Flickchart Road Trip: Oklahoma
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-klahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain! Where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet…
Actually, the song is pretty accurate — there has been both sweeping wind and sweet wheat as I’ve left the Texas panhandle and crossed into Oklahoma, OK. (I’m not just repeating the state name in its postal abbreviation — that’s also part of the song.) I remain on Interstate 40. I’m staying smack dab in the middle of the state in Oklahoma City, which now boasts one of the finest professional basketball teams in the country, the Thunder. Like me, the team has been on the road almost the entire month of January, but I did catch them at home against the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night. The Thunder won by 17.
Speaking of attending live events, if you’d been in a suburb of Boston exactly 25 years ago this summer, you could have seen me in a live performance of the stage version of my Oklahoma movie, which is, indeed, Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 musical Oklahoma! (global ranking # 3368). I played “Ado Annie’s Pa,” and I remember having a line about filling someone’s rear end full of buckshot. As the movie (and the show in general) is pretty much the pride of the state, I had no trouble renting the DVD in the first video store I tried.
What it’s about
This adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical, with music by Richard Rodgers and book by Oscar Hammerstein, concerns two Oklahoma farm girls and their four suitors on the day leading up to the box social dance. It’s the first decade of the 20th century, and the settlers in the territory have divided between farming the land and herding cows. Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones) has eyes for cowboy Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae), but she misinterprets his teasing style and accepts an invitation to the dance from brooding farm hand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger) to spite him. Meanwhile, cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) returns from a profitable trip to Kansas City, where he won (but then squandered) the $50 his girlfriend’s father says is necessary to marry her. Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame), the aforementioned girlfriend, has also been carrying on with non-commital traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert) — though her father will get him to commit if he and his shotgun have anything to say about it. Both love triangles undergo a number of reversals as the big dance approaches.
How it uses the state
The title says it all, and then adds an exclamation point for good measure. The film opens on a shot of corn stalks (“as high as an elephant’s eye,” according to the song “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”), and then tracks through them into an open shot of the Oklahoma prairie. You’re never less than fully aware where you are after this warm sense of place has been established.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Oklahoma movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Oklahoma! will battle:
1) Thelma & Louise (1991, Ridley Scott). My Flickchart: #157/3404. Global: #1685. Perhaps the most unlikely film in Scott’s filmography is also one of his best. Thelma & Louise is no simple story of female empowerment; it’s a story of rough, imperfect human beings who happen to be women, capable of great strength and intelligence as well as tragic recklessness. The teaming of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis makes one of the most dynamic female duos in cinematic history, and we relate to them effortlessly. When an abrupt act of violence interrupts their vacation and forces the two women on run, Oklahoma is their jumping off point on a quest to get to Mexico — a quest made more problematic by Louise’s refusal to go through Texas due to a trauma in her past.
2) Bug (2006, William Friedkin). My Flickchart: #552/3404. Global: #4004. Considering that Tracy Letts’ play (which he adapts here for the screen) takes place almost exclusively inside a motel room, the setting of Bug could really be anywhere. It so happens that this motel is in rural Oklahoma, and it hosts the descent toward madness of two people who may or may not be suffering an infestation of microscopic bugs. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon give their all and then some in this claustrophobic psychological horror that never releases its grip on the viewer. Friedkin and Letts proved a fruitful collaborative team, reuniting on Killer Joe in 2012.
3) Rumble Fish (1983, Francis Ford Coppola). My Flickchart: #867/3404. Global: #1649. Francis Ford Coppola made critically acclaimed passion projects (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) and for-hire schlock (Jack, The Rainmaker), but Rumble Fish falls somewhere in between. This adaptation of the S.E. Hinton novel about the gangland culture of restless Tulsa youth is shot in avant garde black and white, one of many choices that made the movie lauded by critics (eventually, after they initially didn’t know what to make of it). It’s something of an enigma, but it provides a great showcase for a number of young actors who would go on to prominence, among them Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn and Laurence Fishburne.
