Friday, November 18, 2005

Johnny Cash Was a Gunslinger (Joaquin Phoenix Is But an Actor)

The new Johnny Cash biopic* seems to have attracted uniformly favorable if not outright gushing notices, with critics huzzahing and cooing over the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as J. C. and June Carter Cash.

We, of course, loved Johnny Cash, as did most right-thinking Americans. We never picked cotton, but we went way back with him, back before Cash, a man with a knack for both a song and a career move, had so deftly chiseled himself into a granite icon of Americana, of realness and gravitas and so forth. All the way back to The Rebel, Johnny Yuma, the first J.C. tune we can remember hearing on the radio (or, more likely, as the theme to the TV show of the same name). Our devotion remained constant, right through the Nine Inch Nails song and his last appearance talkin’ Jesus on The 700 Club.

We firmly believe this sorry ol’ world could always use more Johnny Cash, especially more Johnny Cash songs, or songs by others that J.C. transformed into Johnny Cash songs.

But we’re not sure the world needs a Johnny Cash biopic.

OK, that’s an overly broad assertion: We’re positive that we don’t need a Johnny Cash biopic.

Somehow, we know, Hollywood will fuck it up for us. It being the lacuna of Johnny Cash, the essential unknowability of the public entertainer whose emotional range (when not singing, that is) veered between wariness and circumspection (a manifestation, most likely, of what W.J. Cash [no relation that we know of] called in his landmark 1941 book The Mind of the South the “complex of fears and hates” that marked the 20th century White Southerner).

Joaquin Phoenix may indeed be the fine young actor, but we’d prefer not to have Hollywood filling in the blanks for us, trying to explain Johnny Cash and his motivations through the dated medium of method acting. We still need some mystery in our life.

And besides, in a strictly visual sense, Phoenix and Witherspoon seem too sleek, too pretty and too callow for us to suspend disbelief.

Moreover: These major Hollywood productions invariably are incapable of capturing that ineffable Essence of Peckerwood (see paragraph 4 above). Most often they can’t even get the accents right.

(We were reminded of this earlier tonight as we tried to watch the first half-hour of Your Cheatin’ Heart on TMC, the 1964 biopic with George Hamilton woefully miscast as Hank Williams [although no less an authority than Leonard Maltin calls it one of Hamilton’s best roles, which we believe is damning with faint praise]. We could smell the horseshit coming off this film when we first watched it, at 10 or 11 years of age, but we thought that the distance of time and our carefully cultivated reverse snobbery might have rendered it watchable. But no. Anyone associated with this movie, including Red Buttons, should hvae done time. [As a sidebar note, the fight scenes are some of the phoniest ever filmed---the movie goes out of its way to make Hank out to be some fearsome fight-picker, when in truth he was the frail and sickly sort, an embellishment that would be ignorable except for the fact that G. Hamilton fights like a big girl when he takes a swing at the owner of the medicine show who’s screwed him out of some coin.])

But Hollywood should keep trying. If Walk the Line is a hit, we have some other screenplays in the works:

Little But Loud: The Little Jimmy Dickens Story: Hillbilly fever, birds of paradise, grinnin' like a mad chimp. Lots of Jesus, for sure, with amphetamines a possibility (we’re not saying, we just remember he always seemed very wound up on those Grand Ol’ Opry reruns we used to see on Saturday afternoons). With Tom Cruise as "Little" Jimmy.

Kiss an Angel Good Morning: The Charlie Pride Story: No amphetamines that we’re aware of, possibly some low-key, incidental Jesus, but for sure minor league baseball, failure and eventual triumph, plus crossing racial barriers and overcoming prejudice---a potential tour de force for Denzel or some other actorly actor, possibly Jamie Foxx for a younger demo, or … Tom Cruise, in blackface, for something edgy.

Seven Nights to Rock: The Moon Mullican Story: Coffee, non-filter cigarettes, Red Man chaw, pie. Political intrigue---Gov. Jimmie Davis---and Beaumont at dusk. Made for Tom Cruise.

Dylan and Lennon in the back of a taxi 1966 discussing Johnny Cash and other matters. Dylan appears in this short film as a giggly 12-year-old; Lennon plays himself. Amphetamines, cigarettes, musical legends in transit. Courtesy

Banjo Jones on CNN Radio: No Jesus, no drugs, but lots of stickin' it to the man!

*A currently fashionable term that we believe is shorthand for a movie (pic) about a real-life person (bio).

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