An old man makes a long journey by tractor to mend his relationship with an ill brother.
OSCAR Nominee for Best Actor (Farnsworth)
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Most avid film-goers are certainly well-acquainted with the collective body of works of actors such as Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro. Film buffs can casually rattle off the ten or fifteen great roles of such legendary actors’ careers. Yet, every once in a great while, from a single actor lacking binder-busting resumes will come along a performance for the ages. They are the types of roles that make the movie-goer step back and say “whoa! Where the hell did this come from? Who was this guy?”
It occurred in 1999 with the release of “The Straight Story.” This was a Disney picture directed by David Lynch, and one could surmise almost immediately, whether they’ve seen the movie, or have sensed the tone of this piece, that “The Straight Story” is not your typical David Lynch picture. Indeed, that is quite true. “The Straight Story” is magnificent in its simplicity, and it is the performance of Richard Farnsworth that propels this movie into greatness.
Farnsworth was the epitomy of a career actor, having begun his career as far back as an uncredited role in “Gone With the Wind.” In his later years, he was perhaps most recognizable as the wizened old baseball coach in “The Natural” or the sherrif who got blown away by the psychotic Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in 1990’s “Misery.” Yet, it was “The Straight Story,” made in the twilight of a great career, a great life, that cemented Richard Farnsworth’s place in Hollywood immortality.
As I alluded to before, there are many great actors that you expect to deliver solid performances just based on their names alone. Farnsworth was the type of actor who, if one moviegoing pal said to another, “did you catch Richard Farnsworth in ‘The Straight Story’?” the other pal might likely respond “who the hell is Richard Farnsworth?” I promise you, no such ignorant oversights would ever be made again by anyone who’d had the emotionally gratifying experience of seeing “The Straight Story.”
“The Straight Story” is inspired by actual events. It is the tale of one elderly brother in Iowa who hasn’t seen his brother in quite some years. Although close in age, they had a pretty severe falling out some years earlier. The nature of this fallout, and their subsequent inability to reconcile, is gradually revealed to us throughout the movie, and it is done so in a way that doesn’t leave the information feeling as though it has been spoonfed to us, the viewers. Indeed, through subtle, brief dialogue, and distant, faraway gazes, the necessary backstory is told to us almost seamlessly.
Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, younger brother to Lyle. They come from a very large family, and by this point in their lives, they have either become estranged from or merely grown apart from their many, many relatives. Alvin lives in a small Iowa town with his adult daughter, Rose. Rose is a bit on the slow side and is portrayed in a wonderful, understated performance by Sissy Spacek. They are content in their lives, with one looking after the other.
Then, a series of minor events are multiplied by the rapid succession with which they occur. Alvin suffers a bad fall in his home. His doctor calls for double hip replacement, but Alvin refuses and takes to getting around with two canes. As he’s recuperating, Alvin receives word that his brother, Lyle, has suffered a serious stroke. Alvin is resolved to go see Lyle, despite the fact that Lyle lives nearly 300 miles away in Wisconsin. After great contemplation, Alvin decides to hop on his riding mower and ride the 300 miles to Mt. Zion. Alvin’s friends, pastor, neighbors and even his daughter are dubious and concerned that he’s not going to make it three miles on his mower, let alone the three hundred that he must traverse – over steep hills and through dangerous valleys – in order to reach Lyle’s place.
Still, Alvin departs, and despite the perils he faces, Alvin seems relaxed and at ease. However, the outward display of confidence is undermined by the fear, uncertainty and worry that percolate just below the surface. But the journey is on. Alvin encounters many colorful and diverse characters on his painstakingly slow journey. A trip in the car that would take one afternoon will take, Alvin calculates, about six weeks on his riding mower.
One such character that Alvin meets along the way is a teenage girl that has run away from home during her pregnancy. Alvin convinces the runaway that she still has a lot of folks that love her back home and that are just worried about her. Come morning, she has gone her separate way, but not before leaving Alvin a thank you note of sorts.
Later in the trip, Alvin meets up with a group of young cyclists who are completing a very long journey on their bicycles. One of the bikers asks Alvin what’s the worst part about growing old, and Alvin painfully replies, “it’s remembering when you were young.”
Alvin has made this arduous journey on his own. To be sure, he had plenty of friends, neighbors and fellow parishoners that would’ve driven him the three or four hours to Mt. Zion, but Alvin always insisted that this was a trip that he had to make on his own, and on his own terms. It was a trip that was intended to be redemptive and reconciliatory. He knew that most of the folks he attempted to explain this to would simply fail to comprehend its meaning, but Alvin, like Lyle, was nearing the end of his rope, and this trip was his way of setting things right before darkness fell forever more.
