In December of last year, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image expressed some doubt as to whether a revival screening of Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” would draw a crowd. It did, and they had to book another day to accommodate the interest. The American Cinematheque here in Los Angeles thought the smaller Aero Theater in Santa Monica would be a better venue for the program. They ended up selling out the larger Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for a screening Saturday night, quite rare for a repertory program there.
The “Jesse James Revival” has found purchase, and for a fan of the film with some skin in this on-going event, that’s so very heartening. Saturday night’s program will be the last featuring Dominik in a post-screening Q&A, and we managed to get cinematographer Roger Deakins to participate as well, making it all the more special; it will be a huge treat for those lucky enough to have secured tickets. The hope now is that the film will take off on the repertory circuit (and who knows, maybe even stir some internal discussion as to whether it deserves a more substantial home video release).
Speaking of the repertory circuit, the revival’s first non-LA/NY screening happened in mid-December at The Loft Cinema in Tucson, Arizona. Thanks for that goes to Oscar-winning screenwriter Diana Ossana, a supporter of the film who was excited about the program and tapped her resources there to reach yet another audience.
“The first thing I asked when I introduced the screening was, ‘How many of you have seen this film before,'” she says. “I think 95% of the people raised their hands. It was a huge fan base.”
Ossana first saw “Jesse James” at a Producers Guild screening in 2007. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “When the lights came on, nobody got up right away. I was so seduced by the imagery and the acting that I felt as if I had just experienced a long dream.”
Her writing partner Larry McMurtry, meanwhile, has a historic connection to the material: his grandparents lived in the same county as the James brothers “and had a terrible time of it,” he says. “After the Civil War, there was the hope that violence would tamp down but in fact it escalated, entirely because of the James boys.”
The legendary purveyor of western iconography on the page and on the screen, from “Hud” to “Lonseome Dove,” recalls reviewing Ron Hansen’s novel for The Washington Post over 30 years ago at a time when he was working in that capacity for the paper. And of the movie, he says he was quite impressed by Brad Pitt’s performance.
“I’ve thought he was a really fine actor for some years now, sort of handicapped by the fact that he’s very handsome,” Ossana adds to that. “I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s human nature to be dismissive of people who are really good looking.”
Indeed, most of the acclaim – and with due cause – went to Casey Affleck, whose performance as Robert Ford was haunted and fragile, disturbed, and marked by obsession. It was such a revelatory piece of work that when filmmaker Scott Cooper was casting his latest film, “Out of the Furnace,” he wanted Affleck largely because of what the actor proved himself capable of in Dominik’s film.
“His work in ‘Jesse James’ is truly incredible,” Cooper says. “And it’s heartbreaking, his deeply scarred psychology and his loneliness and the paranoia that surrounds all these men.”
The film is a favorite of Cooper’s, too, one that harkens back to his favorite entries in the western genre, from Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” to Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate.”
“I’ve always been mesmerized by the James brothers mythology,” he says. “You have this notion of celebrity hero worship and this idea of masculinity that’s shaped by the harsh and unforgiving landscape of the west. In my films, landscape really influences my characters, and it does beautifully in this with Roger Deakins’ incredibly stark photography. And Andrew is so patient with the film and with the characters, painstakingly so. I love that.”
Adds Ossana, “These two characters are really, as people, no different than people today. Of course Larry and I both believe that human nature doesn’t change or evolve. It is what it is and it fits very much into this star-making machine that exists today. Jesse James was a huge product of the mythology and the dime novel, and there’s the romanticism that sort of exists today, too, about famous people. After Robert Ford killed Jesse, he was initially a hero. But people became angry because he destroyed this myth that they had about Jesse, the Robin Hood mythology.”
All of that nuance ended up making for a film that was certainly a different animal than Warner Bros. was expecting, as detailed in our lengthy interview with Dominik in the lead-up to the New York event. Add to that the inherent limitations of the genre – notions of it not traveling well, marking an international box office handicap; or the expenses involved with shooting a period film, etc. – it’s a wonder “Jesse James” was made at all, let alone by a major studio.
“My films have sometimes been hard to make but all films are hard to make, as far as I’m concerned,” says McMurtry with trademark pragmatism. “It depends on the quality of material getting in the right hands. ‘The Last Picture Show,’ which is a sort of mid-western, is almost a miracle. It was the right material getting in the right hands at the right time. He [Peter Bogdanovich] couldn’t have made it younger and he wouldn’t have made it older, and I think that happens a good bit.”
“I was shocked this movie was made by a studio and I think it might be nearly impossible to get made in today’s studio system,” Cooper says. “But there are people like Megan Ellison or Teddy Schwarzman or Bill Pohlad who are strong advocates of filmic arts who would love films like this. I really believe a movie like this would be made today, just not at the studio level.”
But films like Dominik’s have a life far beyond their initial theatrical run. They find their way into the hearts of lovers and set a course for immortality. Helping this particular one along that course has been the mission of the “Jesse James Revival,” and it looks for another gust of wind in its sails Saturday at the Egyptian.
If you’re interested in booking a screening of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” please visit JesseJamesRevival.com.