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Cinema: Carnival Knowledge

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

BRONCO BILLY Directed by Clint Eastwood; Screenplay by Dennis Hackin CARNY Directed by Robert Kaylor; Screenplay by Thomas Baum

A5 summer finally presses down on America like a hot iron on a wrinkled suit, the public takes to the road for its entertainment—to the drive-in movie and the county fair. Now Hollywood has yoked these forms of warm-weather time-wasting in a pair of amiably naive movies about the men roustabouts and wranglers who provide simple pleasures and thrills for the folks of rural America—and the women who lead them astray.

A phrase like that would ordinarily be accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a sardonic grin. But neither Bronco Billy, the new Clint Eastwood movie, nor Carny, which introduces Robbie Robertson of the Band to the Hollywood fiction film, has so much as a single irony up its workshirt sleeve. They both tell the story of a good ole boy leading his small-top troupe from one tank town to another, juggling dreams of success and threats of eviction, extortion and worse. Add a couple of good buddies, a venal politician or two—and, most important, a little love interest to salt the stew—and the result is a movie that looks to be right out of Hollywood’s golden age, but which seems curiously old-fashioned today. Catch either of these movies at a drive-in, and on a clear night you can see the ’30s, sparkling almost like new.

The only surprise Carny offers the viewer is its relentless ordinariness. A movie that promises, in its first reels, to update Nightmare Alley, the old Tyrone Power sideshow shocker, soon relaxes into a standard triangle tale of love, jealousy and reconciliation. No freaks, no geeks—just two pals and a nymphet with a heart of gold. All that is left is the oldtime star power of the lead performers: Robertson, with his motel-room eyes and a voice like pure nicotine; Gary Busey, strong and lovable behind his goony, gummy smile; and Jodie Foster, poised for a swan dive into young womanhood. Look at Foster’s face now—a fascinating mask of planes, points and dumpling cheeks—and you see her potential for turning into Meryl Streep or Angela Lansbury.

Bronco Billy has only one star, but surely one is enough when he is among the biggest box-office attractions in the world. Here, though, Eastwood plays handsomely against type, replacing his Dirty Harry figure with a good-as-gold rodeo star who refers to his fans as “little pards,” prays for them not to “get tangled up with hard liquor and cigarettes” and hopes his wild West show will make enough money to pay for a ranch “where city kids can come out and see what the West was really like.” He lavishes his kindness on everyone from runaway heiresses to Viet Nam deserters, from one-handed cowboys to pregnant Indians. He is stirred to righteous anger only when a bad guy mauls his best gal or breaks a little boy’s piggy bank. He is too good to be true—except in a sweet-souled dime-novel movie like this here.

A character like Billy McCoy, who makes Rocky Balboa sound as cynical as Céline, has not graced movies since John Wayne’s “Singin’ Sandy” westerns of the mid-’30s. His nemesis turned girlfriend recalls the snooty madcaps of the old screwball comedies. Sondra Locke is no Carole Lombard; indeed, Bronco Billy would have benefited from the presence of a more elegant, less abrasive actress like Jill Clayburgh or Blythe Banner. But Locke strong-arms her way into your affections at about the time Billy wins her over, and by the end of Bronco Billy she has become a part of the family feeling that embraces the cast, the film and the audience.

It was George Orwell who wrote: “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” Orwell was dead at 46; but Eastwood, who turned 50 on May 31, keeps trucking man fully through middle age with the face his movies deserve— sun-burnished, granite-hard, seamed and serene like an outdoor sculpture. His achievement in Bronco Billy, as star and director, is to chisel some emotion and innocence, and a passel of likability, into those features. It is as if one of the faces on Mount Rushmore suddenly cracked a crooked smile. Watching Bronco Billy, millions of moviegoers are likely to smile back. — Richard Corliss

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