At the Myrna Loy
Both the #OscarsSoWhite and the #MeToo movements highlighted the patriarchy and racism in Hollywood -- a reality that goes much deeper than white nominees and Weinstein’s casting couch.
Case in point: The American Western.
The history of the Western is mostly one where white men in cowboy hats saddle up while a white man in a director’s chair hollers “Action!”
Sure, there might be a continuity girl on the set or a lady in an apron in the script or the occasional black actor in the cast, but there’s no denying that the Western has traditionally been a bastion of macho males.
But this Hollywood whitewashing of American history may be changing
“Until this year I hated westerns. It’s the genre that is all about the celebration of white male power,” wrote UK film critic Kaleem Aftab. “But this year it seems like a few directors have decided it’s time to steal the hats from Westerns and stomp all over them, giving the genre the makeover it has long been in need of.”
Among the directors that Aftab praises is Chloé Zhao, a Chinese-born filmmaker who was educated in British and American schools. Her Western “The Rider” was honored at Cannes.
Set on South Dakota Sioux reservation, “The Rider” is a deeply touching movie about a rodeo cowboy named Brady, who suffers a near-fatal head injury while riding a bucking bronc.
With his adoring friends and fans urging him to “play through the pain” and “get back in the saddle,” Brady slowly works through his rehab while wistfully watching old videotapes of his storied rodeo career.
Brady’s right hand has trouble responding to his brain’s commands -- he has to peel back the fingers one at a time after clenching his fist.
We know how a traditional Western would tell this story. John Wayne would shake off the concussion and get back in the chute with one hand on the rope and the other pointing to the sky. Yahoo, Duke!
But it’s clear from the start that “The Rider” is a completely different type of Western, one driven by relationships, family and compassion -- not by an obsession with winning and prevailing.
“The Rider” is woven with a feminine ethic of care.
The relationships feel authentic because the cast play themselves. The cowboy Brady is played by horse trainer Brady Blackburn, who was, in fact, injured in the real-life rodeo accident shown in the film.
Brady’s dad and sister play his on-screen dad and sister. And his best friend Lane Scott, who was paralyzed from a car accident, plays his best friend, also paralyzed -- but from a rodeo accident.
Brady loves his little sister Lilly, who has Asperger’s in real-life and in the film. He’s patient with her, and often asks her to ride shotgun, just to spend time with her. The love between the two is genuine, often without words.
Brady’s support for his injured buddy Lane, who speaks only through sign language, is also touching. Brady goes to the rehab center to tell Lane rodeo stories, which brings a smile to Lane’s face.
Rodeo star Brady loves to ride, but he loves his family and friends more.
The story’s defining decision comes when Brady heads for a rodeo, intending to defy doctor’s orders and ride again. His fellow cowboys cheer his return, but off in the distance in a field near the fairgrounds stands his dad and his sister, praying he won’t ride.
“The Rider” is a feminine Western, quite similar in its ethic to “High Noon,” the classic 1952 Western in which a marshal throws his badge in the dirt and leaves town after marrying a Quaker.
Seeing a marshal portrayed as vulnerable rankled John Wayne’s patriotic nerves.
“(High Noon) was the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life,” said Wayne. “What a piece of you-know-what that was.”
Wayne was the epitome of the macho cowboy, who would not allow male heroes to be human.
Wayne’s diatribe turned ironic, however, when he agreed to accept the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of his friend, “weak” Marshal Gary Cooper, who was unable to attend the ceremony.
And then, in a final act of karma, Wayne played a vulnerable gunslinger dying from cancer in “The Shootist.” Wayne’s final film was a feminine Western with Wayne becoming beautifully human. Wayne was battling cancer, and died three years later. His performance was from the heart.
We’re slowly entering an era when macho monotones are being replaced by a rainbow of more realistic portrayals of androgynous heroes. More women and minorities are working on both sides of the camera.
“The Rider” was filmed on the Lakota Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota. So, we have a Western set in Sioux Indian country about a wounded hero directed by a Chinese woman.
Zhao has chased the cowboys and their steeds out of Dodge.
As a final touch, “The Rider” is decidedly a pro-horse story. Brady shows his real-life horse-whispering skills by calming a wild horse. Horses are treated with love and respect. Zhao doesn’t camouflage the harm rodeos inflict on animals, but neither does she condemn rodeo cowboys.
Zhao pays a loving, if sad, tribute to the cowboys who head for Amarillo by mornin’, up from San Antone.