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Tall in the Director's Chair : Budd Boetticher made some of the best-remembered Westerns of '50s and '60s; they don't make 'em like that (or him) anymore

November 29, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | Michael Wilmington is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"They're all gone now except for me and Sammy Fuller," Budd Boetticher says quietly.

The last roundup, perhaps? Oscar (Budd) Boetticher Jr. is talking about the major directors of the Hollywood Western's Golden Age. And the colleagues he's recalling--the Howard Hawkses, Raoul Walshes, Anthony Manns, Don Siegels and William Wellmans-- are mostly gone. So is the Western's grandmaster: the man born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, who, though he won more Oscars than any other American director (six), liked to introduce himself, almost defiantly, with the terse credential: "My name's John Ford. I make Westerns."

"Jack Ford was a \o7 great \f7 actor," Boetticher says now, sitting in the immaculately colorful living room of his San Diego Estates condominium, south of Ramona. "A demon. And a very good man. . . . "

His voice is both wry and nostalgic. When Boetticher (it's pronounced "\o7 Bet-\f7 i-ker") was in his heyday in the 1950s--making taut, trim little classics like "The Tall T," "Ride Lonesome" and "Comanche Station"--there were Westerns everywhere, dozens released each year in the theaters, more than a score (including "Gunsmoke" and "Wagon Train") on TV. So ubiquitous were the shoot-'em-ups that if you'd argued back then that "The Searchers" or "Rio Bravo" were great movies, you'd have been greeted with astonishment. ("High Noon," maybe--but a \o7 John Wayne \f7 movie?)

That's why Boetticher's reputation, like many others, took root first in Europe. The legendary French critic Andre Bazin discovered him in 1956, singling out "Seven Men From Now" for the highest praise. Since then, among aficionados, he's been a favorite; among colleagues, a director's director. Sam Peckinpah once claimed to have watched Boetticher's 1951 "Bullfighter and the Lady" 10 times. Sergio ("Once Upon a Time in the West") Leone, spotting him in Milan at the Salso Maggiore Festival, gave the jubilant cry: "Budd! I stole \o7 everything \f7 from you!" And the Sunday after our last talk, Boetticher filmed, at request, a birthday greeting on horseback for admirer Martin Scorsese.

Peckinpah and Leone, the "Western New Wave" of the '60s and '70s, are gone now too. But, ironically, the Western itself, the most commercially viable American movie genre for six decades since 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," yet considered commercially dead after 1976, has made a sudden, recent comeback: first with 1990's critical and box-office mega-hit "Dances With Wolves," and then, last summer, with Clint Eastwood's great, bleak "Unforgiven" and Michael Mann's flashy remake of Cooper's pre-Revolution Eastern frontier saga "The Last of the Mohicans." The latter two topped Variety's box-office charts for three and two weeks, respectively.

What does Boetticher think of them? "Dances With Wolves" was his favorite. ("I \o7 loved \f7 it.") "Last of the Mohicans" he's missed--though friends gave him mixed reports. And, as for "Unforgiven": "I thought it was very, \o7 very \f7 well done, \o7 beautifully \f7 done. . . . I was impressed with it on every level--even though it's a picture I never would have made--because it's \o7 really \f7 a dark Western.

"And it's very difficult for me to see a Clint Eastwood picture" (because of his disappointment over Eastwood's 1970 "Two Mules for Sister Sara," which Boetticher wrote, but which was rewritten by Albert Maltz and later filmed by Siegel). "But I really like Clint. . . . One of my big disappointments is that I never had a chance to work with him.

"I'm glad they're back," he says simply. "It gives me a chance again."

When he smiles, Budd Boetticher sometimes resembles '40s tough guy movie actor Lloyd Nolan, and his genial swagger recalls his old drinking buddy John Wayne--who always called him "Bood." As he talks, he does seem bigger than life: Moviemaker, horseman, adventurer and one of the few Norte Americanos who mastered the art of bullfighting, right before the heyday of Dominguin, Arruza and Manolete.

Here's how Robert Mitchum recalls him: "Life around Budd was always exciting. I remember once, about 20 years back, he and I are walking down this Tijuana street and along come three of the toughest tequilaed-up yokels you ever saw. Budd happened to be in a feisty mood and, out of the blue, (he) says, 'You take the one in the middle and I'll take the other two.' I cleared out, slunk away . . . and left him to work it out with all three. I felt sorry for them."

In Boetticher's version, the soused trio bit the dust. But he claims Mitchum's discretion stemmed from taste rather than timidity: "The three toughest guys I ever met in Hollywood were Bob Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Ron Ely." And he adds: "I \o7 hate \f7 'macho' . . . even though that's what I was all my life."

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