4) Twister (1996, Jan de Bont). My Flickchart: #2568/3404. Global: #2453. Jan de Bont’s encore to Speed was to make another blockbuster with another plum summer release date, this visually impressive film about tornadoes tearing up the Oklahoma countryside and the storm chasers who chase them. The movie was a financial hit and received some recognition from critics, but more of them chided the overriding brainlessness of the story. For most viewers, the lingering image of Twister may be the bovine projectile that a dumbstruck Helen Hunt greets simply by saying “Cow,” following a moment later with “Another cow.” “I think that’s the same one,” says an equally dumbstruck Bill Paxton.
5) Drive Angry (2011, Patrick Lussier). My Flickchart: #3350/3404. Global: #6443. Nicolas Cage’s lesser of two movies on this list is considerably lesser. Cage’s recent film choices would probably tell you that anyway, but if not, here’s the plot: Cage plays an undead criminal who broke out of hell to save his daughter from a murderous cult, all while steering clear of pursuing satanic minions. The film’s main novelty was that Lussier shot it in 3D — a novelty that was lost the moment nobody saw it in the theater, instead opting to watch it ironically on DVD. The scenes that marginally qualify it as an Oklahoma movie involve Cage meeting Amber Heard‘s waitress at a diner and shooting up a motel room full of bad guys without pausing from sexual intercourse.
First duel: Oklahoma! vs. Rumble Fish. The rumbling youths don’t need their switchblades and pool cues to take the cast of Oklahoma!, but that advantage does make the duel even more lopsided. Rumble Fish wins.
Second duel: Oklahoma! vs. Twister. Curly McLain and Will Parker can at least keep their cows earthbound. Oklahoma! wins.
Oklahoma! finishes fourth out of the six movies.
Watching Oklahoma! made me marvel at just how many of its songs crossed over from the show to popular consciousness. Achieving widespread familiarity were “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” (featured in a memorable scene in When Harry Met Sally …), the title song, and possibly several others. Whereas the average person would be lucky to name even one song from most musicals, the fact that I was familiar with the rest seemed to deepen that impression. Then I remembered that, duh, I was actually in the show once.
Unfortunately, that’s kind of all Oklahoma! has going for it. I was shocked it ran for two hours and 25 minutes, because there’s almost no plot to this thing. It’s unclear how such copious amounts of celluloid can pass without the characters even really getting developed. One love triangle (Ado Annie/Will/Ali) exists solely as comic relief, so it’s not surprising that those characters remain one-dimensional. It’s the main love triangle that’s so problematic. We’re clearly supposed to root for Curly to win the hand of future Partridge Family mom Shirley Jones as Laurey. Yet Curly’s bizarre method of getting his rival, Jud, out of the picture is to try to tempt the man toward suicide. That can’t be correct, can it? Oh but it is — Curly makes his way back to Jud’s dwellings (which are festooned with pictures of naked women) and induces him into the duo “Pore Jud is Daid,” in which Curly nefariously tries to sell the simpleton on the idea that his funeral would be a grand occasion where everyone would turn out to honor him. As nastily as Steiger’s Jud behaves for the rest of the movie, I couldn’t shake the idea that Curly’s malicious manipulation was the kind of thing society had been doing to Jud for years, bullying him into becoming who he had become. If you’re thinking this is an odd line of discussion for a purportedly sunny and cheery musical, you’re just proving my point. I’d rather be discussing the great choreography (there isn’t much) or the clever exchanges (they’re not very clever) than getting bogged down in why the characters don’t work.
One easy way to cut 20 minutes would have been to forgo the extended ballet sequence in the middle. Think I’m kidding again? I’m not. Two professional dancers, credited as Dream Curly and Dream Laurey, participate in an interminable dance number that dramatically interprets their love triangle. Because not much actual dancing is required of him, Steiger plays Jud in this sequence. It’s odd to say the least, and interrupts whatever momentum the film had going.
Nonetheless, it’s still better than Twister.
As I continue to point my wheels east, Arkansas is next on the schedule. There I’ll be watching the hit movie War Eagle, Arkansas. It’s not really a hit, and in fact, you’ve probably never heard of it. The pickin’s are a little slim when it comes to movies set in Arkansas.