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Larry McMurtry: Writing westerns from Hud to Brokeback Mountain
April/May 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 2
The recent success of Brokeback Mountain —at the box office, with critics, and in numerous awards presentations—has put before the public an American West very different from that of the traditional Western. It comes as no surprise that the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain , adapting Annie Proulx’s short story, was co-written by Larry McMurtry (with Diana Ossana). For more than four decades, in novels, essays, and screenplays, McMurtry has been giving Americans his own vision of the West, one that today is probably more pervasive than that of anyone except John Ford.
Yet McMurtry’s vision is deeper, darker, and more inclusive than Ford’s ever was. McMurtry Country extends from the mythic era of the Texas cattle drives in Lonesome Dove to the suburbs of modern-day Houston in Terms of Endearment . While Peter Bogdanovich’s film version of McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show was quite justly praised for its Ford-like qualities, in truth the clarity and toughness of McMurtry’s script dispelled the lingering romantic mist of Ford’s West.
Ten of McMurtry’s novels have been made into feature films, television movies, or TV series. Here are the five best:
Paul Newman is the contemporary cowboy in this enormously successful adaptation of McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By , set, in the words of Pauline Kael, “in the Texas of Cadillacs and cattle, crickets and transistor radios.” Martin Ritt directed, and the starkly handsome black-and-white photography is by James Wong Howe. Patricia Neal, saying her lines in a sexy Texas drawl, plays the housekeeper of the Bannon ranch, and the knowing looks and sharp exchanges of dialogue between her Alma and Newman’s Hud give the film a constant tension and tingle.
Hud is cold-blooded and unprincipled, representing the new predatory spirit of the West, which is meant to contrast with the nineteenth-century values embodied by his father, Homer (Melvyn Douglas). Brandon de Wilde, who called to Alan Ladd to come back at the end of Shane , plays Hud’s teenage nephew, Lon. He does not call to Paul Newman to come back at the end of this film.
Writing about Hud in his book In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas , McMurtry said, “the screenwriters erred badly in following my novel too closely.” He may be the only novelist in history to make that complaint. (Neal won an Oscar for Best Actress and Douglas won for Best Supporting Actor.)
A landmark in American movies, the first great success for Peter Bogdanovich, and one of the best American films ever about the heartbreak and desolation of small-town Western life, in this case modeled after McMurtry’s home-town, Archer City, Texas, in the early 1950s. As with Hud , McMurtry judged the film version of his third novel to be better than the book. He may be right, but in this case one of the reasons for the film’s greatness is the brilliance of McMurtry’s screenplay, which extracts and highlights the novel’s best features.
The superb cast includes Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Ellen Burstyn, Cybill Shepherd, Eileen Brennan, and two Oscar winners for supporting actress and actor, Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson.
With the exception of Jack Nicholson’s raucous performance as a former astronaut, the best things about this blockbuster 1983 hit come from McMurtry’s novel about a 30-year relationship between a mother and a daughter (exquisitely played in the film by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger). Directed by James L. Brooks from his own screenplay, the film is soft in precisely those places where McMurtry’s writing is sharp, but the production is redeemed by the showcase it provides for great actresses to strut their stuff. The film won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Brooks for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, Nicholson for Supporting Actor, and MacLaine for Best Actress.
The Citizen Kane of television Western mini-series. Simon Wincer directed and William D. Wittliff did the screenplay, wisely sticking to McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel at nearly every turn. The mini-series format lets the viewer live in the world of Tommy Lee Jones’s Woodrow Call and Robert Duvall’s Gus McCrae in a way that even an epic theatrical Western would not have allowed. Again the cast is impeccable, including Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Glenne Headly, Danny Glover, Robert Urich, Chris Cooper, D. B. Sweeney, and Frederic Forrest as the renegade half-breed Blue Duck, perhaps the most blood-chilling villain in the history of Westerns.
Clocking in at 180 minutes, this is the second-best TV Western ever made, after Lonesome Dove . If it has a major flaw, it’s that like its predecessor, it would have been better at twice the length. Adapted by Cynthia Whitcomb from the most historically based McMurtry Western novel, and directed by Rod Hardy, it features unprecedentedly accurate and vivid characterizations of Calamity Jane (Anjelica Huston), Buffalo Bill (Peter Coyote), and Wild Bill Hickok (Sam Elliott). Melanie Griffith is heartbreakingly lovely as the real-life brothel madam and author Dora DuFran, possibly the best role of her career. Gabriel Byrne, Jack Palance, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Tracey Walter, Russell Means, Liev Schreiber, and Reba McEntire (as Annie Oakley) are in the cast too, and you wish there were more of all of them.