Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Not Your Ordinary Western

"They're trying to drive him off his ranch. They put manure in his well. They made him talk to lawyers ..."

Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda)

By 1965, the western genre had become stale and predictable. It needed something to spice it up.

Twenty–seven–year–old Jane Fonda provided it as Catherine "Cat" Ballou, a young woman from Wyoming who had been educated in the East and was returning to her father's ranch. All sorts of things happened from that point on, including the appearance of Lee Marvin, who stole the show with his dual role (which won an Oscar).

But it was Fonda who played the title character, and it was the kind of character that hadn't really been explored in the movies up to that time, particularly not in the context of the Old West — a strong, independent female.

Some people think Fonda's performance in "Cat Ballou" was her breakthrough performance; some people don't. I do, even though she got good reviews for her work in 1962's "Period of Adjustment."

I guess what made "Cat Ballou" special was the fact that Fonda succeeded almost in spite of herself. As I understand it, the folks who were making the movie wanted Ann–Margret to play the role of Cat Ballou, but apparently her manager declined on her behalf (she has since suggested that she would have taken the role) so it was offered to Fonda.

Fonda wasn't going to take it. She didn't want to do another comedy. She was looking for dramatic roles that would establish her as a legitimate actress, but her fiance, Roger Vadim, talked her into it. I guess he saw something in the script that Fonda didn't see.

The movie was based on a serious story; it was adapted to be a comedy, and that paid off handsomely. Walter Newman and Frank Pierson were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars but lost to Robert Bolt for "Doctor Zhivago."

The movie did win an Oscar for Best Actor — Marvin pulled off the relatively rare accomplishment of winning the award for a performance in a comedy.

Not that he didn't deserve it. He certainly did — although I am sure there were those who were shocked that he beat the likes of Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger by playing a gunfighter who had deteriorated into a drunk and his evil twin. (Steiger was regarded as the front–runner, and I am told that he was halfway out of his seat when Marvin's name was announced as the winner.)

"Cat Ballou," it is safe to say, was the inspiration for spoofs to come, like "Blazing Saddles." You could see it from the beginning, when Columbia Pictures' "torch lady" became a cartoon Cat Ballou with pistols in both hands that she fired into the air.

Oh, there was another nice touch that needs to be mentioned. Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye sang "The Ballad of Cat Ballou" like a couple of country troubadours regularly punctuating scenes in the movie to round out the tale.