Saturday, March 07, 2015

'Coal Miner's Daughter' Was Two Stories in One

Doolittle (Tommy Lee Jones): [after Loretta's first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry] What we got to do next is figure out what to do next.

"Coal Miner's Daughter," which premiered 35 years ago today, was really two stories in one.

The first story was about a rural Kentucky girl named Loretta Webb, raised in poverty in a bump in the road called Butcher Hollow ("Holler" in Kentuckyspeak). For the first half of the movie, the focus was on Loretta (Sissy Spacek) and a young man, Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones), who wanted to marry her.

Doolittle was kind of wild, and Loretta's father (played by my fellow Arkansan, Levon Helm) disapproved of the relationship. But when the two decided to get married, he didn't stand in the way. In fact, he showed up at the little country church where vows were being exchanged — at least long enough to answer in the affirmative when the preacher asked, "Who gives this woman's hand in marriage?"

So the two embarked on their life together, but life was hard for the newlyweds — until Doo discovered Loretta's musical talent, which led to her well–received performance before an audience.

That was the transitional moment. The audience loved Loretta, and she and Doo used it to launch her musical career. They succeeded — and found that fame and fortune didn't solve all problems. They merely created new ones.

But that scene in which she sings in public for the first time is an empowering moment. You could see her gaining confidence with each note.

It was the transition to that second story in the movie — about the problems that fame and fortune brought to their lives. Such is the nature of biographical movies, I guess. Of course, the fact that such a movie is being made at all is evidence that the subject of the movie succeeded — to an extent, at least — in overcoming his/her demons.

Loretta Lynn often used those problems as inspirations for her most successful songs.

Spacek also re–created the relationship Lynn had with country music legend Patsy Cline, a relationship that ended tragically when Cline was killed in an airplane crash. As big a star as Cline was, Lynn was probably country music's first female superstar, and their scenes together represented more than a friendship. They represented a transitional period in country music.

There was kind of an odd dichotomy, though, in the film's treatment of that relationship. On the one hand, the stars — Spacek and Beverly D'Angelo in the role of Cline — didn't lip synch while someone else did the singing for them — even though lip synching was usually done in that kind of movie at that time. The refusal of the film to yield on that point suggests (to me, anyway) a commitment to an honest approach by the actors — rather like not having a stunt double do the rough stuff in one's scenes.

On the other hand, though, the film did take certain liberties with the truth. For example ...

Lynn and Cline never toured together. In the movie, they tour together and confide in each other. They were confidants in real life, but they never toured together. I don't know whether touring together was the custom of the time for popular stars, country or otherwise, but I know Cline and Lynn never toured together.

They might have talked about it, though. I have heard that Cline may have been thinking about buying a touring bus shortly before her death. If so, then there are scenes in "Coal Miner's Daughter" that offer a tantalizing glimpse into what the future might have been like if Cline had not died.

But they do not re–create actual events.

Now, I'm a history buff, and I always enjoy good historical movies. And I know that, the movie business being what it is, even the best stories are going to get embellished in some way before they make it to the silver screen — whether I think the stories need embellishment or not. Sometimes I can live with those embellishments. Sometimes I can't.

In "Coal Miner's Daughter," I have decided I can live with the ones I know about. I can't say how I will feel if I learn about embellishments of which I had no knowledge. Depends on what they are, I guess, and how crucial they are to the story.

The scenes from the tours were kind of used to tie together loose ends and establish the closeness of Lynn's relationship with Cline. It was during such a Hollywood–created tour, for example, that Lynn caught Doo cheating on her, and she confided in Cline. Now, that didn't fundamentally alter the facts. Doo still cheated on her, and that still led to her authorship of one of her biggest hits.

That's the kind of Hollywood lie that I can live with, though. In the movie, Cline was the sympathetic friend, an innocent bystander. She wasn't the one with whom Doo was cheating nor was she the one who broke the news to Lynn. If the script had altered either of those conditions, it would have fundamentally changed the story and almost certainly changed the nature of Cline's relationship with Doo.

Speaking of Doo, I think this may have been the first time I ever saw Tommy Lee Jones in a movie. He had been in movies for about 10 years prior to that, and I saw some of the movies he made in the '70s, but I believe I saw them on TV long after they made the rounds of the theaters. If I saw one or more of them before I saw "Coal Miner's Daughter," his appearance(s) made no impression on me.

I saw "Coal Miner's Daughter" on the big screen when I saw it the first time, and I was impressed with the work done by all the participants, not just Spacek, who took home the Oscar for Best Actress. Jones really did make an impression on me with his performance. I'm tempted to describe it as sensitive — but that almost seems to deny a steely resolve that Jones brought to the role of Doo. If Doo really was that persistent, it's no wonder Lynn became a country superstar.

Whether it was the first time I saw him or not, I have seen him in quite a few movies since — and I honestly think this was his best performance. Or, at least, I believe it is the best performance I have seen him give. He wasn't nominated for an Oscar for his work — that kind of recognition came later, perhaps belatedly, although it would have been hard to wedge him in as a nominee for either Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor that year.

Without him, though, it is hard for me to imagine Spacek winning Best Actress — so maybe that was as much his award as it was hers.