Screen cowboys are generally tight-lipped men of action — think the stoic resolve of Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. But with the rise of Method acting in the ’60s, the strong and silent archetype gave way to tortured gunslingers with conflicted motivations. Yes, the technique that would later induce Robert De Niro to pack on 50 pounds for Raging Bull and Daniel Day Lewis to restrict himself to a wheelchair for My Left Foot led to a new era of psychological realism in Westerns. Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson were just two actors who led the way as they mounted horses, strapped on spurs, and roamed the American West… despondently. Who did it best, you ask?
Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, The Missouri Breaks (1976)
are plenty of stories floating around about this movie’s production,
most of which center around Brando
catching grasshoppers in his off
hours and eating a live frog. Not kidding! But a lot of the quirkiness
is there onscreen: Brando speaking in an over-the-top Irish accent, and
wearing a dress, to start. They all add an interesting flavor to this
oddball Western, in which Nicholson, compared to his idol and later
work, looks positively restrained.
Dennis Hopper, Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
Hopper had early supporting roles in True Grit and Giant,
but his first big starring role in a Western came much later as Mad Dog
Morgan. In this Western, Hopper delivers a manic, scenery-chewing
performance that befits the name of his character. After being thrown
in prison, tortured, branded, and much worse, Hopper sets out for
vengeance in this Australian bushranger movie that turned out to be
eerily reflective of the tumult going on in the actor’s personal life.
Warren Beatty, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Later on in his career, Beatty managed to rid himself of the brooding, young-actor posing that sabotaged his performances in movies like Mickey One. Nowhere is the new-and-improved Beatty more in evidence than in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s classic deconstruction of the Western. Altman’s vision brings a refreshing brutality and realism to its frontier tale, and Beatty’s shaggy dog performance — the polar opposite of the tough-guy posturing of John Wayne — makes the Wild West look new again, if not exactly a place where you’d want to spend much time alone.
Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man (1970)
Hoffman’s laid-back performance, reminiscent of his turn in The Graduate,
is a perfect foil for this idiosyncratic story that’s largely about
demystifying the West. From Custer’s Last Stand to living as an Indian
to trying his hand at gunslinging, Hoffman becomes a sort of Forrest Gump of the frontier, spinning a tall tale that runs its way through many Western myths and shines its ironic light on them all.
Jack Nicholson, The Shooting (1967)
Nicholson plays a charismatic killer in this countercultural Western
from director Monte Hellman, who later brought existentialism on the
road with Two Lane Blacktop. Along with a band of miscreants,
Nicholson rides out on a portentously vague manhunt through spooky,
dread-filled environs. Pairing well with Nicholson’s menacing
performance is an avant-grade ending that would likely cause John Ford
to vomit and Quentin Tarantino to launch into an apoplectic fit (the
latter of which it probably has).
Marlon Brando, One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
While at one time Stanley Kubrick was attached to direct One-Eyed Jacks,
and none other than Sam “Kill ‘Em All” Peckinpah penned a draft of the
script, the director’s reins eventually passed to the hands of its
star, Marlon Brando. As an actor, Brando could make something as simple
as lighting a cigarette exciting, but the exploratory style of the
mesh well with the rigors of directing. (The production schedule more
than doubled under his watch.) All the same, this moody Western has
gained a cult following over time for its raw performances and edgy
storyline. And that scene with Brando’s outlaw, raving drunk in the
street? Some careful research with a bottle ensured it was 100 percent
Paul Newman, The Left-Handed Gun (1958)
This modern reworking of the Billy the Kid story envisions the legendary gunslinger as a troubled youth who emigrated to Lincoln County from the mean streets of New York. If the movie plays like Rebel Without a Cause set in the Wild West, it’s not by accident: James Dean was originally slated to do the picture before he passed away. Paul Newman amiably fills in for Dean and gives an impassioned performance as the fatalistic Kid, amping up the psychological confusion of the character. Along with Missouri Breaks and Little Big Man, this film was directed by Arthur Penn which goes to show that we may have more than the actors to credit with the awesomeness of all three.