The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sometimes a Great Notion

Spend enough time in front of a camera, and an observant actor/actress is going to pick certain things up.  More than just acting, you see what it takes to actually make a movie from a business perspective.  There is a notion that actors turned directors are primadonna who just want a chance to show off their all-around skills.  I usually think of the positive examples though, actors who became successful, respected directors like Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty.  One of my favorite actors, even Paul Newman took a crack at movie-making from the director's chair.

Released in 1970, Sometimes a Great Notion was just Newman's second directing effort.  It was nominated for two Academy Awards -- neither of which won -- and features an all-star cast, all of whom deliver performances worth talking about individually.  As a collective group, they are great together.  Based on a novel by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey, 'Notion' has still somehow managed to be generally forgotten over the last 40-plus years despite the talent involved in the production. It was only recently that it became available on DVD through the Warner Archive.  Why has it been forgotten?  Who knows for sure. What I do know is that it is definitely worth catching up with now.

In a small tight-knit coastal town in Oregon, the local loggers union is and has been on strike for quite awhile. Only one company remains open, the one belonging to the Stamper family, long-time residents of the area. Family patriarch Henry (Henry Fonda) is hobbled by a recent fall that broke his left arm, but with sons Hanks (Newman) and Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel), is in good hands. While everyone else objects to them continuing to work, the Stampers don't really give a damn, claiming they need to keep their word and fill contracts. If everyone else wants to go on strike, let them. In the midst of the work stoppage, half-brother and semi-hippie Leeland (Michael Sarrazin) returns home with some previous issues welling up among the family.  The Stampers try and piece it all together, figure it out, all the while worrying that the union will take drastic measures to put them out of business.

I read about this movie years ago but was never able to track down a copy or stumble across it on TV, but thanks to Netflix Instant watch, I did finally get a chance to watch it.  As a director, Newman carves out a little niche of Americana here with his story of the Stamper family.  At times, it reminded me of a 1970s version of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in its portrayal of the not so perfect, never easy life of a middle to lower class American family.  They are close-knit, all of them willing to stand up for the other, but that doesn't mean everything is perfect. Hank's wife Viv (Lee Remick) is struggling to continue on with the life she leads. Sarrazin's Lee marvels how the family and the business goes on, some of the time completely oblivious to the problems around them. But when backed into a corner, family issues and personal problems will get thrown aside because family comes first, last and always.

A sucker for strong ensemble casts, I fell hook, line and sinker for this one.  I loved, LOVED this movie.  Why it isn't held in higher regard I just don't know because it certainly deserves more recognition than it's gotten.  The cast is the biggest reason for high marks. Newman's Hank is that quintessential Newman character, a bit of a rebel, someone who does things his way and doesn't really care what others think of him.  Sarrazin's Lee is his polar opposite, a product of the late 1960s who's embrace a different lifestyle but returns to his estranged family after his life took a new turn. Half-brothers with quite a past (no SPOILERS here), the two men are vastly different but also perfectly similar. Lifestyles and outlook on life are different, but they are both strong-willed, smart, incredibly stubborn and both hard workers. They butt heads because they are so alike. Remick is typically solid as the quiet, attentive wife trapped in a life she doesn't think is so glamorous anymore, and Fonda is the perfect choice to play the Stamper patriarch. A tough son of a bitch and crude to boot, he keeps his family going almost by force of will alone.  The supporting cast includes some very recognizable 1970s face including character actors Roy Jenson, Charles Tyner, Jim Burk, and Joe Maross as town heavies trying to influence the Stamper's decision.

Telling a story revolving around family, certain stereotyped characters are going to be common place -- the prodigal son, the tough patriarch, the tough and intelligent first son, the affable if somewhat simple younger brother -- but working with Kesey's novel, Newman and the cast rise above anything that might be seem commonplace.  There are elements of a Greek tragedy here because from the start there is just an assurance, a guarantee that everything will not end well for the Stampers.  The shoe drops late as the family tries to fill their contracts SPOILERS from here on in SPOILERS with Fonda's Henry and Jaeckel's Joe Ben both dying when a tree splinters, the explosion setting off a chain reaction. Henry loses an arm and later dies in the hospital while Joe Ben gets pinned under an immense fallen log and later drowns. His death scene is so heartbreakingly real with the darkest, black humor rolling through as an undercurrent, it's just perfect.  It is well-written drama at its best, characters you've come to love put into these life and death situations.  Newman's reaction comes from the gut, his heart tearing itself apart because he wasn't able to death. END OF SPOILERS You can watch the whole scene HERE.

One of two Oscar nominations 'Notion' earned, Richard Jaeckel got the nod for Best Supporting character, eventually losing out to Ben Johnson for The Last Picture Show (an equally deserving part).  I've long been a fan of Jaeckel, one of those great character actors who started out playing heavies and then worked his way up into key supporting roles.  He's given a chance here to not just be a tough guy here, instead showing off his acting chops.  His Joe Ben is married (wife Linda Lawson) with two kids and has in recent years found God. He's not a simple man or a stupid one, but he also isn't overly intelligent or could ever be accused of being a thinker. The character is one that's hard not to love, making his late death even more tragic.  Pinned under the log, he jokes with Newman's Hank about what's happening, laughing at the situation he finds himself in. It is genuinely funny and equally tragic, one of the greatest, most emotional death scenes I've ever watched.

Nothing flashy here, just a good old-fashioned story about a family living and trying to survive.  The cast is phenomenal, the musical score from Henry Mancini quiet and moving, the setting unique if the circumstances aren't.  If nothing else, the look at the logging business is incredibly interesting to watch. There's something primal about watching a tree hundreds of feet tall being cut down, falling back to the ground with a deafening crash. It provides a great setting for this story, an underrated 1970s classic with a perfectly appropriate ending in tone, story and character. The movie is available to watch at Youtube, starting HERE with Part 1 of 11.

Sometimes a Great Notion <---trailer (1970): ****/****

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