The Coen brothers are notoriously meticulous about the details of their films' production design -- extending to casting -- and they're generally spot on. That's why it's disappointing that their new adaptation of the Western novel TRUE GRIT features a button-cute Hailee Steinfeld as its 14-year-old heroine, Mattie Ross. The earlier, 1969 film version of GRIT gets the Mattie character right, with the awkward, boyish-looking actress Kim Darby in the role. Her Mattie is not adorable or instantly endearing. But it is precisely because she has no cute exterior that the viewer must look to her defining inner quality -- dogged persistence -- in order to admire her. And maybe that''s as it should be. Because realistically tough female performances should have nothing to do with attractive women in spandex catsuits doing backflips while spraying machine-gun bullets into baddies. They should be more about real-looking women braving tough circumstances and pulling through, even if only by the skin of their teeth. Sadly, most lists of tough female film performances feature some combination of the same, tired usual suspects: Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver and "them Lara Croft and KILL BILL girls" (I sometimes wonder if mainstream film journalists should have to pass an equivalent of the Bar).
So in honor of Darby's performance, let's look at some other women who are realistically, convincingly tough:
Coleen Gray in KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)
"I always felt my part was incidental … you have to have a leading lady," Ms. Gray told me during a 2001 interview about her character in this underrated film noir. And sure, she's not a head-turning femme fatale, as would be typical of a hard-boiled crimer, but that doesn't make her part incidental. In fact, Gray's squeaky-clean character (the actress would make a career out of portraying Good Girls) manages to play an integral role in keeping the hero alive. And how does she accomplish this, considering she doesn't fire a shot or throw a punch? Simply by using her law-student smarts to talk their way out of scrapes. And mind you, this is against some of the best screen villains of the 1950s, including Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand.
Elizabeth James in THE BORN LOSERS (1967)
Before the plainly titled BILLY JACK, there was this lesser-known Billy Jack film, about the half-Indian vigilante's attempt to save a young lady from some bikers who have gang rape on their collective, dim-witted mind. And the girl -- played by Elizabeth James who, sadly, acted in only one other film -- did ultimately need saving. But she fended off their sexual assaults for a good while with her smart mouth ("All together or just one at a time?") and a lug wrench. Sure, her sassy backtalk to the bikers may have been just masking her fear, but she kept her cool (and a brave face) nonetheless. And if James seemed natural delivering the feisty dialogue, it's because she wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym "E. James Lloyd." (According to a 1975 NEW YORK MAGAZINE article, James worked on BILLY JACK too and was intended, for a time, to be the female lead. It's not clear exactly why she wasn't.)
Jodie Foster in THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976)
Foster's impressive 13-year-old character somehow lives in a house all by herself and keeps that fact hidden from the townspeople (even the landlady!) -- all while fending off the advances of a pedophile played by Martin Sheen. This scenario would have been too improbable for a suspension of disbelief if any other actress had played the brave kiddo, but a young Jodie Foster possesses such a strength and intelligence here that it becomes credible. If John Hinckley absolutely had to go nuts over a Foster role, it should have been this and not her TAXI DRIVER part.
Linda Haynes in ROLLING THUNDER (1977)
Is a typical cocktail waitress tough enough to drop what she's doing (in this case literally, with drinks crashing to the floor) and head to Mexico to help a former 'Nam POW find the crooks who robbed him? Dunno, but in the capable hands of Ms. Haynes, we are believers -- perhaps because of the character's well-rounded realism: She likes the revenging 'Nam vet and wants to be supportive, but she doesn't mind putting up a fuss if their Mexican jaunt strays too far from what she signed up for. Also helpful is the waitress's background as the tomboy daughter of an Army sergeant (the scene explaining her history was reportedly added by co-writer Heywood Gould after the character played well in the dailies). Haynes is a cute blonde in this, but it's not the sort of cute that exists only in the movies.
Patty Duke in A MATTER OF JUSTICE (1993, TV)
"My hell began the day my son was killed. Your hell is just beginning." With these fighting words, Patty Duke's strong Alabama woman lays down the gauntlet to her former daughter-in-law, whom she eventually gets convicted for a part in conspiring to kill a young Marine (Duke's character's son). I say "eventually" because the process drags out for years, making Duke's character not only intimidating with her toughspeak but also determined as hell (she travels to other states, hires P.I.s, sits through hearings, and gets personally involved in operations). Although this fact-based TV movie made it to DVD as FINAL JUSTICE and continues to play occasionally on Lifetime, perhaps the biggest testament to Duke's crowd-pleasing toughness is the fact that a certain teenaged Eastwood/Bronson fan (guilty as charged) sat captivated in front of his TV on both nights of its original NBC airing, blown away by the Southern bravado he was witnessing.
CONFIDENTIAL and LITTLE GIRL have both been available on studio DVDs, and the former has also had a myriad of budget releases too (it was/is in the Public Domain). THE BORN LOSERS has been available in a couple of different Billy Jack box sets. ROLLING THUNDER is available from the MGM Movie On Demand dvd-r series. A severely cut MATTER OF JUSTICE is available as an R1 dvd entitled FINAL JUSTICE and as a R2 dvd bearing its original title.
And lastly ... how did Martin Sheen manage to turn up acting alongside 40% of the characters listed here?