The Film Forum is screening the Coens’ True Grit this weekend, so I dredged up this essay I wrote but never found a home for back when it was in theaters.
The first cinematic take on True Grit was released in ’69, the same year Butch & Sundance and The Wild Bunch exploded into theaters. The latter two films were loud and dirty and bloody and their heroes didn’t ride off into the sunset but instead charged headlong into the line of fire. Outside the theaters American politics — maybe, some thought, even America itself — had reached something of a cul-de-sac, and these films reflected it. True Grit drew the focus in a little more tightly on a single aspect of the problem, in the form of its protagonist Mattie Ross.
Mattie is a precocious, obsessive, androgynous young woman (played in the original by Kim Darby, and now by Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld) and nobody knows quite what the hell to do with her. Her father has been murdered, and she’s hellbent on seeing his murderer hang. She’s playing a man’s game, and if she can’t handle her father’s revolver, she regularly outsmarts the men and “wields that lawyer of hers like a weapon” (for most of the earlier film it’s not even clear if Mattie actually has a lawyer or if she’s just bluffing). “She reminds me of me,” The Duke says. She’s also reminiscent of the women who had been raising hell on campuses and in the streets for several years by that point: Diane Nash, Dorothy Zellner, Gloria Johnson, Casey Hayden, Bernardine Dohrn, Marilyn Katz, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis.
It’s not just that Mattie has aggressively assumed a role reserved for men, it’s the sexual confusion that swirls around her. At the end of the ‘69 version, Mattie reburies her father in the family plot. As Wayne looks on, she points out where each member of her family will be buried alongside their own families, and then where she’ll be buried, next to her folks. “Where’s your family?” Wayne asks. She dodges the question; she knows she’s not going to have a family. She asks the Duke if he’ll be buried next to her. If not in life, maybe they can be together in death.
Wayne is a surrogate father figure for a woman who clearly doesn’t need a father anymore; she wants that house “at the bend of the river where the cottonwoods grow.” (I admit I’ve never understood the appeal, at least not if John Wayne was living there.) Her relationship with the Texas Ranger who takes up with them (played in ‘69 by Glen Campbell and this time around by Matt Damon) is also fraught with sexual tension; they’ve barely met when he declares he thought about ‘stealing a kiss.’
Hewing closely to the original novel, the Coens straighten most of the kinks out of the affair. When the Ranger makes good on his threat to spank Mattie, Jeff Bridges, unlike The Duke, doesn’t get to tell him “You’re enjoying it too much.” The glance Mattie and her father share that lasts just a little too long is gone. The Coens put her in pigtails, doing away with the boyish bowl cut she sported in ‘69. And they restore the original novel’s first-person perspective, in which Mattie relates the story decades later (though Steinfeld was relegated to ‘supporting’ actress status by the Academy). When the ‘69 film comes to an end, Mattie still has her future ahead of her; even if she’s sure being the person she wants to be will mean a lonely life, she could be wrong. Forty years later, we have a verdict on what’s possible for women like Mattie: she’s a maimed, sexless spinster.
The original’s sexual charge came from the hand of screenwriter Marguerite Roberts (if anything, Henry Hathaway’s direction and the acting fail to capitalize on Roberts’ raw material). In the original novel Mattie attempts to defuse a late night argument between her defenders by telling a ghost story. Roberts takes this a step further; Mattie says she’ll only tell the story if the Duke stops drinking (he doesn’t go for it), adding a subtle twist of desire. “It was very difficult to write a woman,” Roberts said years later of her early career, “because the studio had the old-fashioned idea that there were two kinds of women – whores and angels.” True Grit was one of her last films, and Mattie was clearly a shot at depicting someone a little more complicated.
Roberts’ Mattie placed a woman at the center of the Western, of the Technicolor vision of American life, at the same moment the women of the Left were aggressively staking out a claim there. She knew firsthand the risks they faced. Roberts probably joined the CP strictly out of loyalty to her husband, novelist John Sanford (née Julian Shapiro, of course). She doesn’t seem to have gone to more than a few meetings, but she ended up in front of HUAC anyway, taking the 5th and refusing to name names. She’d been one of the highest paid women in the business. It would be almost a decade before she worked in Hollywood again.
After the shock of being stripped of her livelihood, Roberts and her husband briefly retreated to England, but came back to the States after less than twelve months. Their passports were confiscated the day they returned. They were unable to leave the country for another six years. “I can’t forgive any of the stool pigeons,” her husband said. “Not after the way Maggie was made to suffer.”
Now she’s been silenced again. Returning to the novel, the Coens edited Roberts’ take back out of history. For all their fidelity, they make their own (not insignificant) deviation from the text when, early in the film, they send Jeff Bridges and Steinfeld’s Mattie out on their own. Riding through the snow, the two find a dead man swinging from a tree and cut him down. Failing to recognize him, unable to see any profit in the corpse, Bridges hands him off to a passing Indian. And not long after, the body returns, this time carried by a scavenger wearing a bearskin and planning on dissecting it for parts. It’s the one vintage Coen brothers scene in the entire film. It’s an encounter with the dead that won’t stay dead, with the incomprehensible past, and with the price their work will exact.