Friday, 11 January 2019

LOVIN' MOLLY AND LEAVING CHEYENNE, REVISITED

I reckon that I first saw Lovin' Molly probably in 1974 or 75, but maybe a bit later. I might find the exact date if I look though my old notebooks, wherever they are. I do know that I had already read Larry McMurtry's novel Leaving Cheyenne, on which it is based, before I saw the movie.

The story is a sort of West Texas Jules and Jim. Gid Frye (Anthony Perkins) is a stiffly upright young man, working on the ranch owned by his demanding father (Edward Binns). He and his best friend Johnny McCloud (Beau Bridges) are both in love with free-spirited Molly Parker, who loves them both. The novel is told in three sections, twenty years apart, each narrated from a different character's point of view: Gid in 1925, Molly in 1945 and Johnny in 1964.

Watching the movie again, I could almost feel my first responses to it, which I don't think have changed very much in the 40-whatever years since I saw it, and I also remembered the book even more clearly. The film is touching at its best, awkward at its worst. It never does feel real, never gets the sense of its location. It's too close, too clean, too colourful. Too many interiors where you don't sense the feeling such a romantic tale should lead to.There are a few shots to show Molly's beauty, and one or two where director Sidney Lumet does manage to engage with the wider landscape: there's one where the now-ill father looks out over his land and commiserates with Gid over Molly's marriage to a third boy, Eddie. 'A woman's love is like the morning dew; it's just as apt to land on a horse turd as a rose'. I remembered that line verbatim from the novel.

Which is the other big shortcoming: the drive of the movie comes from the characters, and from their dialogue, and all of that comes from the book. But the movie itself doesn't really manage to set up or build to its key points, its biggest conflicts and its most important actions are almost throwaways, or else telegraphed and then dismissed quickly. That seems to me to be a lack of feeling for story-telling from the screenwriter/producer Stephen Friedman, who also produced The Last Picture Show, the second hit movie made from a McMurtry novel (the first was Hud, from the novel Horseman, Pass By). The next hit wouldn't be until Lonesome Dove. The screenplay really works only when they are speaking, and the many forshadowings and mirrorings are lost in the shuffle. And I do think it would have been better to have called the movie Leaving Cheyenne. Or at least Loving Molly. Note McMurtry didn't feel the need to drop the final g in the novel's title, and replace it with an apostrophe, which the film makers did in a Hollywood way that seems very condescending. if only to get the song from which the title comes into the film to help explain what it is doing. Because as much as it is a film about love, it is more a film about life, or rather death: there are five deaths in the story, and as always love and death set the courses of our lives.

The casting doesn't quite work, though it tries to. The first story is the longest section, and because the ages are right works best. Anthony Perkins young is less jarring than I felt when I first saw it: he works hard, literally, on the farm and in some ways seems more real than Beau Bridges, who never seems to get dirty as a cowboy ought to. I remember being captivated by Blythe Danner's performance as the young Molly then, and maybe not as much now, though she's still more fun than Gwyneth Paltrow. Twenty years on, Perkins is a bit too rigid, Danner's still OK, but Bridges seems to be in his own character. Neither of the males ages very well: they try the creaky walk without success, and Danner's 1964 is heavily made-up. I also had forgotten that Susan Sarandon was in the film; her role is small but crucial, as the woman Gid marries, who proceeds to fulfill his father's warnings about marriage. 

But it's a tribute to McMurtry's writing that enough of this story remains to make the whole think work, and make it moving. Or movin'. I suspect modern audiences might feel ambivalent about Molly's sort of 'premature' feminism, but it rings more real than that of, say, Fried Green Tomatoes. And it speaks more clearly within its Texas setting, which is what is lost in the filming, that sort of dry-sand Baptist community in which the rules are set for some.

I recalled the film's end verbatim, because it was again taken verbatim from the book, as Johnny thinks back to the first scene which Gid had narrated, and recalls it from his point of view, and regrets just two things: not seeing Gid's face when he surprised the two of them, and not having a Kodak to take a picture of Molly's face as she waited on the school house steps. Such regrets are what we all have, and in his way Johnny is lucky to have so few. It occurs to me that I am just about as far removed from my original viewing of the movie as Johnny is from his remembrance of that election day when he and Molly met at the polling station early. In my own narration, like Johnny's some forty years later, I find that the film, though not as moving as the book, touches via memory some of those very regrets from the first time I saw it, and those from the years that have passed since I did.

Now, when I die Take my saddle from the wall
Put it on the pony Lead him out of his stall
Ride her out, Old Paint, I'm leaving Cheyenne
And goodbye Old Paint, I'm leaving Cheyenne

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