Saturday, November 2, 2013

Neglected Gem #48: Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

Amanda Plummer, John Savage and Diane Lane in Cattle Annie and Little Britches

Hollywood made a brief, lyrical attempt at resurrecting the western in the early 1980s with The Long Riders, Cattle Annie and Little Britches and Barbarosa, but unhappily none of them was a hit and they’ve all been largely forgotten. Cattle Annie, directed by Lamont Johnson, was released in 1981 and remains the most obscure. It had a brief life on VHS but it’s never come out on DVD, and you’d be hard put to find it on television. I was lucky enough to catch a print – faded but not enough to cancel out the pleasures of Larry Pizer’s pastoral cinematography – in a centennial tribute to Burt Lancaster at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square over the summer.

The script by David Eyre, based on Robert Ward’s novel, shifts the focus of the conventional western while combining it with a double coming-of-age story. Annie and Jenny, played by Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane at the outset of their respective careers, are teenage orphans in the Old West who, fed up with their lives as maltreated scullery maids, join Bill Doolin’s gang of outlaws. Annie, an avid reader of western potboilers, hero-worships Doolin (Burt Lancaster) and his partner Bill Dalton (Scott Glenn) and their ragtaggle band, which includes Little Dick Raidler (William Russ) and the part-native Bittercreek Newcomb (John Savage). Annie has a self-dramatizing bravado, and she’s a life embracer; the men try to laugh at her, but her idolatry of them and her take-no-prisoners resolve and her insistence that they live up to the image she has of them from Ned Buntline’s books make it hard for them to do so. (When she refers to Buntline, Lancaster’s indulgent grin seems to have more than one kind of amusement in it: five years earlier he’d played Buntline in Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, with Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill.) Besides, she’s inventive and thinks on her feet. When Sheriff Tilghman (Rod Steiger) shows up to capture the gang, Annie opens a gate to release a head of steer that get between Tilghman’s posse and the outlaws, so the lawmen can’t see their targets. Earning her nickname, Plummer’s Annie perches on the corral fence, waving her arms theatrically, as if she were choreographing a ballet. She’s wildly eccentric but vibrant and singular, like Katharine Hepburn as the gawky and gallant Jo March in George Cukor’s 1933 film of Little Women or like Julie Harris, at twenty-six, as the twelve-year-old Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding.

Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer
Jenny is smaller and more timid than Annie and she generally allows her friend to make decisions for both of them. (Though not always: she has a feisty side, and in one scene the two girls briefly come to blows.) But she’s just as capable as Annie of making an emotional commitment. While Annie strides proudly into Bittercreek’s bed – to be accurate, she swims after him to a cove where they can be private – Jenny falls for Doolin, though their relationship is of the father-daughter variety, and it’s he who nicknames her Little Britches. If Plummer provides the movie’s poetry, Lane’s scenes with Lancaster occupy its emotional center. Even at such a young age – she was sixteen when the picture came out, to Plummer’s twenty-four – Lane already has the transparency of feeling that, more than three decades later, remains her most salient quality as an actress (besides her astonishing un-self-conscious glamour). And Lancaster, as a famous outlaw past his prime but still possessed of his legendary charm, is glorious. This movie came out in what I think of as Lancaster’s enchanted period, when he also made Atlantic City and Local Hero and acted so brilliantly and yet apparently so utterly without effort that he might have been waving a wand at the characters he played.

The movie is about old-timers and newcomers, and Johnson directs both with consummate skill. Glenn had been on the radar since Altman cast him as the soldier Pvc. Kelly in Nashville in 1975; his small-scale portrait of the scraggly, pessimistic Bill Doolin came at the beginning of a startling streak of fine character work in the early eighties, a year before his Coach Terry Tingloff in Personal Best and two years before he played Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff. John Savage made a big splash in movies like Hair and The Deer Hunter, but this is the only performance of his I can think of that doesn’t feel phony. William Russ looks like he stepped out of a tall tale and he has a force of personality, but he never quite made it into the kind of roles he deserved. (He came closest, perhaps, in the second long arc of the first season of the late-eighties TV show Wiseguy.) At the other end of the spectrum, alongside Lancaster, is Rod Steiger, so uncharacteristically relaxed as Sheriff Tilghman that you might think he was on vacation. Johnson, who died in 2010, never made anyone’s list of the best filmmakers in America. But his work on both the large and the small screen has been insufficiently celebrated: he directed Jeff Bridges in one of his best early movies, The Last American Hero, and his television work includes The Kennedys of Massachusetts with Annette O’Toole’s staggering turn as Rose Kennedy, Off the Minnesota Strip with the haunting young Mare Winningham as a child prostitute, and an adaptation of “Paul’s Case” with Eric Roberts that captured the spirit of the Willa Cather story. Someone should organize a tribute – remembering, of course, to include Cattle Annie and Little Britches.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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