Richard Farnsworth was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in
The Straight Story (1999). At the ceremony, few people knew that the
79-year-old star of the Straight Story was dying from cancer. In October
of the same year, Farnsworth decided to take matters into his own hands
and killed himself with a shotgun.
The Straight Story is about an old man determined to visit his sick
brother. For Alvin Straight it's not an easy journey. He doesn't own a
car. He has no money. Straight's assets are a riding lawn mower, a trailer
and a lot of grit. The film serves as a kind of cinematographer's dream,
where the director (David Lynch) lets the story unfold visually at the
same pace as the development of the major character. We are often
privileged to see the American landscape beautifully photographed without
the distraction of dialog.
If any of this sounds boring, The Straight Story isn't just a travelogue.
Alvin also encounters wonderfully written characters. In arguably the most
powerful scene, a young pregnant woman happens upon Alvin's campsite one
evening. She ran away from home. Alvin explains that if you take a thin
stick, you can easily break it in half. If you continue to break the stick
in half, you are left with a bunch of sticks that you can no longer break.
That, says Alvin, is "family." The scene might have failed miserably
without Farnsworth in the lead role.
Farnsworth was an unlikely Hollywood star, and The Straight Story is an
unlikely success. The actor began his career as a stuntman in 1937. Until
the end, Farnsworth was proud of his abilities as an (often uncredited)
horseman in popular westerns. I don't think he ever sought the spotlight,
but Farnsworth started to get better roles in the 70's and early 80's that
included his Oscar nominated role in Comes a Horseman and a critically
acclaimed performance in The Grey Fox. Most movie fans recognize
Farnsworth as Wilford Brimley's assistant manager in The Natural, or, as
the Sheriff in Misery.
When the Straight Story was filmed, Farnsworth had an amazing wrinkled
face. I'm reminded of a Woody Allen film, where a young woman says that
"old faces are nice faces." Farnsworth had deep crags in his face that
told more about his character than any words could. The Straight Story was
more than a swan song for Richard Farnsworth, it decisively placed him in
the upper tier of American character actors.
I also must give credit to director David Lynch. I've accused him of
directing the worst film of all time (Eraserhead). He also ruined Frank
Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune. However, I applaud Lynch for The Straight
Story and for selecting Farnsworth as the lead.