Always Fond of Fonda

Casey St. Charnez - June 20, 2014

Jane, that is, not Peter.

I mean, yeah, he is both a good actor (Oscar nom for Ulee’s Gold), and a counterculture cornerstone (Easy Rider).

Never much cared for Henry, though; too frosty and distant.

But Jane is way prettier than younger brother Peter, and probably a better actor (Oscar wins for Klute and Coming Home).     

So I’ve been a fan of hers for over 50 years now, and there are few better opportunities to understand why than to witness her most appealing performance in Cat Ballou

…which just happens to be showing five times this week at the Jean Cocteau Cinema (Fri 06/20 @ 2:30 & 6:30; Sat 06/21 @ 6:30Wed 06/25 @ 2 & 6; and Thu 06/26 @ 6--More: www.jeancocteaucinema.com).

The 1965 western comedy, directed by Elliot Silverstein (A Man Called Horse) and running 97 minutes, is best remembered, of course, for Lee Marvin’s Best Actor win for playing twins, one a steely-eyed and steel-nosed gunslinger villain, the other a sloppy drunken hero on an equally inebriated horse. 

(After his win, Marvin admitted, “I think one-half of this belongs to a horse somewhere in the Valley.”)

As prim but winsome Catherine Ballou, a Wyoming schoolteacher who turns vengeful when her father (John Marley) is murdered by order of a ruthless railroad magnate, Fonda convincingly displays her comic ability and her undeniable allure. Per usual, her diction and timing are impeccable.

Amazingly, both Ann-Margret and Kirk Douglas turned down the lead roles. Moreover, there had been an attempt in 1956 to turn Roy Chanslor’s completely serious new novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou into a musical, with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as the singing bad guy/good guy brothers!

Nine years later, it remains quite musical, with vocal interludes by Stubby Kaye (as “The Sunrise Kid”) and Nat King Cole (as “Professor Sam the Shade”), who died of lung cancer four months before the film was released. It was one of 1965’s top box-office hits, with additional Oscar nominations for music, editing, and screenplay.

I think this is a very funny movie that really holds up, and I’m not alone in that. Just this year, no less than Bryan Cranston asserted that it had the most influence on him when he was a child. It’s also the favorite film of the Farrelly Brothers (There’s Something About Mary), as well as its being a multiple nominee from the American Film Institute, which ranked it #10 on its all-time top Westerns list.

For some time now, a raised-consciousness Jane Fonda has dismissed her early work as being sexist and manipulative. Barbarella(1968) is perhaps her biggest regret (of course, it’s also one of my favorites, and for the very reasons that she doesn’t like it any more).

But I don’t know how she really feels about Cat Ballou.

And I don’t want to know.