As he continued his painstakingly slow drive east from Iowa into Wisconsin, Alvin continued to meet unique individuals along the way. There was the woman who hit a deer with her car, who then bellowed that she hits about a deer a week on this desolate road. When his mower broke down, Alvin spent a couple nights camped out in some kindly stranger’s front yard. Even as his mower was in the shop, Alvin went down to the local saloon with a fellow WWII vet, a man about Alvin’s age. Alvin ordered a milk, citing the “mournful” taste for liquor he’d acquired coming home from the war. The two men drank in near silence, until one broke into a heart-wrenching story from the war that left both men in tears. This is the raw emotion and the simplicity with which it is demonstrated that tugs at the heartstrings of any viewer of “The Straight Story.”
As Alvin resumed his travels and crossed the Mississippi into Wisconsin, we, the viewers, could sense right along with Alvin that the end was within sight. We just had a feeling he was going to make it to Lyle’s place on time. Alvin spent his last night camped out in a cemetery. The preacher came out and sat with Alvin around the campfire. The two spoke at length about mortality, about what it meant to have a brother so close to one’s own age, and so on. Alvin chokes up, and there remains not a dry eye in the house, as he expresses his deepest, most secretive plea to the unknown priest – “whatever it was that made us so mad, it don’t matter anymore. I want to sit with my brother and look up at the stars, like we used to do, so long ago.” Alvin turns his misty eyes skyward and stares up at the stars.
Finally, Alvin arrives at Lyle’s shack – literally a shack – in the Wisconsin woods. He calls out to Lyle several times before he gets a reply. Surely one thought races through his mind during those brief delays that must feel like hours – “he’s gone, he’s gone.” Then, Lyle finally emerges from the front door, and Alvin unleashes a sigh of relief unlike any seen before. The two brothers sit in the gathering darkness and stare up at the stars, like they used to do, so long ago.
“The Straight Story” succeeds because of its simplicity and not in spite of it. The movie, in fact, is rated G, and I’m sure this was unintentional. The picture just stood up on its own remarkable merits and needed no sensationalism or gimmickry to make it a critical achievement. Sissy Spacek delivered a great guest-starring turn as Rose, the diminished-capacity daughter. And Harry Dean Stanton, in his cameo as Lyle Straight, didn’t disappoint. His contribution to every movie Stanton is in helps add heart and realism to whatever character he’s playing or picture he’s acting in.
Ultimately, however, it is Richard Farnsworth’s performance that leaves the audience breathless and gasping for air. He played Alvin with a quiet grace and dignity that can only come from an actor who is short on time and has one last, great contribution to make. Tragically, Farnsworth was drawing at least in some part from his own condition. For you see, Richard Farnsworth was dying of cancer even as he shot the movie. His facial suggestions, grunts, groans, and labored movements – even getting on and off the riding mower – were genuine and not acted out. Farnsworth was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar this year – eventually losing out to Kevin Spacey for “American Beauty” – but it was Farnsworth who really deserved the win.
The cinematography, captured by Freddie Francis, was breathtaking, showing us the autumn of northeast Iowa/southwest Wisconsin. The accompanying score by Angelo Badalamenti was at times uplifting and at times gutwrenching. Everything came together perfectly.
Tragically, “The Straight Story” was Richard Farnsworth’s final feature length movie. As I stated earlier, Farnsworth had been diagnosed with cancer even while filming the movie, so the pain and the labored movements and trouble breathing weren’t much of an act. That was Richard Farnsworth. Richard Farnsworth died on October 6, 2000, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The pain just got to be too much, and few people, unless those who have actually been there themselves, can understand such pain. I remember watching Jay Leno that night it happened, and as he made the announcement, Jay Leno himself broke into tears. It was perhaps the first and last time I saw such a thing. But such was the influence that Richard Farnsworth had on those he met. In that regard, he was just like Alvin Straight, his character in “The Straight Story.” Those who knew him never forgot him.
I would, in closing, invite anybody that hasn’t yet seen “The Straight Story” to rent or even just buy it immediately, for I guarantee that you will want to view it many times over. It is just a beautiful movie that reminds us, in its simplicity, that we are all human, we are all mortal, and we all have within us the ability to defy the odds and do something amazing for the ones we love.