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Cinema: Plain Song

3 minute read

Plain Song HONKYTONK MAN Directed by Clint Eastwood Screenplay by Clancy Carlile

Here is what Red Stovall has: a numerous family whose farm is turning to dust, an inexplicable Lincoln convertible, a guitar, an invitation to audition for the Grand Ole Opry and a case of tuberculosis teetering on the brink of the terminal.

Here is what Red Stovall does not have: money, smarts or any reliable ability to keep that fine car out of the ditch or even on the right side of the road, especially all the way from Oklahoma to Nashville for his tryout.

Here is what Red Stovall needs: to make one last run at elusive immortality, or, anyway, wider recognition than he can get singing in roadhouses and passing the hat. He could also use a driver who can keep both him and his car on the straight and narrow until he can keep his appointment with a modest destiny. Seems as though his nephew Whit, a skinny boy of 14, but watchfully wise for his age and an ace wheelman, might fill the bill.

Out of such simple materials and a plot line that stretches toward the horizon as direct and uncomplicated as an old county trunk blacktop, Clint Eastwood has fashioned a marvelously unfashionable movie, as quietly insinuating as one of Red’s honky-tonk melodies. It is a guileless tribute not only to plain values of plain people in Depression America, but also to the sweet spirit of country-and-western music before it got all duded up for the urban cowboys. As both actor and director, Eastwood has never been more laconic than he is in this film. If it reminds one of anything it is neither Dirty Harry nor Every Which Way but Loose, two of Eastwood’s most popular pictures, but Bronco Billy, although it disdains the farce and romance of that underappreciated movie.

The pair’s adventures on the road (accompanied most of the way by John Mclntire, playing Whit’s grandpa) are more in the nature of inconveniences than high drama. There are encounters with a cranky bull and a mean-minded con man who owes Red money, an interlude in a cathouse, and, most persistent, a girl named Marlene (Alexa Kenin), who has all the spunk she needs to become the singing star she dreams of being. Too bad she can’t carry a tune.

That’s all right, though. It is persistence, rather than big talent or bold-stroke heroism, that Honkytonk Man wants to celebrate. If there is a certain amiable reserve about the way the movie states the knothead’s case in its early passages, that only makes its conclusion the more gripping. For by the time Red and Whit make Nashville, Red is too sick to appear live on the Opry. His last chance to leave a legacy is to cut an album of his songs, and he almost literally sings his lungs out doing it. If there are any people left who doubt Eastwood’s accomplishment as a screen actor, they had better come around for this lesson in underplaying a long, strong scene. It is obviously a skill he imparted one way or another to his costar. As Whit, Kyle Eastwood plays a boy the way his father plays a man, with a sort of uninsistent integrity that wastes neither words nor emotions. In a season when everyone suffers the tyranny of the sentimental, one feels a special gratitude for people who do not know the meaning of the word cute.

—By Richard Schickel

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