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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Ballad of Little Jo': A Revisionist Western

September 10, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Ballad of Little Jo" (selected theaters) is a severely de-romanticized view of the Old West and the women who labored--in more ways than one--on its frontiers. At two hours, "Little Jo" is a long slog of revisionism, and by the end it doesn't necessarily seem any closer to the truth than the standard Hollywood Westerns. It's just bleaker.

Revisionist Westerns, like, most recently, Eastwood's "Unforgiven," usually explore the consequences of violence in a male-dominated society. What sets "Little Jo" apart from those films is its focus on a woman--Suzy Amis' real-life Jo Monaghan, who is banished by her well-to-do family when she has an illegitimate child and who survives alone by impersonating a man in the rough mining town of Ruby City.

This is a potentially great, new-to-movies subject: Women in the Old West who successfully passed themselves off as men to avoid the harassments of femalehood. (Charlie Parkhurst, the legendary Gold Rush stagecoach driver, for example, was only discovered to be a woman upon her death.) Maggie Greenwald, who wrote and directed, doesn't take a leering approach to Little Jo's transformation; Jo's mysterious melancholy fills out the action without ever really explaining why she would seek to efface herself so completely. Her make-over has a self-punishing quality, as if she wanted to ravage any trace of maidenliness. (To complete her changeover, Jo not only shears her long tresses but slices a long gash into her cheek.)

Greenwald's distanced approach to Jo also has its share of self-abnegation. She doesn't bring out any psychosexual crosscurrents in Jo's identity change. She doesn't bring out any humor in it either, or willfulness. We don't see how Jo might have relished her male trappings. In dramatic terms, Jo's existence is so clamped down and supersubtle that, after awhile, Greenwald's tact begins to resemble evasiveness. Probably she was counting on Amis to radiate a core of sympathy that would be far more suggestive than the usual deep-dish psychologizing. But Amis keeps things cool and distant, too. She's an extraordinary and undervalued actress--some of her best work, in films like "Twister" and "Rich in Love," has gone virtually unseen--but most of the time she closes herself off in "The Ballad of Little Jo."

Her stillness can be very eloquent, though, and there are some fine sequences when Jo lets down her guard and gets romantic with a Chinese hired hand (David Chon). When she's hanging around rancher Frank Badger (Bo Hopkins) she tenses up with wariness, as if her femaleness would be betrayed by any outward show of emotion. In her scenes with the miner Percy Corcoran (well played by Ian McKellen), who takes Jo on as a kind of mascot, she lets a little softness out (with disastrous consequences).

Greenwald tries to capture the flat, unconsoling look of the photo portraits of the Westerners that have come back to us from the last century. In a sense, Jo is a living daguerreotype: Her muteness and two-dimensionality are intended as a mythic memento from a bitter past. Jo's humanity is compromised by this approach--the film (rated R for sexuality and some violence) ends as more of a dirge than a ballad. But occasionally it casts a forlorn spell. The meaning of Jo Monaghan's life may not really emerge in this film but its mystery lingers.

'The Ballad of Little Jo'

Suzy Amis: Little Jo

Bo Hopkins: Frank Badger

Ian McKellen: Percy Corcoran

A Fred Berner/JoCo Production released by Fine Line. Director/screenplay Maggie Greenwald. Producers Fred Berner and Brenda Goodman. Executive producers Ira Deutchman and John Sloss. Cinematographer Declan Quinn. Editor Keith Reamer. Costumes Claudia Brown. Music David Mansfield. Production design Mark Friedberg. Running time: 2 hours.

MPAA-rated R (violence, sexuality).

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