The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'True Grit's' academy debut: Guess who didn't get any applause?

December 10, 2010 | 12:18 pm

Jeff_bridges There's nothing like going to the motion picture academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater to see a big awards season film, as I did last night to catch the fancy-dress opening of the Coen brothers' "True Grit." Tiptoeing into the theater, with its big golden statuettes looming on each side of the stage like Easter Island statues, I always feel like a kid who somehow got to sit at the grown-ups' table. A host of the film's stars were there, notably Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who pretty much steals the movie with a knockout performance as an intrepid 14-year-old frontier girl out to avenge the death of her father. Even Ethan Coen was on hand, although I'd always heard the Angeleno-loathing Coens had a clause in their contracts excusing them from ever having to set foot in Hollywood.

The most revealing moment at the screening came when the film's closing credits began to roll. The audience, as is industry custom, remained in their seats, offering applause for the various craftsfolk involved with the film. The Coens got a big round of applause, as did composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Roger Deakins and even casting director Ellen Chenoweth. But when Scott Rudin's producer credit appeared, the theater fell silent, the audience sitting on their hands. Apparently everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend who's been the victim of a Rudin temper tantrum.

As for the movie, it's a total delight, especially in the way it reveals the growth of the Coen brothers, who've gone from smart-alecky satirists to mature filmmakers. "True Grit" has been getting largely positive early reviews, though there has been a disturbing undercurrent of grumbling from the brigade of knuckleheaded Oscar pundits, some of whom seem to believe that the film has too much comic relief to be viewed as a serious Oscar best picture candidate. After the Wrap's Oscar blogger Steve Pond saw the film, he complained that "long stretches of it are so slapsticky that I could see Paramount submitting it to the Golden Globes in the Comedy or Musical category. Some actors, particularly Josh Brolin as the villainous (but apparently moronic) Tom Chaney, are so cartoonish that they seem to have dropped in from an entirely different Coen Brothers movie, from 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' or 'Burn After Reading.' "

The film definitely has its slyly comic moments, but I always find these kind of complaints baffling, especially for the way they denigrate comedy, as if the more laughs a film has, the less seriously it should be considered as a best picture contender. The Oscars, as I've argued before, have largely lost touch with mainstream moviegoers because they end up rewarding only the most rarefied dramas while ignoring crowd-pleasing but well-crafted entertainment. "True Grit" is genuine Oscar material because it's such a stellar example of satisfying filmmaking craft. It never stoops to conquer, which is more than you can say for all of the breathless speculators who pass for Oscar experts these days.  

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld at the academy screening of "True Grit" in Beverly Hills. Credit: Angela Weiss / Getty Images