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The Call of the West

COVER STORY

Time and most of Hollywood have passed the western by, but the battered genre retains a hold on TV audiences. What keeps drawing us back to the frontier?

April 18, 1999|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

"The story of the West is so appealing because it seems simpler," says professor Nobles of Georgia Tech, again contrasting it with the story of the eastern frontier. "You have to look at the 19th century fascination with images of the West, both written and painted--the landscape itself--and remember that the consumers of those images were largely an eastern audience."

The audience long ago became national and international, but with revisionist history upon us and missions to Mars in our midst, how much longer can the western continue to keep that audience under its spell?

"There are so many story possibilities," says Scot Safon, senior vice president of marketing for TNT, whose job it is to sell these stories to advertisers. (The TNT westerns are budgeted at $7 million to $10 million, less than a third of the cost of a typical studio feature.) "It's amazing the flexibility of the genre. I'm surprised it ever fell out of favor."

"It's not a genre we've explored much, in part because Turner has made it their brand" says John Matoian, until last week president of HBO Pictures and the executive at the cable network who gave the green light to "The Jack Bull," budgeted at around $10 million. "But I was drawn to this one because it broke a lot of the conventions of the standard western."

To be sure, "The Jack Bull" is not the kind of story that would likely pass the "feel-good" test required by most studio executives looking for the next big date movie. It may go down as another example of TV taking chances the studios can no longer afford.

"There's a difference between what people will watch on television and what it takes to get them out to a theater," says Badham, who is best known for his work in features but who believes "The Jack Bull" could not have been made for the big screen. "It attracted me because I knew it was something that wasn't going to be said any other way.'

"We were still trying to get it made as a feature, because I've never had experiences on anything but films," says John Cusack, whose company, New Crime Productions, produced "The Jack Bull." "I want to see things projected on a big screen. But HBO said, 'We get it, we'll make it right now.' "

As does the occasional theatrical western with a good story to tell, "The Jack Bull" will probably inspire some writers and directors to reexamine the genre and go searching once again through its bottomless trove of Americana--not that others don't feel the long ride has come to an end.

"The western as I see it exhausted itself," says Don Graham, a professor at the University of Texas, author of "Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas." "They've been talking about it coming back for 30 years, but as big box office I don't think it's ever going to come back."

Maybe not in theaters, but television remains a refuge for this particular realm of our popular imagination. When actor Tommy Lee Jones, a Texan, wanted his first directing project to be a western, he found that Turner network executives were receptive to his ideas where studios were not. The result was the 1995 TV movie "The Good Old Boys," in which he also co-starred with Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Frances McDormand and Wilford Brimley.

And Sam Elliott is still getting work.

"There's this audience for westerns and it's never going to go away," says Elliott, who wants to produce his own one day, from the book "The Outfit," by J.P.S. Brown, a working cowboy in 1950s Nevada. Elliott has owned the rights for 20 years. "I may end up having to play one of the older characters at this point, but I'm going to do it."

"There's a scale you get that's rejuvenating after you've dealt with the confines of something like noir," says Bill Pullman, now busy planning his production of "The Virginian," to be shot on the plains of Alberta, Canada, as were "The Jack Bull," "Unforgiven" and "Lonesome Dove." "It's a way to arrive at a certain view of America. The West was really a brief time in our history, and I think that a lot of what you feel in 'The Virginian' is a sense of loss, a sentimental view of what had defined us and now was gone."*

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