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A hero for our time | Chuck's World


I mentioned the actor Sam Elliott in this space a couple of months ago, for reasons I can’t remember. I have affection for any number of actors, some more than others. Elliott is just one.

First things first, though: Sam Elliott is not an icon, or an archetype, or a legend. You can make a case for all three, but Sam Elliott is an actor. Wanted to be an actor, became an actor, stays an actor. He’s made a career out of it.

I feel obliged to note the distinction, if only to point out the obvious: He wasn’t born with that moustache. The now-famous Sam Elliott cameo (e.g., “The Big Lebowski”) created this contemporary Remington portrait of an American … something, I dunno. But whenever they haul Sam out for one of these moments ¬– and they’re usually pretty effective moments – they slap another coat of paint on the statue, and I think it’s a shame.

I’m not saying he’s one of our best actors. But I think he’s a better actor than this iconic crap allows for, so I was glad to see “The Hero” get made. Somebody thought Sam deserved his very own movie, and about time.

Somebody was writer-director Brett Haley, who had cast Elliott in his 2015 feature, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Traveling together with Sam to do promotion for that film, Haley and Elliott developed a closer relationship and “The Hero” eventually came out of that.

I headed out to the mall the other day to see “The Hero,” noticing that it appeared to be on its way out of town after a week or so in theaters. This is the contemporary movie business, disappointing but just business.

A small, quiet film has a fighting chance in today’s market, but that fight is usually called early. There’s always a superhero waiting in the wings, and these sorts of movies often end up being watched on a smaller screen, months or years after the fact. It takes a bigger push these days to get us to go to the theater. What can I say? I like Sam.

I just didn’t like the movie that much. The film is about an aging actor, Lee Hayden, who’s been plugging away for 50 years. He’s been a working actor, although his best role is decades in the past, and he mostly seems to do voiceover work, smoke weed, drink bourbon and watch Buster Keaton movies with an old friend (Nick Offerman, who has some nice moments).

He’s divorced and semi-estranged from his daughter, and early in the movie he’s given an ominous cancer diagnosis. Life has been a disappointment – we get it.

It’s nice that it exists, if only to give us a solid dose of Sam Elliott. We also get to see his wife of 35 years, Katharine Ross (playing his ex-wife in the film), although she’s on screen for maybe a total of 45 seconds and her only direction, apparently, was to frown a lot.

Offerman manages to play a drug dealer and still come across as he usually does, a well of common sense and wisdom about ordinary things. Laura Prepon is physically striking (those eyes) and has her moments, although she’s burdened with character traits that feel tacked on (she likes older men! She takes a lot of drugs! She’s a STANDUP COMIC!).

“The Hero” runs two hours, and I can’t think of a scene that doesn’t include Elliott. That’s a lot of Sam, and at age 72 there’s no movie magic.

He’s a wiry, ropey senior citizen with decades etched into his skin, the years rumbling from his vocal cords, every bass note drawled out under that impressive facial hair.

It also allows us to remember that this has been a long haul. He began acting in his 20s, leading-man looks getting him plenty of work, and eventually found a career. If we can all, maybe, remember specific roles that we can’t seem to forget (for me, it was his laconic, existentially challenged lifeguard in “Lifeguard” in 1976), it might be easy to forget the “working” part of working actor. He’s done a lot, and he’s a better actor for it.

I just wish he’d been given a better movie to act in. What seems to want to be a character study ends up swamped by its own sentimentality and just dumb ideas. It’s not a horrible movie, not at all. It’s just an aim and miss.

Kind of dull. Nice to see Sam. That kind of movie.

And I’m not discouraging you from seeing “The Hero,” or I don’t want to, anyway. I found it a little slow; your results may vary. If you want to catch it in a theater, you might want to hurry.

Particularly if, like me, you’ve become aware that movie stars of our youth, as glamorous as their lives appear, have an expiration date. The actors I admired as a teenager who are still with us are mostly in their 80s and 90s, and most have retired, if sometimes against their will. Elliott turns 73 next month, and seems to be working a lot.

“The Hero” might be his only star turn left, though, and that was worth a couple of hours.

Sometimes good ideas don’t work out as well as we might hope, that’s all. I’m pretty sure Sam Elliott has that figured out by now. The dude knows how to abide.


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