Hearts of the West
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If ever a picture was aptly named, it's Hearts of the West, Howard Zieff's valentine to the fondly remembered B-movie Westerns of the 1930s. Whereas most films that examine the movie industry inevitably turn into indictments, screenwriter Robert E. Thompson takes a much gentler approach. You get egotism and backstabbing in Hearts of the West, but it's all delivered by such likable characters, and with such a gentle nudge, you're charmed rather than appalled. No wonder the movie has developed a cult following over the years.
Jeff Bridges stars as Lewis Tater, a guileless Midwesterner who dreams of becoming a writer of Western novels. Against his father's wishes, Lewis journeys to Nevada, where he plans to attend a writers' correspondence school. Unfortunately, the "school" turns out to be a series of post office boxes, and the owners (Anthony James and veteran character actor Richard B. Shull) never expected any applicants to show up in person. After all, it's a correspondence course. When the two shysters try to rob Lewis in his cheap hotel room, he takes off with their car, which (though he doesn't know it yet) contains the money they've swindled from would-be students.
Lewis soon ends up wandering the desert, where he's picked up on horseback by Howard Pike (Andy Griffith), an actor in low-budget Westerns. Howard takes Lewis to the set of the picture he's working on. There, Lewis watches an arrogant director named Kessler (Alan Arkin) inexpertly stage a fight scene. He also meets Miss Trout (Blythe Danner) a sexy script supervisor who finds his sweetness endearing. Things are finally looking up for Lewis.
Upon returning with the crew to Los Angeles, Lewis lands a job as a stunt man with the production company. His journey into a romance with Miss Trout, a friendship with Howard, and growing success as a third-tier cowboy star will occasionally be interrupted by the crooks, who are still after him for their money. He also writes his first novel, a purple prose melodrama called Hearts of the West. This all leads to a satisfying, if contrived ending that unashamedly pulls some heart strings. Still, you can't help but like this sweet little movie, that avoids broad slapstick while serving up a subtler brand of humor.
Though Hearts of the West barely made a dent at the box office, the film, and Bridges in particular, received excellent reviews. That's always been the case for Bridges, who's become one of the most consistently effective actors in American movies while seldom appearing in a major hit. It's somewhat astonishing to look back at how many great performances he's given: Fat City (1972), Bad Company (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, Cutter's Way (1981), Starman (1984) - his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, The Big Lebowski (1998)...the list goes on as he enters his 32nd year as a lead actor. Don't be surprised if Hollywood one day wises up and gives him a lifetime achievement Oscar.
Bridges, of course, knew a great deal about the film industry before he ever became a leading man. The son of Lloyd and the brother of Beau, he made his screen debut at age four months in The Company She Keeps (1950). He later made several appearances on his father's hugely popular 1960s TV show, Sea Hunt. Though he was nominated for an Oscar straight out of high school for his turn in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), he claims it wasn't until he appeared in a film version of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1973) that he began to take acting seriously.
Hearts of the West producer Tony Bill had also been around for a while by the time the picture started shooting in 1974. He began his career as an actor, appearing in such films as Come Blow Your Horn (1963), You're a Big Boy Now (1966), and Ice Station Zebra (1968). He never quite reached leading man status, however, and wound up having greater success as a producer. He even won an Oscar for Best Picture for The Sting (1973). Hearts of the West, the follow-up to that classic film, may not have walked away with any awards, but it's a genuine "sleeper" that certainly compliments Bill's resume.
Directed by: Howard Zieff
Screenplay: Robert E. Thompson
Producer: Tony Bill
Art Direction: Robert Luthardt
Cinematography: Mario Tosi
Editing: Edward Warschilka
Music: Ken Lauber Costume Design: Patrick Cummings
Principal Cast: Jeff Bridges (Lewis Tater), Andy Griffith (Howard Pike), Blythe Danner (Miss Trout), Alan Arkin (Kessler), Donald Pleasence (A.J. Nietz), Richard B. Shull (Fat Man), Anthony James (Thin Man), Frank Cady (Pa Tater).
by Paul Tatara