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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Jesse James: Revisionist Western Undergoes Revision

When will we get to see Brad Pitt as JESSE JAMES?
And when we do, will the adaptation of novelist Ron Hansen’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” be as long as the book that spawned it? In today’s Los Angeles Times, writer John Horn reports that the current version — which clocks in at more than three hours — has “tested poorly” with preview audiences. (Please Warner Bros, let the running time be shorter by the planned Sept. 21 release.)
I’m not surprised that JESSE JAMES tests poorly. Many good-to-great and ultimately popular films flop with test audiences. One of the most common questions in test screenings is about audience expectations — and once an audience realizes that the subject is American outlaw/bank robber Jesse James, they think they know his story.
After all, it’s been told before, in ballad, book, film (THE NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, with Robert Duvall as Jesse, and THE LONG RIDERS, with James Keach and AMERICAN OUTLAWS, with Colin Farrell in the lead. A very good TV movie, FRANK & JESSE, with Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton as the outlaw brothers, suggested that the elder, Frank, was the brains of the gang (Indeed he may have been: he made a deal to retire from crime, saving his life.)

The trailer for JESSE JAMES has been in circulation for nearly a year — when you see it, you know this movie’s no YOUNG GUNS. The movie doesn’t follow the gang’s early days, but the bitter dissolution of their outlaw ring, when the law, and even the public, was fed up with their kind. That’s closer to THE WILD BUNCH.
Dark and mournful in tone, we meet the man who once admired the king of outlaws, and who turned on him in the end. Though I’m a big fan of Casey Affleck’s, I didn’t recognize him. And the casting of Brad Pitt as James is pure genius. Watch this PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE biography and see if you don’t agree.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon