Examining Hollywood Remakes: True Grit

Sometimes an actor can seem like the perfect casting for a role, and have you thinking “I can’t imagine anyone else in this role”, but then a remake comes along and the new actor even outdoes the original one. This week, we’re going to look at the way proper casting can actually elevate a remake above its predecessor. The original 1969 version of the Western True Grit starred Hollywood action legend John Wayne—winning the only Oscar of his long career—whereas the 2010 remake stars one of the most versatile actors of the modern era, Jeff Bridges. Yes, it’s the Dude replacing the Duke.

1 True Grit John Wayne

It’s hard to step into the sizeable shoes of the legendary John Wayne. Wayne made nearly 200 films and holds the record for the most starring roles of any actor ever (142 lead roles). In a 50 year career, the 6 foot 4 actor was the epitome of the macho, rugged action hero. Even though he was almost 70 when he made the original True Grit, he was still held up as the macho ideal. So give Jeff Bridges credit for being unafraid to walk in the shadow of Hollywood’s greatest action star. When the 2010 version of True Grit was being filmed, Bridges had to know that people would be comparing his performance as the one-eyed Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn to Wayne’s Oscar winning performance in the 1969 version. (A role Wayne reprised in the 1975 sequel Rooster Cogburn.)

While Jeff Bridges doesn’t have Wayne’s iconic action star status, he is a more talented and versatile actor than Wayne was. Whereas Wayne embodied the role through the magnitude of his reputation as the screen’s leading cowboy, Bridges artfully brings a more complex version of Cogburn to life, creating a wearier and eccentric character, thus avoiding the macho excesses of Wayne’s version. Bridges comes across as more volatile and unpredictable, being less heroic than Wayne’s version but more interesting.

Both versions of True Grit follow the basic story from the novel by Charles Portis, which revolves around a stubborn and formidable 14 year old named Mattie Ross who wants to ensure that the man who murdered her father is caught and punished. The killer, Tom Chaney was a former employee of her father and is now at large in Indian Territory. Mattie asks around to find out who the toughest and quickest-on-the-trigger Marshall in the region is. She is steered toward Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn because he has “true grit”. She hires the cash-strapped Marshall to go hunting Chaney for her and even talks him into letting her come along, although he doesn’t like the idea of her coming at all. She is repulsed by his heavy drinking because it violates her Christian upbringing but she needs him. Together they go on the dangerous journey, meeting many enemies and obstacles. A strange and touching bond develops between them.

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Mattie is played in the original by Kim Darby and in the remake by Hailee Steinfeld. Darby portrayed Mattie as headstrong but a bit nervous about undertaking her perilous journey. Steinfeld’s Mattie is more obsessed with revenge and cares little for her own safety, as long as she can get her revenge. Steinfeld is excellent in the remake as the single-minded Mattie. The scene where she out-bargains a crooked businessman over the price of some horses is a highlight. When Darby played Mattie in the original film, she was 20 at the time and gave a memorable performance, but Steinfeld is even more impressive considering her age, which is more accurate to the literary Mattie of the novel.

 A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf–pronounced “La-Beef”– inserts himself into the arrangement and tags along but his intentions toward young Mattie are less straightforward and above-board than Cogburn’s are. He pops in-and-out of the film sporadically. The LaBoeuf character was played in the original film by country music star Glen Campbell who did an adequate job but doesn’t have the acting chops of Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf in the 2011 version. The killer is portrayed by Josh Brolin in the remake, and he seems tougher than the guy in the ’69 version played by Jeff Corey, who was just a sniveling weasel. However, in the first version, the killer turned out to be a henchman for a better villain named Ned Pepper, played by the great Robert Duvall, who is an asset to any film. It’s a shame that Ned Pepper had so little screen time because you can never have too much Duvall.

The 1969 version was directed by Henry Hathaway, a good director who had a long career in Hollywood, running from the 30s through the 70s. The 2010 version of True Grit was written and directed by the Cohen Brothers and it is a huge departure from their usual fare. The talented Cohens generally make more unique and unusual films (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowsky, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona, etc.) and shun traditional storytelling. True Grit is their most normal, linear movie to date. It’s definitely not the sort of thing you’d expect from the guys who like to experiment with new ways of telling a story. You won’t see their usual hallmarks in this but that doesn’t mean they don’t do an excellent job bringing the story to life. Their version of the old west may lack the majesty of a romanticized classic western but they do create a grim, realistic and visually interesting terrain for their story to unfold in.

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As good as the 1969 John Wayne version was, the 2010 version is comparable by most measurable standards, but it’s the leading men that really make the difference here. John Wayne made so many classic films that should never be remade, and if they ever are, I don’t envy the guy acting in his shadow. The man was a true Hollywood legend. However, in this case, despite this being Wayne’s lone Oscar win, Bridges just delivers a knock-out punch with his performance, making the remake superior. 

So that’s all for this week’s look at a film where the leading man makes the remake even better than the original. Next week, we’ll look at a film where the cast ruined a remake.