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In the opening scene of Cliff Robertson's modern-day western J.W. Coop (1972), we learn two things about the title character: he's a cowboy and he's in prison, winning top honors in a rodeo hosted by the very calaboose where he's been incarcerated for the past eight years. Now he's reached the end of his sentence, and while the warden is sorry to see his top rider leave for a moment it looks like he won't let J.W. out the door soon our hero is back in the outside world, eager to regain his place as a rodeo champ but nervous about how much the bronco-busting scene has changed during the time he was away.
The story that grows from this premise is as direct and plain-spoken as J.W. himself. In a sense, it's hardly a story at all just a series of incidents and episodes that director-producer-cowriter Robertson has arranged along a simple narrative line. After leaving prison he visits his crazy old mother, runs into some friends from bygone years, and gets hold of a broken-down car that might hold up long enough for him to enter a few rodeos. Unfortunately, the car turns out to be as uncooperative as the calves he wrestles in the rodeo ring, and when he gets a traffic ticket for emitting too much pollution, it's easier to ditch the vehicle than figure out what the cop is talking about concern about pollution is one of the many things that didn't exist before J.W. went to jail.
Hitchhiking is the same as ever, though, and while he's thumbing rides J.W. meets a hippie girl named Bean who takes a liking to him. Soon they're a couple, and Bean stands by her man as he starts a long, hard return to the heights of the rodeo circuit. Here too J.W. finds a lot of changes he needs to understand and adjust to fast. Ten years ago, guys competed in rodeos for love of the sport, and if you made a living while you were at it, that was icing on the cake. Now everyone thinks about money, money, money, which means scrambling for high scores and nailing down any endorsement deal that moves.
The most successful member of the new breed is Billy Hawkins, a gifted young cowboy who's bought a private plane so he can zoom to more rodeos, contend in more events, and pile up more dollars than his earthbound counterparts. He's basically just a whippersnapper, but his competitors can't help admiring the talent, audacity, and sheer energy that's made him famous. Billy is the man J.W. has to beat, and before long the two are in a neck-in-neck race for top honors. Adjusting to the new style of high-speed competition, J.W. starts earning and acting like a star buying his own plane, growing a bushy mustache, staying in hotel rooms that make up in bad taste what they lack in homey comfort. Can he keep up this pace forever? What if he gets sick, injured, or exhausted? Will the loyal Bean stay by his side or realize that hippies aren't supposed to live this kind of life?
Summarized this way, J.W. Coop sounds like a fast-moving adventure, and many of the rodeo scenes do provide intensive bursts of action you won't forget in a hurry the sight of an average-sized man riding a humongous bull that is not happy about the situation is riveting by any standard, and in slow motion it's even more amazing. Yet the most striking thing about the picture is its focus on character, atmosphere, and mood rather than dramatic events and pulse-pounding suspense. Robertson's faith in the importance and authenticity of his subject recalls the Italian neorealist doctrine that the best way to make powerful cinema is to put the real, everyday world onto the screen with as few distractions and diversions as possible. It would be a stretch to compare Robertson with Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica, but you could almost call J.W. Coop a neorealist film, or maybe a neo-neorealist film. It has that kind of unforced honesty and conviction.
J.W. Coop was released in 1972, when Hollywood was still affected by the explosion of new styles and approaches that started in the late 1960s, producing the innovations and experiments of Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and other adventurous auteurs. J.W. Coop doesn't wear its boldness on its sleeve, but it definitely marches to its own drummer, and it's hard to imagine Robertson getting it made in any other period. This is especially true of the ending, which is so dramatically unexpected and cinematically stunning that any present-day studio would throw the script out the window before taking such an enormous narrative risk.
Robertson spent two years writing J.W. Coop, interviewing rodeo riders as part of his research, and then shot it on locations across the United States including McAlester State Prison in Oklahoma, which holds the real-life event billed as the world's largest rodeo behind prison walls in a quick thirty-five days. The airplane material must have been particularly easy for him, since he's a lifelong amateur pilot. He claimed that he created the screenplay himself and used just isolated bits of dialogue by two writers he hired, but the Writers Guild felt otherwise, ruling that Gary Cartwright and Edwin Shrake should also receive screen credit, which they do.
J.W. Coop features many nonprofessional actors, especially in the scenes filmed at real rodeos with cooperation from the Rodeo Cowboys Association, and the Washington Post reported that about sixty percent of the performers were appearing on screen for the first time. Except for Geraldine Page, who plays J.W.'s mother, the professional actors worked for minimal fees to keep the budget down. Page, who overacts as usual, didn't merit the special treatment, and Marjorie Durant Dye spoils a few scenes as a loud-mouthed rodeo woman, but most of the cast is excellent. Standouts include Cristina Ferrare as Bean and Dennis Reiners as Billy Hawkins, as well as Robertson himself, who is utterly convincing in the dramatic scenes and does some of his own bull riding too. This was clearly a labor of love for him, and his meticulous care makes the movie shine from beginning to end.
Director: Cliff Robertson
Producer: Cliff Robertson
Screenplay: Cliff Robertson, Gary Cartwright, Edwin Shrake
Cinematographer: Frank Stanley
Film Editing: Alex Beaton
Music: Don Randi, Louie Shelton
With: Cliff Robertson (J. W. Coop), Geraldine Page (Mama), Cristina Ferrare (Bean), R.G. Armstrong (Jim Sawyer), R.L. Armstrong (Tooter Watson), John Crawford (Rancher), Marjorie Durant Dye (Big Marge), Paul Harper (Warden Morgan), Bruce Kirby (Diesel Driver), Mary-Robin Redd (Bonnie May)
by David Sterritt