Monday, March 30, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Urban Cowboy" (1980)


Let me start by stipulating that John Travolta and Debra Winger, both terrifically talented performers, are crashingly unconvincing as a cowboy and cowgirl. They don't for a second look, talk or behave like people who grew up ridin' and ropin' on the dusty Texas plains.

Travolta's accent, in particular, is a horrid sham of generic Southern clipped consonants and bent vowels that falls just this side of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood in sheer awfulness. And Winger... well, let's just say that she looks more like she sprung from a kibbutz than a frontier claim.

But perhaps that's appropriate.

The film was directed by James Bridges from a script co-written by him and Aaron Latham, based on Latham's magazine story, "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit." It was an exploration of the cowboy myth as it's been transposed to a modern big-city setting, with the accompanying music, clothes and other touchstones reimagined for a new generation that grew up thinking broncos were boxy trucks, not frisky ponies.

It was an era of faux cowboys trying to recreate the image of their forefathers, just as disco'd-up "country" bands were exploding on the airwaves with synthesized beats that would've made Hank Williams Sr. faint in his boots. 

In a follow-up story written 20 years later, Latham opined that "the cowboy is the only truly mythic figure that America had created so far. He comes to the fore in the culture, then he recedes for a time, but he always seems to reemerge when we're uncertain about the future."

The late 1970s and early '80s certainly qualifies for that description. After seeing America diminished by Vietnam, Watergate and polyester suits, there was an undercurrent of fear, of feeling unmoored from the nation's pioneer legacy. Men were trading in their Stetsons for hardhats to work on the ocean of oil wells scattering the state.

So Travolta's Bud is a representational figure standing amidst the crossflow of cultural sea changes. A legitimate cowboy who turns into a fake one, he leaves his tiny hometown of Spur for Houston hoping he can catch a job at the refinery where his Uncle Bob works.

Bob is a mentor and role model to Bud, a fellow cowpuncher who made it "big time" in the city with his own family and spread. Never mind that Bod's homestead is part of a crammed subdivision of cheap prefab houses with a grand backyard view of high-power electrical lines.

Bob is played by Barry Corbin, one of those actors with such a consummate authenticity and workaday solidity that he often plays figures of pastoral authority. (And, like Alec Guinness and Ossie Davis, he was always much younger than audiences imagined him to be -- he was still in his 30s when this movie came out.) He's terrific in a rather underwritten role.

The story revolves around the love-hate romance of Bud and Sissy (Winger), a local gal who lives to mix it up. She and Bud impetuously wed after barely starting to date, and a week later they've already separated. The main cause of friction, at least initially, is that she's better at riding a mechanical bull than he is, at least initially.

The robot bull is the hottest new attraction at Gilley's Club, a real-life honky-tonk where a large chunk of the movie takes place. Run by country star Mickey Gilley, who appears and sings in the movie, Gilley's is practically a supporting character, a modern-day bastardization of the Old West saloon, now splayed out across "3½ acres of prairie concrete" and complete with a dance floor, carnival games and more silliness.

One wonders if they even have whiskey behind the bar.

Other pop/country acts of the day also show up to perform, including the Charlie Daniels Band, Bonnie Raitt and Johnny Lee, whose "Lookin' for Love" became a #1 Billboard hit and helped propel the movie's soundtrack into a top seller. Many in the country music biz even mark "Urban Cowboy" as the demarcation between old-school country and new, when it became more popular but more commercialized.

"Urban Cowboy" is in essence a musical, with long stretches of the action taking place sans dialogue as music blares, rendering the entire endeavor into something of a nascent music video. (It was later turned into an unsuccessful stage musical.)

Don't forget, in 1980 Travolta's two big screen hits were "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever," so the studios no doubt saw "Urban Cowboy" as a way to extend his run as a song-and-dance star. Of course, Bud doesn't sing in the movie, though there is one scene of him doing some impressive clogging (or "kicker dancing," as they would call it in Texas).

The heavy is Wes Hightower, played by my all-time favorite "That Guy" actor, Scott Glenn. Recently released from prison where he was a champion bullrider in the big inmate rodeo, Wes sidles into the scene at Gilley's like a shark swimming into a school of guppies. Amidst the posers and wannabes, he's a real-deal cowboy, a throwback hardcase who's always looking for a good ride and a big payday -- even if a little blood has to be spilled in the process.

First seen wearing a ridiculous see-through mesh shirt that shows off Glenn's signature chiseled torso, Wes easily sets Bud to shame with his prowess on the mechanical bull, then starts making smiling eyes at Sissy. They scuffle, Bud has his drunken rear end handed to him, and before you know it Sissy is shacked up with Wes in a trailer out back of Gilley's, and Bud has decamped to the arms of Pam (Madolyn Smith), a rich city girl who likes to slum it with cowboys.

The story wobbles this way and that, with a whole lot of behavior and music for music's sake. At 132 minutes the movie is at least a half-hour too long. And certain events have an obligatory feel, such as a sudden tragedy and the build-up to the big bullriding competition worth a $5,000 purse (about $15k in today's dollars).

Still, the film has its memorable moments, such as Winger's sexy slo-mo bull ride, her limbs splayed across the mechanical animal like a white trash Diana prancing with the satyrs. With her liquid, soulful eyes and cantankerous stubbornness, she's the best thing about the movie.

I can't finish this essay without discussing the violence against women depicted. Sissy gets smacked around pretty hard by both Bud and Wes, though the former at least apologizes for it after the fact. Disturbingly, in both cases it's presented as something women just have to put up with if they take up with a guy in a 10-gallon hat.

"Urban Cowboy" isn't a standout piece of filmmaking, but it did launch a bunch of careers, and helped change the tide of country music, whether for good or ill. It's one of those movies that stands as a totem representing a time and place; there are worst inscriptions on cinematic tombstones.







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