless you count Brokeback Mountain — and I don’t. On the other hand, very few have even been made.
But a western coming from the Coens would seem to have a reasonable chance. They each won three Oscars for Best Pic winner No Country For Old Men (2007) and another nomination last year for A Serious Man and have been Academy favorites since breaking through with 1996’s Fargo which picked up a Best Picture nomination and Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens. Paramount’s new version of True Grit benefits tremendously from the Coens’ screenwriting skills because of a literate and dazzling adaptation of the novel and its quirky dialogue. Starring Jeff Bridges in Wayne’s role as cantankerous Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn who agrees to help a determined young girl Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailie Steinfeld) avenge the murder of her father, the Coens used the book much more than director Henry Hathaway’s first film in crafting this adaptation. However, at least one scene — the big climactic horseback gun battle — looks identical to the 1969 film right down to Cogburn’s famous line: “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” The film also benefits from an outstanding supporting cast including Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and Matt Damon who gets everything right about Texas Ranger La Beouf, the role that singer and then first-time actor Glen Campbell screwed up in the original. That’s really a part that should have gone to Clint Eastwood then but at least this version fixes that egregious piece of miscasting with the talented Damon.
Given how perfectly matched are the Coens to the material here, their True Grit would seem to be an instant contender for nominations in several categories including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor for Bridges, Supporting Actor for Damon, Editing, Cinematography (from longtime Coens collaborator Roger Deakins), Music and Costume Design. As for Jeff Bridges’ chances of triumphing in the Best Actor category for a second year in a row, no one has ever won an Oscar in a remake that brought an Oscar for the original actor–in this case John Wayne’s Cogburn. And then there is 13-year-old Hailie Steinfeld who adroitly manages the Coens’ brilliant wordplay and doesn’t just hold her own but often steals the show: Paramount plans to campaign for her for Supporting Actress, an easier category this year where she probably stands a very good shot at a nomination particularly considering this is really a leading role giving her lots of screen time. Still, the actors branch decides where performers should rightly go. (Witness the case of then 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes who was campaigned in the supporting category for Whale Rider in 2003, largely due to her age, but instead won a surprise nomination for lead actress making her the youngest nominee ever in that category. On the other hand, as the studio well knows, both Timothy Hutton in Paramount’s Ordinary People (1980) and Tatum O’Neal in the same studio’s Paper Moon (1973) won Oscars in supporting categories for arguably leading roles because age tended to dictate those decisions back then.)
The biggest drawbacks for this darkly funny PG-13 True Grit Oscar-wise would seem to lie in its original cinematic origins. To those questioning if this is indeed a “remake”, that’s by my and Hollywood’s definition a film that was already made once and is now being made again. The original True Grit was also based on the Portis novel just like the new version is. However different the Coens’ take might be, the fact is they are remaking a movie that was made once before (and by the same studio) and one scene is almost identical. Only one straight American remake has received a Best Picture nomination when the original didn’t and that was for 1998’s The Thin Red Line, a loose Terence Malick remake of a 1964 war film of the same title and both filmmakers based their films on 1962 James Jones’ novel. A few remakes and their earlier incarnations have both received Best Pic noms — including Mutiny On The Bounty’s 1935 version (which won) and 1962 version, as well as Cleopatra’s 1934 and 1963 versions, and also 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan which inspired 1978’s Heaven Can Wait. In 1992, an American remake of the 1975 Italian Screenplay and Foreign Film nominee Scent Of A Woman won a Best Pic Oscar nomination and the Best Actor award for Al Pacino. Also, The Departed, which won Best Picture in 2006, was an Americanized version of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs — another example of Oscar success in the remake area.
Robert Duvall, who played Ned Pepper opposite Wayne in the 1969 film and is a bonafide Best Actor contender again himself this year for Get Low, finds it odd that anyone would want to remake the original True Grit. “The Coens can do whatever they want. But when I first heard about it I said ‘Why? Why?’ But then, if they want to do it, why not? I’m sure it’ll be interesting. But John Wayne was wonderful. He had some chops… and in True Grit he was so good,” Duvall reminisced. Whether Duvall finds himself up for Best Actor against another Rooster Cogburn 41 years later will be one of the fascinating questions answered when Oscar nominations are revealed on January 25th.