The Straight Story

 


 

Jurassic Mark

SCORE: 3 Stars


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.