December 28, 2010
The Coen Brothers” devotion to odd vernaculars has contributed to their haphazard box-office track record. Audiences immediately cottoned to Fargo‘s “You betcha” Minnesota accents and almost as quickly to George Clooney’s grandiloquent Southern pettifoggery in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yet fans required a couple of years to warm up to Jeff Bridges’s acid-casualty argot in The Big Lebowski. And to this day, nobody (except me) can stand Jennifer Jason Leigh’s screwball-comedy newshound lingo in The Hudsucker Proxy.
True Grit will likely wind up as the frauteurs” biggest box-office hit yet, perhaps even their first to earn $100 million domestically. True Grit‘s verbose Victorian Wild West dialogue is at times daunting to decipher, yet it’s somewhat familiar from the Oscar-winning John Wayne comic Western and the surprisingly influential 1968 Charles Portis novel. Over 40 years ago, Portis created prototypical Coen Brothers characters”hyper-articulate, eccentric, and violent”avant la lettre, allowing the Coens now to make a straightforward adaptation of his novel.
The semi-reclusive Portis celebrates his 77th birthday today. Though he’s obscure to the public, other writers appreciate his droll style.
Tom Wolfe, who sat next to Portis in the old New York Herald Tribune city room, recounted in his memoir on New Journalism’s roots that he and every other post-WWII American reporter considered nonfiction a day job, “just one more of your devious ways of postponing the decision to put it all on the line…and go into the shack…and write your novel. Your Novel!” To journalists of a certain age, Charles Portis remains a legend for having the grit to live out their Great American Novelist dream. Wolfe marveled: “Portis quit cold one day…and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas….Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best-seller. The reviews were terrific….A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”
Portis’s 14-year-old heroine Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) is an unsmiling Calvinist spinster-to-be who plots Old Testament retribution upon the outlaw who slew her father. Her diction never resorts to contractions. Ethan Coen explains: “We made a movie about Jews [2009’s mordant A Serious Man], so we decided to make a movie about a Protestant….Mattie is even more of a schoolmarm in the book”such an old Protestant at the age of 14, which is why the book is so funny.”
On the other hand, the drunken gunman she hires to lead her into Indian Territory, US Deputy Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), mumbles authentic frontier gibberish.