Highly informed and enormously affectionate, this hand-crafted docu takes an unusually detailed look at the career of one Hollywood’s longtime leading character actors. True to the ingratiating personality of its subject and steeped in the world of the Western, this winning piece of specialized film history is a natural for fests, public TV and movie-oriented cable outlets.
There were plenty of fine character actors who filled out the casts of Westerns from the ’40s through the ’60s, but one in particular stood out as seeming like the real thing. “Ben Johnson is the epitome of the Western man,” says Charlton Heston, who worked with him in “Will Penny,” and certainly no one in Hollywood had the credentials Johnson possessed: Part-Irish and part-Cherokee , the Oklahoma native worked as a cowboy from age 11 and, as the man himself pointed out, “I’m the only person to ever win an Academy Award and a world’s championship in rodeo. I don’t know if that means much, but it makes good conversation.”
It also makes Johnson an unusually good subject, both in and of himself and as a way into charting the fortunes of the character actor as a Hollywood breed.
Johnson literally arrived in town in a carload of horses, as a wrangler delivering steeds to Howard Hughes for “The Outlaw.” He was later discovered by John Ford and showed off his unparalleled horsemanship in such films as “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” and “Wagonmaster.”
When he and Ford had a falling out, Johnson hit the rodeo circuit and won a championship in steer roping, the same title his father had once held.
Some lean years, highlighted by memorable work in “One-Eyed Jacks,” were followed by a resurgence as a prominent member of Sam Peckinpah’s stock company and capped by his Oscar-winning performance as Sam the Lion in “The Last Picture Show.” He continued to work regularly, as often as not in mediocre films, before his death earlier this year at 77. His final role was in the upcoming “Evening Star.”
Director Tom Thurman, whose first docu was about another distinctive character actor, Warren Oates. lensed interviews with Johnson between 1992-94, and the actor’s warmly genial, unassumingly down-home personality permeates the picture.
At the same time, very occasional cracks allow for glimpses of a more competitive, driven side to his character, which he must have had to excel as he did in both of his chosen fields.
Well-chosen film clips are enriched by unusually probing, illustrative and funny comments from a wide array of Johnson’s colleagues. Particularly interesting are stories of how Marlon Brando encouraged Johnson to develop much of is own dialogue in “One-Eyed Jacks,” and Peter Bogdanovich’s recollections of how difficult it was to convince Johnson to play Sam the Lion, which the actor would only do if he could eliminate all the cuss words.
Johnson’s own comments on Peckinpah are both amusing and insightful, concluding with his view that, “Sam didn’t care about life too much, not even his own.”
Overall, the film revels in the world of the Western and the larger-than-life figures that helped shape it, notably Ford, John Wayne, Brando, Peckinpah and, of course, Johnson himself, and Thurman’s enthusiasm is contagious.
A little information about the subject’s personal life would have been welcome, but as a celebration of a distinctive career and personality, this would otherwise be hard to beat. Tech qualities, including the tape-to-film transfer, are adequate.