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Saturday, January 2, 2010

More Kent Ballard - a commentary

Louise Hagan wrote:
> I agree about some of the old movies being very, very good. Casablanca
> is a favorite of mine. I think too many nowadays are formula pics, so
> many car wrecks, so many fights, so many explosions and the story line
> is very weak. And then you have the sex and profanity-saturated ones,
> where the idea is to get as many F words in a line as possible and
> again, story line is secondary. And don't forget the obligatory men
> urinating scene. It's a rare movie now that does not include that. I
> really don't care to see men urinate. However, there are good movies
> made today. Sondra Bullock's recent one, Blindsided (or something like
> that) is one, and Will Smith's Pursuit of Happyness another. When a
> movie today is good, it beats the old ones, IMO, because the acting is
> more natural than in the old movies. I was never a fan of western
> movies, and Strother Martin gave me the creeps. I couldn't watch him.

Just woke up bolt upright from a sound sleep. I do that sometimes. And
this time it may have been your terrible panning of one of America's
finest actors, Strother Martin.

Louise, remember that little girl on "Little House On the Prairie", the
overly prim and proper Olson girl who was always making trouble for the
poor, innocent Engles girls? I never watched the bloody show unless I
was at my Mom's house visiting, then we all had to watch "Little House".
Mom had a thing for that show. Might have had a thing for Michael
Landon, I dunno...

Anyway, I read an article about the young actress who played Miss Olson.
She was scorned in public wherever she went. People hated her and said
bad things to her face and asked her why she was always such a bitch to
the Engles girls, and once a woman actually spat at her. She took to
wearing a disguise when she went out. In the real world, she was just a
nice young woman (girl) who had landed a good acting job and did an
excellent performance at it. But her performance was so real the public
thought she was actually that way, and showed its displeasure with her

Stother Martin was a quiet, affable Southern gentleman who got along
famously with everyone on the set, not only the other actors but the
cameramen, sound people, gaffers, grips, script girls, and caterers.
They say he was as polite--if not more so--to the "little people" than
he was to the multimillionaire Big Name actors and actresses. Had he
ever been cast in a sympathetic role, one where he played a good,
decent, and caring man, he would have been Oscar material. Instead, he
almost became Oscar material for playing what directors always wanted
him to play--a hick half-psychopath who was a nervous wreck and apt to
detonate at any second. And like the young girl who played Nellie Olson,
he was *so good at it* that the general public simply came to believe
that was the real Strother Martin.

However, unlike the young actress, Martin took advantage of this at
times and would "slip into role" when in public and being hounded by
some fan or non-fan, freaking them out and running them off--then
laughing loudly once they were gone. Very few people could play "crazy"
as well as Strother Martin and if he was doing it around me, I'd be
freaked out too. He was just that good.

My favorite rolls he played were not the dangerous nutcases, but the
more-or-less average man who was overwhelmed by forces greater than
himself and became crusty and bitter and cursed humanity under his
breath, swearing that the world was out to get him. I'm thinking here
specifically of his role as the horse trader in "True Grit" and the poor
payroll guard in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". There's just a
slight touch of W.C. Fields in both characters.

I fully intend to age into a Strother Martin-like image as I get older.
Sure, the guy was crazy as a loon (on film) and always seemed to be in
close proximity to both firearms and whiskey, but darned if there wasn't
something also likable about the guy. But I'll never have that squeaky
Southern accent that sounded like it came from the bottom of a corn
liquor jug, nor will I have his fantastic range of facial expressions of
disgust for people who--deservedly or not--always got one in all his

If they were both still around, I'd like to make a movie with some
big-name star and have at least half of it taken up by Strother Martin
and Slim Pickens going at each other. Sure-fire Best Supporting Actor
roles if they'd let me direct them. There is simply no one to take their
places from the stable of pretty boy actors today.

Kent, film critic at large and big Martin fan

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