The last time a lot of audiences saw Natalie Portman on screen, she was wearing a tutu. Now she’s wearing a gun belt. For the Oscar-winning actress (the ballet-themed “Black Swan”), her latest release is a test of flexibility, range and ability to adapt. She may be taking the whole Western genre with her.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle,” “Warrior”), “Jane Got a Gun” isn’t exactly a new project. It was made in 2014 and has been — as folks might have said in the Old West — snakebit. More about that below. The film itself, however, may be a period piece, but it has one booted foot in contemporary gender politics.
Jane Hammond (Portman) is living, post-Civil War, in the New Mexico territories with her young daughter and husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), who arrives home riddled with bullets after a shootout with the Bishop Boys, a gang led by the malevolent John Bishop (an unrecognizable Ewan McGregor). The Bishops want Bill dead; they’ll kill Jane if they have to. Desperate, Jane seeks help from an old love, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), who at first refuses her and then — with the reluctance typical of Western heroes about to blow everyone to kingdom come — experiences a change of heart.
But “Jane” is Jane’s story. Jane is the heroine. Jane makes things happen. See this, if you will, as a metaphorical statement about the state of Hollywood, where women might have just gotten off the stagecoach. But nothing happens that isn’t plausible, despite the pyrotechnics, and the more than occasional violence.
“Gavin tends to do work that’s reality-based,” Emmerich said of the director, who was born and raised in Huntington and whose “Miracle” was about the dramatic U.S. Olympic hockey win of 1980. “If it doesn’t feel possible, he doesn’t want to do it. He was always making sure what we portrayed is perceivable as true.”
Playing a character who’s dying for most of the movie posed its particular challenges, said Emmerich (“The Americans,” “Billions”). “It’s certainly one of the most comfortable jobs I’ve had,” he joked. “But actors rely first and foremost on words, secondly on physical behavior, and this was an exploration how much you can convey through energy, through the eyes. But one thing actors say is that you should be able to perceive a scene with the sound off; it’s storytelling with pictures, after all.”
What was hard to believe, Emmerich said, was how many obstacles the film has faced en route to local screens (it opens Jan. 29). “It was a perfect storm — in fact, one perfect storm after another,” he said. “I’ve never been involved in anything that’s faced so many mishaps.” In addition to many delays, cast changes and production misfires early on, the film’s distributor, Relativity, went into bankruptcy last year, and the film faced a future in distribution limbo.
Enter David Boies, who happens to be the father of “Jane” producer Mary Regency Boies (who is married to Emmerich), and is the lawyer who represented Al Gore after the disputed election of 2000. (He and Bush v. Gore adversary Ted Olsen also joined forces in 2009 to overturn California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8.) Adding to the sense of an intrafamilial crisis was the fact that another “Jane” producer, Zack Schiller, is the son of Boies’ law partner Jonathan Schiller (Boies, Schiller & Flexner), and that the film is now being distributed by two old friends/clients, Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
“We had a real fire drill trying to get the film out of Relativity before it went into bankruptcy,” Boies said, “because if not, it would have been tied up for an indefinite period. And then to get it distributed — a number of studios already had their lineups for 2015-16. Bob and Harvey were all very helpful. I think it was partly due to the fact of my relationship with them. But I think their feelings about the film were also a factor.”
Boies, who is fascinated with the American West and said he might have been a history teacher like his father, said the film has importance because of what it says not just about gender disparity, but Americans’ image of themselves.
“I’m really interested partly because of what an exciting 100 years it was, and in part how much that continues to influence our image of ourselves and who we are as a society and a country,” Boies said. “And I think particularly for that reason, the more realistic an approach we get, the better.”
So much of what happens in Westerns is people being bloody and violent, he said, “and while there was a lot of violence in the West, hundreds of times more people have been killed in the movies than were ever killed in the West.”
The biggest leap, it’s suggested, is how little Natalie Portman from Long Island looks like our image of a pioneering frontier woman.
“There’s a limit to realism,” Boies said with a laugh.
Women add new twists to the Old West
“Jane Got a Gun” is what’s commonly called a “revisionist” Western, even though Hollywood’s been making revisionist Westerns since “Stagecoach” (1939). The fact that Natalie Portman’s Jane Hammond is plucky without being implausible, and heroic without being an Old West superhero, is her personal tweak on the genre. But the following equally unconventional stars made contributions all their own:
Marlene Dietrich, “Destry Rides Again” (1939) It’s unclear now how a German-accented saloon singer named Frenchy wound up in the frontier town of Bottleneck, or why she’s called Frenchy, but Dietrich is the proverbial force of nature in this combination Western/screwball comedy. It also features James Stewart and Dietrich’s legendary rendition of “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” (the inspiration for Lily von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles”).
Jane Fonda, “Cat Ballou” (1965) Lee Marvin won his only Oscar for playing the dissipated Kid Shelleen in this offbeat revenge comedy, but Fonda was great as the slightly tarnished belle of the Old West, a would-be schoolteacher-turned-outlaw gang leader (of a fairly inept gang, it must be said).
Julie Christie, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) One of the more intriguing of American Westerns, it stars Christie and Warren Beatty as the title characters, he a gambler, brothel keeper and reputed gunslinger, she the main attraction/wrangler of talent at what becomes the chief source of entertainment in the muddy town of Washington. One of Robert Altman’s best, with Christie as the most unconventional of Western heroines
Madeleine Stowe, Andie MacDowell, Mary Stuart Masterson, Drew Barrymore, “Bad Girls” (1994) OK, not a masterpiece, but you have to give them credit for making a movie that can be described (and was) as “four prostitutes join together to travel the Old West.” Of course, as a sign that things never change, the original director, Tamra Davis, was replaced by a man (Jonathan Kaplan) and the production was reportedly beset by various miseries.
Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit” (2010) The unnervingly articulate Mattie Ross is one of the unexpected pleasures in the Coen brothers’ remake of the 1969 John Wayne vehicle, which revised not only its source material but the genre. Steinfeld got a supporting actress Oscar nomination and nearly stole the film from the grizzly Jeff Bridges.
— JOHN ANDERSON