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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Rick Perry biopic watch: Which actor can fill his cowboy boots?

August 15, 2011 |  3:57 pm

Rick Perry has swagger, backbone, core convictions and a killer instinct -- but who can play the movie version of the Texas politician?

As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it today, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's now running for president, is "the conservative id made flesh." He's got swagger, backbone, core convictions and a killer instinct. In other words, he's another bigger-than-life Texan, somewhere between John Wayne in "Red River," Paul Newman in "Hud" and Larry Hagman in "Dallas."  

When a new out-sized politician shows up on the national scene, it's always tempting to try to  imagine who could play him in a movie, the way Josh Brolin handled George W. Bush in "W" and John Travolta did Bill Clinton (disguised as Jack Stanton) in "Primary Colors." With Perry, who grew up in the hardscrabble West Texas town of Paint Creek before becoming a yell leader (translation: male cheerleader) at Texas A&M, it would have to be a real Texan.

More importantly, if you know anything about Texas, it would have to be someone who understands the brooding restlessness of the flat lands of West Texas, which has been the locale for so many terrific movies, including "The Searchers," "Hud," "The Last Picture Show," "Tender Mercies" and "No Country for Old Men."

There are a whole lotta Texans in show business, but most of 'em are what we might call modern Texans--folks like Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson, T-Bone Burnett, Rick Linklater and Tift Merritt, who are just as sophisticated as any high-brow types from the Upper East Side or Beverly Hills. Even if Perry could probably name a few tunes by local boys like Willie Nelson and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, he's a throwback to the kind of breezy self-made hustlers from "Dallas" and the rough 'n tumble cowboys who populated a lot of Larry McMurtry's early novels. Perry would be right at home with big-hat Texans like natural gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.   

With that kind of natural-born bluster, Perry would be easy to caricature, especially in the hands of some unsympathetic Hollywood liberal. But I think the one actor who could capture Perry without turning him into a cartoon figure would be Tommy Lee Jones. He's a few years older than Perry, but he has the right kind of physicality to play the governor, who like a good actor has a knack for taking over a room.

Jones grew up in West Texas himself, where he still has a couple of big ranches. And he has the same kind of roughneck charm that seems to have made Perry an instant hit on the GOP presidential circuit. Would Jones ever do it? Perhaps not. After all, despite his Texas bona fides, he was also Al Gore's roommate at Harvard and a longtime supporter of Democratic causes. But Jones has the same kind of Texas orneriness that led Perry to once flirt with the idea of seceding from the rest of the country.

No one is as ornery as a long, tall Texan, so I expect that we're going to be seeing a lot of Rick Perry over the next year. Politically, I'm no fan of a governor who has presided over a state that's dead last in a bunch of education categories--like kids who've earned high school diplomas by the time they're 25. But no one should underestimate Perry. Like him or not, he's a lot like the character Jones played in "Lonesome Dove"--he's one tough hombre.


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--Patrick Goldstein  

Photo: Texas Gov. Rick Perry on his first presidential campaign trip to Iowa at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images