Crazy Heart and Tender Mercies

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

Who will go and see Crazy Heart in the UK? On a Wednesday afternoon in Manchester there were a few people in the multiplex, but a youngish couple left before the end. After three weeks, boosted by Jeff Bridges’ Oscar win, the distributor 20th Century Fox upped the number of prints and sneaked into the Top 15. But with less than £500,000 and a relatively low site average (under £2,000) it doesn’t look good. I’m not sure why the distrib didn’t wait to open until after the Oscars – since Bridges was the favourite to win.

I think a film about an ageing country music star, even when played by Bridges is a bit of a hard sell in the UK. For me though, it’s an enticing proposition. I was a big fan of Bridges as a younger actor in western-themed films (Last Picture Show, Rancho Deluxe, Hearts of the West, Bad Company, Heaven’s Gate) and country music (at least the more roots-orientated, ‘down home’ stuff) is my passion. So Crazy Heart couldn’t really fail. Still, I’m not sure it succeeds totally. Not a lot happens in the plot. ‘Bad’ Blake (Bridges) is the singer-songwriter whose career has reached the rock-bottom of bowling alley and bar gigs. It picks up with the appearance of single mother journalist Maggie Gyllenhaal and a chance to appear, not without qualms, alongside the new star Tommy Sweet (who was once mentored by Bad). But Bad is an alcoholic and he needs a mentor to sort him out – enter Robert Duvall, who has been there before. And that’s about it.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is beautiful and sexy but for me doesn’t fit in the South-West. That she might be a fan and be attracted to Bad Blake is conceivable I guess. Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet is OK, but lacks the starpower to cope with Bridges in full flow. The story behind the film is about how a jobbing actor, Scott Cooper, read a novel by Thomas Cobb, optioned it and wrote a screenplay and showed it to Bridges who recognised a part with his name on it. Cooper than became writer/director and producer (alongside several other luminaries including Robert Duvall and musical composer T-Bone Burnett). With these participants it was possible to construct an independent production package.

On these kinds of productions, a novice director tends to surrounds himself with talent and let them get on with it. In this case the film is presented in CinemaScope with some lovely vistas of country roads in the South West. Barry Markowitz is an experienced cinematographer, but I don’t think the possibilities of landscape were properly realised and overall the film’s look is fairly undistinguished. The music is as good as T-Bone Burnett’s reputation and Stephen Bruton’s input promises. I didn’t think that the music was memorable, but it sounded authentic. When a Waylon Jennings track came on, the difference was noticeable. In fact, I think a lot of the pleasure for fans is the after film discussion of who the real world models for Bridges’ representation were. I’d put the drinking aside and going on the music and the appearance, I’d say an amalgam of Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and numerous other ‘outlaw country’ singers would be the best fit. Billy Joe Shaver is mentioned in the dialogue.

Bridges and Duvall in Crazy Heart

The appearance of Robert Duvall in the film prompted many commentators to mention his performance in the similarly-themed film Tender Mercies. I’d forgotten all about Duvall’s Oscar for his performance and I’d never seen the film, so I rented it. I’m glad I did. It was such a pleasure to watch a great film actor on form in the kind of intelligent, small adult movie that used to be made in Hollywood in the early 1970s. But this isn’t Hollywood. It’s weird to watch the Studio Canal logo on the DVD give way to ‘Thorn-EMI’ and a film funded by a British company and directed by an Australian, Bruce Beresford. But the screenplay is by Horton Foote who wrote adapted To Kill a Mockingbird, one of Duvall’s earliest performances.

Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge

I was struck how much the film captures that Texas flatland feel of Larry McMurtry’s novels and screenplays. It looks to me like West Texas (I’ve never been there, but that’s the image I have of it) even though it was filmed in Waxahachie in the North East of the state. There’s a kind of beauty in the desolate landscape and it fits the style of acoustic country played by Duvall (who also wrote some of the songs, I think). Like Crazy Heart, the music seems old-fashioned for the time. Again very little happens – but it seems to mean more. Duvall is Mac Sledge as, you’ve guessed, a ‘washed-up country singer/songwriter’. He’s a drunk and he’s lost his wife and daughter. But he ends up in a rural motel, working to pay off his bill and gradually falling for the young Vietnam widow who agrees to marry him if he’ll stop drinking. Slowly he builds a new relationship with Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and her boy Sonny. The narrative shifts gear when a revitalised Mac with a new song written visits his ex-wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) a successful country performer. His offer of a song is rejected but his visit prompts a return visit to the motel by his daughter Sue Anne in an early role for Ellen Barkin. What follows is not surprising but it is moving – a tribute to Duvall, Foote and Beresford, Australian cinematographer Russell Boyd and all the supporting players.

Watching Tender Mercies makes you wonder what Crazy Heart could have been. My companion at the screening very much enjoyed Bridges’ playing – and so did I. But I think that the whole film could have added up to more.

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2 comments

  1. OMAR AHMED

    Nice comparison between the two. Jeff Bridges is one of those rare film stars who is instantly likeable – very charismatic and an effortless performer; old school I guess in that he has star presence whilst Duvall is an incredible actor too. I don’t know why I have steered away from Crazy Heart yet I remember being swayed by the marketing for Walk the Line a few years back – both have been marketed in similar ways but of course Mangold’s film had the box office combo of Phoenix and Witherspoon whilst Cash provided a clear hook for audiences.

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