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[note: Our ongoing series of Oscar Rants continues with Josh's take on Best Pic nominee True Grit. Watch for more Oscar Rants coming soon. Here's Josh…]
True Grit has been called “the western you should see if you only see one western every three years”. It’s been hailed as ”enormously entertaining”. Critics and audiences alike fell in love with it, almost from the moment it was released. In his review of the film Roger Ebert describes the audience at a sneak preview he attended as bursting out into spontaneous laughter and applause throughout the screening. Almost everyone who has seen it, instantly loved it, as reflected by True Grit’s 89% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And that was just the first time someone made it, back in 1969.
Last year Joel and Ethan Coen made True Grit again and, since the film was beloved the first time around, it should come as no surprise to anyone that new audiences loved this story once more. The Coen Brothers, aware of just how good the first movie was, changed little in their retelling of it, for the most part sticking with what worked. Their version is better cast (Matt Damon is a far better actor than Glen Campbell and Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross is an upgrade), but it’s the same story told in the same way, in much the same style, and at much the same pace. Moviegoers are always ready to embrace the familiar and, if you’ve seen the first one, watching this new True Grit is like slipping on a comfortable pair of well-worn, boot-cut jeans. But 1969 was a long time ago and the truth is that a lot of people haven’t seen the first telling of this story, or if they have they simply don’t remember it. To those people the Coens’ True Grit is revolutionary, a gritty western revolving around the bravery of a young girl, a brilliant and wholly original effort, even if it definitely isn’t.
True Grit isn’t even the best western of the past decade. It’s not as taut and intense as 3:10 to Yuma. It’s not as beautifully photographed as the endless prairies of Open Range. It’s not as thoughtful and well-acted as The Assassination of Jesse James. But whether or not it’s as good as any of those movies is subjective and, in the end, irrelevant to this discussion. What’s not subjective is that whether they call it a reboot, a re-imagining, or a re-adaptation, this True Grit is a remake.
True Grit isn’t the first remake to be nominated for an Oscar. Remakes have received accolades since the early days of film. The first was the 1935 Clark Gable starring Mutiny on the Bounty, which was a remake of a 1919 Australian production, and won “Outstanding Picture”, the era’s equivalent to Best Picture. In 1963 a Marlon Brando remake of the Gable film also received a Best Picture nomination, but didn’t win. Everything from The Ten Commandments to My Fair Lady to Moulin Rouge was technically a redo of someone else’s now all but forgotten work. Rewarding remakes is nothing new, but Hollywood’s slavish devotion to them is.
In that climate the Academy has chosen to nominate the year’s most obvious remake, a movie that not only redoes a film which was widely regarded as pretty great the first time, but redoes it without really changing anything. Watch the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty and you’ll see a vastly different film from the 1935 version Clark Gable starred in, and the 1919 version is a different story entirely. Watch the 2010 version of True Grit, and you’ll see mostly the same movie made the first time around, except with a slightly less annoying little girl in the Mattie Ross role. Is this truly the year’s Best Picture? Does labeling that film as the best modern Hollywood has to offer, send the right kind of message to the movie industry? I don’t think so.
The Coens are brilliant filmmakers, nearly 50% of their films have been nominated for Oscars, and by now mentioning their work among the years’ best has become an automated response. If you ask them, they’ll tell you their True Grit is not based on the 1969 movie, but rather on that film’s source material. Anyone who’s seen them both, anyone who’s really honest, will tell you that’s not so. This isn’t No Country for Old Men. True Grit is a remake of the remakiest kind. Look up the reviews which scored this film the highest and you’ll find that most of them are from people who haven’t seen the original film. The aforementioned Roger Ebert, who gave the 1969 True Grit four stars, gave this one three and a half. Those who haven’t seen them both, well they’re the ones who nominated this True Grit for an Oscar.
Awarding remakes is nothing new, but in an environment where originality has been marginalized by the film industry in favor of projects with name recognition, recognizing new ideas has never been more important. A Best Picture vote for the year’s most obvious remake feels like a vote in favor of cinematic ignorance. The differences between this True Grit and the one which earned John Wayne his Oscar are so minimal as to be almost no differences at all. The Coens made True Grit with the best of intentions and, different from the original or not, it’s a good film. Yet to me it seems as though a vote for True Grit, good or not, is a vote for Hollywood’s creatively bankrupt status quo. With nine other Best Picture nominees to choose from, there has to be a better way to go.
[Read more Cinema Blend Oscar Rants right here and watch for more coming later this week.]