Hollywood does Woody Guthrie
This month, the mighty fine “Bound for Glory” — an Academy Award-winning biopic from 35 years ago — will be screened at Gilcrease Museum.
Great to see the announcement, at the close of 2011, that the George Kaiser Family Foundation has purchased the archives of Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie and now plans to open a facility in downtown Tulsa (potentially by year’s end) that will house these many important papers, artworks, lyrics and other media.
Obviously, the timing of that announcement was no accident: 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth in Okemah. Lots of other events, concerts and presentations are planned in this regard, and they’ll occur throughout the year (and throughout the country).
And so the Gilcrease Museum, along with the Los Angeles-based Grammy Museum, now presents the exhibition “Woody at One Hundred: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration, 1912-2012.” It’s on view at Gilcrease from the fifth of this month through April 29.
As part of the proceedings, “Bound for Glory,” the terrific film directed by Hal Ashby — which is based on Guthrie’s “autobiography” of the same title (actually, it’s a first-person-narrated novel), and which was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two — will be screened Feb. 19 in the museum’s Tom Gilcrease Jr. Auditorium. The screening is at 1:30 p.m.; it’s free with museum admission.
It’s a compelling, gorgeously filmed biopic of the legendary folksinger, agitator and Okie. Like most of the other pictures that Ashby helmed in the 1970s — including “Harold and Maude,” “Coming Home” and “Being There” — “Bound for Glory,” first released in late 1976, remains relevant and entertaining, well made and lively.
Basically, it’s a love letter to Guthrie and his rise from unemployed sign painter to singer/songwriter/spokesman of consequence — and to his ever-progressive pro-union politics. And with its solid cast of working-class heroes and its many wide-angle shots of “This Land is Your Land” highways, skyways and landscapes, the film also feels like a love letter to America itself. (Wasn’t 1976 our big bicentennial, after all?)
The U.S. of A. — its history and mythology, its faults and blessings — is at the core of all that’s being put onscreen here, particularly the Great Depression and just afterward, when this country was pretty much taken to the brink. And it’s no wonder that the two Oscars “Bound for Glory” collected were for Best Adapted Score and Best Cinematography.
In the former case, ace film-music composer Leonard Rosenman gave Guthrie’s songs a chorus-heavy, jingle-jangle, sing-along treatment that feels sentimental and down home in all the right ways; it’s a steeped-in-Americana score that’s actually a hodge-podge of several Guthrie tunes — a melting pot set to music.
And in the latter instance, the work of veteran cameraman Haskell Wexler is simply lovely to look at: the various long-range, dawn- or dusk-hued depictions of the rolling countryside (as frequently viewed from atop a boxcar), the dusty small-town squalor of Guthrie’s younger days giving way (as the film proceeds) to his arrival and acclimation in the leafy, sunshiny opportunity of golden California. This is iconic, artfully executed cinematography that holds our interest not with computer-generated trickery or fancy pyrotechnics but with an emphasis on the genuine and natural.
Speaking of cameras: “Bound for Glory” was the first film to employ the Steadicam, a now-standard camera-mount device that allows one to execute moving, handheld shots remarkably smoothly. (By the by, Wexler himself appeared in town a few months ago, gracing the Tulsa International Film Festival in September.)
But the focal point of this movie, by any reckoning, must be David Carradine’s turn as our troubadour hero. An actor best known for his work in television and countless B-movies, for his famous family of actors and for his numerous law-breaking misdeeds, Carradine (who died in 2009) delivers, in “Bound for Glory,” a surprisingly great — and an undeniably great — performance.
Right from the film’s opening scenes — the movie begins in Pampa, Texas; Guthrie moved there from Okemah as a teenager — we find Carradine playing and singing Guthrie’s music with both intensity and ease, and with an obvious gift for music. He belts out Guthrie’s tunes with conviction or whispers them convincingly, whichever the script calls for.
It’s even there in how he walks, and this is a role that demands much walking — and rambling, shuffling, wandering, etc. There’s a musical bounce in his step, a rhythm in his gait.
And, yes, to concede a point that’s been made repeatedly by viewers of “Bound for Glory” over the years, Carradine, who stood a good 6 feet or so, was far taller than the 5-foot-7-inch Guthrie ever was. But so be it.
In his portrayal of a highly influential and outspoken musician who famously toted a guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists” written across it — and a communist-sympathizing poet-warrior who cared deeply about The People, although he could be quite uncaring, or even neglectful, when it came to personal relationships — Carradine just plain nails it.