Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ a small-town triumph
Imagine what a movie showcasing an ordinary, lukewarm existence might look like. One without mobs or crooked cops and the only color in the characters’ lives is the blue on their collar. Worse still, life is totally ordinary and you live in Billings, Montana. Your great romantic tragedy is a Billings, Montana girlfriend calling it quits because you’re unsure about a Billings, Montana marriage. She’s pushing 250 lbs. You’re content selling Bose speakers in Billings, Montana to “Ja-neece, not Janice” and your physically and socially mangled father convinced you to drive 850 miles because of a promotional scam. Then you drive back to Billings, Montana.
But Nebraska is welcome proof that not every movie demands glorified escapism found in storied timepieces, fluorescent boxing rings and Ryan Gosling. Grounding films that don’t titillate our grandiose visions of a sexy, high-flying fantasy where we’re permanently 32 and going to dinner parties with 40 of our closest friends, or defending Father’s honor by slaying a Smaug with hellfire swords. What about the simple, the archaic, the white bread? What about the stripped down story of people being people? There is a home for the acoustic version, and as the great sushi maestro Jiro says, “There is purity in simplicity.”
Illuminating the subtle details of human framework is a tough skill to hone and a tougher one to sell. Even with his stellar resume, Alexander Payne had some trouble getting the measly $13 million to fund Nebraska, an unassuming movie with immense gratification. Pitching a screenplay about a washed-up alcoholic Korean War vet driving from Montana to Nebraska wouldn’t exactly scream goldmine, and adding his black and white plans for the film certainly didn’t help. But Payne had long wanted to make a black and white movie; in fact he says most of the movies he watches are in black and white. “Chroma” as he calls it, allowed Nebraska’s colors of human honesty to shine through without the distraction of a color scheme pulling from the more subtle senses. Employing non-actors as well as actors for added authenticity, they shot the route – from Billings to Lincoln – in less than six weeks.
Nebraska is a film that appreciates the subdued spots in life, the no-glitz all-salt moments. It’s a place in our hearts everyone knows, whether it’s visiting a great uncle with hearing problems and a 1960 RCA TV or remembering how your grammy pronounced “fooleeshness.” There are only more of those moments to come as the years go by, and a reminder to celebrate the tender silences of egg salad and Miracle Whip sandwiches is appreciated. Nebraska brings us home. It’s also relentlessly funny.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an 80-something malcontent with a passion for trucks, sauce and brevity, is hell-bent on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a notice for a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. “We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana,” he reads with stubborn pride to his youngest son David (Will Forte). He keeps the winning letter in his front shirt pocket at all times, bearing his dentures to anyone who tries talking him down from his pre-hatched million dollar throne. But his wife (June Squibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) aren’t interested in entertaining Woody’s naïve delusions (“They can’t print it if it isn’t true!”), so nourishing his father’s wide-eyed hopes of a new truck and new air compressor with cash to spare falls on David’s hesitant shoulders. An impromptu visit to Hawthorne along the way, his parents’ hometown, paves the way for father and son to reconnect … kind of.
A known Payne mantra is that 90 percent of directing is casting, and that percentage really held up its end of the deal. What Forte and Dern lack in on-screen chemistry is made up in the fluidity of and devotion to their performance. It’s not easy for actors to downplay their acting, but you won’t find grand demonstrations of dramatic emotions or outrageous situational gimmicks in Nebraska because they aren’t called for. We’re undersold, which is what closes the deal. Forte drops a couple gleefully sarcastic one-liners to curb tension, but for the most part MacGruber keeps the funny business to a minimum. The revered Stacy Keach as Woody’s boyhood frenemy doles out his usual powerhouse prominence, and Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role. Squibb as Woody’s harping wife Kate, the self-described “only sane one in this family,” delivers a hoot of a performance, combining endearment and raunch with minimal effort.
One scene, however, garnering a fair amount of attention has her visiting family headstones at a cemetery with Woody and David, gossiping about the late loved ones’ more regrettable qualities. All light and harmless until, while standing over the headstone of a man she claims (as she often does), wanted to get in her knickers, she pulls up her skirt and hollers about what might have been.
All right, I get it. How fun, how silly coming from a cute old woman. And had intuitive subtlety not reigned supreme in Nebraska, the gratuitousness of the scene might not have bothered me. But looking at that scene, then looking at the sensitive acting and directing footwork of David with his dad at the car lot, for example, I felt the chumminess didn’t quite belong. It’s morsels like the disarming “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody!” and the damaged “I was there” after Woody is asked about a family loss that epitomize the integrity of Nebraska. It shows a trust in the audience that far too few movies do. The spectacularly candid scene in Hawthorne with the extended family men watching football, humming lazily about the ’79 Buick a brother used to own is another one of many that celebrates the honesty in mundanity.
“Those cars never stop running … what happened to it?”
“Yeah … They’ll do that.”
I’ll just say it, this is one of my favorite movies in a long time. There’s an almost therapeutic quality to it – watching the pair drive down long stretches of black and white road, not saying much; listening to gray-haired Hawthornians talk foot afflictions and court-ordered community service; reveling in Woody’s laughably indignant nature brought on by decades of drinking. (Fortunately he’s not drinking anymore, though. Beer ain’t drinkin’.)
Its patience is calming, and its heart is pure. Amid the Secret Ron Burgundy of Wall Street Hustle, don’t let this one get away.
