Monday, March 12, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #187 - Honkytonk Man (1982, dir. Clint Eastwood)

I’ve mentioned in previous posts here my affinity for the Western genre. When I was little, my brothers and I would spend entire weekends watching them on television with my father. At the time, I don’t think I really paid much attention to them and didn’t really care either way. But Westerns on the TV meant Saturdays with my dad, and those were pretty special to me. Eventually, I grew to appreciate them for what they are and now when I watch them, I tend to get transported back to third or fourth grade, staring at our giant old wood-framed console TV that didn’t have a remote. I wasn’t in fifth grade in the 60s or anything, this is just the dirtball TV we had in 1986. But that is neither here nor there.

The point is, I loved to sit around watching Westerns with my dad and among our favorites were Clint Eastwood movies. But I’m not going to talk about The Man with No Name franchise, as the point of this column is to suggest things that you, the reader, may have missed. It’s not very likely that you’re a fan of Westerns and have never heard of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Nor am I even going to talk about an Eastwood Western film for that matter, because if you’re like me, if you even think the word “Western,” an image of Clint as the titular Outlaw Josey Wales probably pops into your head. Today I’m going to talk about Clint’s 1982 film Honkytonk Man.

It took me a while to come around to Honkytonk Man, actually. For the most part, I preferred Clint Eastwood as a Western outlaw. Even the Dirty Harry series, which I love now, I had a hard time with for a while. I just didn’t have any interest in seeing him try to be tough guy in the modern world, I guess. But Honkytonk Man was the first movie I remember enjoying Clint in that wasn’t a Western.

Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, Clint plays Red Stovall, a singer-songwriter and alcoholic drifter who is trying like hell to get to Nashville so he can try out for the Grand Ol’ Opry as a country singer. In the opening scene, Red drunkenly careens up onto the front lawn of a rural Oklahoma farm house just moments after it is hit with an aggressive dust storm. The farm belongs to his sister and her family who are all too familiar with this kind of behavior from Red. The family, discovering that Red has an advanced case of tuberculosis, take him in. While there, he forms a bond with his nephew Whit, played by Clint’s son Kyle Eastwood in his film debut. Red decides to take Whit with him on a road trip to Nashville so that Red can finally pursue his dream. The two share a series of adventures, including robbing a poker game, performing at a juke joint, a brothel visit, and a jailbreak. When they finally reach the Opry, Red is too sick to finish, botching his audition with a series of coughing fits. The performance is, however, caught by a record executive who offers Red studio time to record his songs.

What I love about this film, aside from the killer country soundtrack by the likes of Porter Wagoner, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Eastwood himself, is that the character of Red is such a different kind of role for Clint. While he does have some of that familiar gruff, icy exterior (particularly when sleeping off a hangover), there is a vulnerability to the dying man that really sets Red apart from other Eastwood characters. A child of the Depression himself, perhaps Clint saw something in the story that struck a chord with his own childhood when he decided to take on the role (and the director’s chair). Whatever the reason, Eastwood brings the melancholy of this character to life with the help of his evolving relationship with the young boy. Red gets the boy involved in some unsavory practices, but there is a real family bond there that is at times very touching. In Honkytonk Man, Clint is given the chance to prove to the world that there is more to his acting than just violent thuggery.

As a director, Clint really shines here as well. The film is visually stunning, filmed on location in various parts of Northern California and Nevada, which act as the Middle America backdrop for the duo’s family road trip. Again, in every way, the film is very different from the usual gun porn fodder that Clint is known for, but take a chance on Honkytonk Man. It’s a true character study of the traveling troubadour, perhaps a character you’ve heard about before in some of the best country songs.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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