Thursday, 19 November 2009

Little Big Man, Arthur Penn, USA 1970

I remember years ago reading Faye Dunaway's memoirs, Looking For Gatsby, which then had just been published. Somewhere in them Dunaway, by taking stock of her career, she says that she has three films to her name that are considered classics, referring to Network (USA 1976), Bonnie And Clyde (USA 1967) and, of course, Chinatown (USA 1974). But it occurred to me some time ago that Miss Dunaway was rather modest in her judgement, for (film-)history has been kind to her - and her films. I'd say that her list has at least doubled since her assessment as films like The Thomas Crown Affair (USA 1969) and The Three Days Of The Condor (USA 1972) can now also safely considered to be classics, while the canonisation of Little Big Man happened two years ago at the latest, when Arthur Penn received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Berlin Film Festival.

I must admit, that being someone who despises Westerns, the main reason for me to re-watch Penn's anti-Western was, because I'm an ardent Dunaway admirer. That is, the pre-plastic surgery Dunaway, the Dunaway of all the above-mentioned films as well as Mommie Dearest (USA 1980) which, actually, should also be included in the Dunaway list of film classics for by dint of its succes-de-scandale, it has attained the status of a camp classic. And yes, Dunaway does deliver in Little Big Man, playing the bigot housewife-turned prostitute with conviction, yet with a twinkle in the eye which perfectly matches the tone of Penn's film. As I said above, I don't like Westerns, and that includes those by Howard Hawks and even John Ford. Saying this may well be considered sacrilegious by die-hard Western fans and film historians and fanatics alike, but frankly, their alleged greatness completely eludes me. However, give me any kind of anti-Western, or one that isn't genre-conform, and I'm game.

Little Big Man is one of them, and having not seen the film in a very long time, I'd forgotten its tragic-comic undercurrent, its sheer epic proportions, and just how beautifully crafted and written this story - which is centred around Dustin Hoffmann's character: a sort of Western version of Forrest Gump - actually is. Penn plays with - and makes fun of - many of the genre's long-established clichés and turns them on their head. What struck me, for instance, is the fact that unlike most Westerns from Hollywood's so-called golden age, notably Ford's, in Little Big Man Penn sides with the American Indians, relentlessly portraying their slaughter at the hands of the generals and their armies. But Little Big Man is, of course, very much a product of its time, of a Hollywood on the brink of change, and it is obvious that Penn and his screenwriter, Calder Willingham, intended to avoid any kind of resemblance to the Westerns of yore by turning the genre on its head, which resulted in an - often comic - anti-Western, one that has no heroes, only villains and their victims.

Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffmann in Little Big Man

Little Big Man is available on DVD.