Theater: A little ‘Fiddler’ on the Montana prairie
“Fiddler On the Roof” opened on Broadway more than 40 years ago this month. The show, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, was instantly popular, won numerous Tony Awards and has been successfully revived numerous times, but for me and members of my high school production, it was our introduction to a world beyond our small Western town.
I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana. When I started high school, we moved to “town,” specifically, Billings, an overgrown cow town on the banks of the Yellowstone River that boasted two small colleges, an oil refinery, stockyards that competed with the refinery for foul smells, and a handful of Jewish families. Some were well-known to me — Harold “Shorty” Alterowitz, who coached college sports, was originally from Brooklyn and was said to have fought in Israel’s War of Independence. He once told my mother that he moved to Montana to get away from all the other Jews. The Rosenbergs were a couple who looked curiously alike — deep olive skin, large expressive eyes and slicked-down wavy hair. They ran a barbecue place called the Pig Pen, down by the stockyards. After they moved away, someone heard that they were really cousins from Chicago, and “Negroes” to boot, who’d run away to get married and start over. That they picked “Rosenberg” as their new identity was a testament to their naiveté; that no one remarked on it was a testament to the lingering code of the Old West: Don’t ask too many questions. And then there was Dr. Al Small and his two sons, Andy and Paul. As a 17-year-old girl, I was too wrapped up in my own self-involvement to notice any one else.
Back in the 1970s, calling yourself a “Christian” wasn’t the doctrinaire statement of personal salvation and faith that it is today. Billings had a number of well-attended churches, and unless you were a Mormon, people didn’t pay much attention to which one you went to or didn’t go to. Roman Catholics were usually Irish or Italian with lots of kids who ate fish sticks on Fridays; Episcopalians belonged to the Book of the Month Club and the Yellowstone Country Club; the rest of the Protestants kept any spiritual enthusiasms to themselves. My own parents never thought twice about anyone’s religion, probably as they had none of their own. I sporadically went to Sunday school at First Presbyterian to flip my hair in the direction of the minister’s cute son.
On the other hand, people regularly talked about “Jewing someone down” when they bought cattle, cars or just about anything else. My father didn’t use that term — he always cautiously said “Negro,” too. He’d been stationed in the Aleutians during the Korean War, and he never forgot Ben Fine, the New York doctor who got him through a near-fatal case of pleurisy. For the rest of the town, Jews were known to be very good at making money, to have killed Jesus and to live in New York and Hollywood, where they ran the newspapers and made all the movies.
My high school was a large yellow-brick edifice built under Title IX, and boasted a state championship basketball team, a respectable number of National Merit Scholars and a tyrant of a music director, Russell Creaser. Mr. Creaser not only managed to terrify his students into performing in a variety of musical ensembles including an a capella choir, he also bullied the administration into funding a lavish musical production every year. When I was a senior, after the triumphs of “Most Happy Fella” and “The Pajama Game,” he chose “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The story of a small rural town grappling with rebellious young folk, changing times and an external enemy was easily grasped by the cast, crew and faculty. Even Billings had been touched by the upheavals of the Vietnam War, youth culture and — as the local paper regularly editorialized — the Russians had long had us squarely in their bomb sights.
Mr. Creaser liked musicals with large casts, and with about 1,000 kids in school “Fiddler” was a good pick. We had singers, we had dancers, we had cows, we had carpenters — what we didn’t have was anyone who knew about Judaism. No one in the senior class was Jewish. One kid in the whole school was Jewish, and he couldn’t sing.
Enter Dr. Small. Billings had a synagogue — Congregation Beth Aaron — but ecumenical community outreach wasn’t a priority. Rabbi Horowitz wasn’t a particularly glad-handing kind of guy, and the ingrained anti-Semitism of the preceding decades had taught most synagogue regulars to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Dr. Small had moved to Billings in the early 1950s and taught literature at the same college my mom taught political science. He was a barrel-chested man with curly dark hair, and as an “eligible widower” was considered very attractive by most women. He never lacked for baked goods. Somehow, he was recruited to teach the cast how to be Jewish. I spoke to him recently, and he recalled the first meeting: “Kosher — the kids knew pickles were kosher, and that was about it.”
He added “You all were ignorant, but an ignorance born of innocence. I could work with that.”
His older son, Andy, had already graduated but told me that his father was glad of the chance to teach the cowboys and cheerleaders about the joys of Yiddish. Raised in New York, Dr. Small was the red-diaper baby of union activists who shunned most traditions and practices. He’d been wandering in the wilderness of the Far West since leaving the Army, so enlightening the sons and daughters of the goyim about Shabbos and schnorrers was a mitzvah. He had the cast practice out loud, savoring the Yiddishisms in the script. And he started every class with jokes of the “priest and a rabbi go into a bar” variety.
Through the weeks of rehearsal, Dr. Small managed to work easily alongside the cantankerous Mr. Creaser — gently pointing out small points of stagecraft or suggesting inspired bits of schtick. Under his scholarly suit jacket beat the heart of a vaudevillian. He patiently worked with our Tevye and Yente, teaching the language of sighs and shrugs. He danced all the parts for the wedding scene, explaining why the men and women danced apart. He explained why Chava’s marriage to a Christian was so devastating for Tevye. He encouraged us all to ask him anything about Judaism — no question was too elementary — even the ones that today would be considered insensitive or even boorish.