Thursday, May 27, 2010

A long way from Tombstone

Western myth and reality make unusual partners in Blake Edwards’ Sunset (1988), a comedy set in 1929 Hollywood with James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Bruce Willis as silent western film star Tom Mix. Earp and Mix, who become buddies in the film, apparently were friends in real life, and Mix was pallbearer at Earp’s funeral. The film has Edwards’ usual light touch, and Willis and Garner are believable together. The plot is charmingly far-fetched up to (but not including) the point where it simulates not once but twice the shootout at the OK Corral – once on a grand staircase in the Roosevelt Hotel, while the first Oscars are being awarded in a nearby dining room. It’s all supposed to work as a kind of spoof – but it doesn’t quite, and if you’ve never heard of the film, that’s probably why.

As for history, Wyatt was already dead and buried by that night of the first Oscars.
He’d died in January of that year at his home in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, playing Earp as Maverick with a mustache, Garner is his usual congenial self (he’d already played Wyatt in Hour of the Gun, 1967), wearing the same black hat and ribbon tie that has been his trademark in westerns. Earp, who would have been 80, may well have looked as old as Garner did at 60, when he made this film, but he would have had white hair. Arriving and leaving by train in the film, Wyatt seems to still be marshal in Tombstone, when he had in fact left there more than 40 years before. He’s also romantically unattached in the film (and spends a night with Mariel Hemingway with apparently all parts in working order), while the real Wyatt had a long and apparently loving relationship with his wife Josie Marcus.

The character of Tom Mix is drawn a lot closer to the facts. He was, as portrayed in the film, a mega western star and as freely self-indulgent, self-satisfied, and risk seeking as Bruce Willis plays him. He can even dance a mean tango. At 33 when the film was made, Willis makes no attempt to reflect Mix’s actual age at the time – Mix would have been pushing 50 and nearing the end of his movie career, as the movie industry was switching from silent to sound pictures. He was also married, though about to be divorced, to actress Victoria Forde, his fourth of five wives. His way with the ladies, as portrayed in the film, is probably close to factual. Maybe most important, the costuming department puts Willis in the spectacular western outfits and huge cowboy hats he was known for. His horse is also accurately named Tony, and we get to see him do stunts on horseback as Mix himself reportedly did.

Earp was apparently more than a little interested in the movie business. He knew silent western star William S. Hart and met the young John Wayne. It’s ironic that while the cowboy stars made big money, an actual lawman from the West did not become a bankable legend until after his death. Myth trumps reality.

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