August 3, 2017

"YEAGER SURVIVES":

THE LOOK AND THE VOICE: ON SAM SHEPARD'S DEFINITIVE PERFORMANCE IN "THE RIGHT STUFF" (B.J. Bethel, August 2, 2017, Balder & Dash)

"The Right Stuff" is often called a historical epic, but it's a film that defies labels, just like its star, actor-playwright Sam Shepard, who died last week at 72. Based on New Journalism pioneer Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury 7 program and the early days of the space race, the movie mixed a satire of patriotism with a rugged individualistic sensibility that has been both esteemed and parodied. This combination of elements was never again captured onscreen. It worked because of Shepard's portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager, which embodied the mysterious quality alluded to in the title of Wolfe's book. [...]

"The Right Stuff" is one of the great movies of the 1980s. The cast is impeccable, the script and direction by Philip Kaufman are up to the task, and the score, by Bill Conti of "Rocky" fame, is one of the best of its era. But it's the story of Shepherd's Yeager that secures "The Right Stuff" a spot in America's film canon. Shepard's Yeager is stout, his chemistry opposite Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager is just about perfect, and his interplay with The Band's Levon Helm as Yeager's best friend Jack Ridley is palpable: the two look and sound as if they just walked in off the taxiway into the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

Shepard's performance as Yeager put to film one of humankind's great achievements, juxtaposed with a storyline that was also a metaphor of the end of the West. In Wolfe's account, translated to the big screen by Kaufman, the rugged element typified by Shepard was polished out of the Mercury 7 program. This marked the end of the frontier not just as a historical event (that had already happened at the end of the 19th century) but as a way of living and thinking. And it happened, ironically, just as America was reaching for the greatest frontier of all. Countless classic westerns, including "Shane," "The Wild Bunch," "The Shootist," "The Gunfighter" and "Unforgiven," have all dealt with this theme, to varying degrees. It is embedded in the genre itself. But not many movies have conveyed it as viscerally as "The Right Stuff," which extended the idea of the end of the West into the mid-20th century and showed it playing out through the space program, the media, and the characters' personalities. Shepard's Yeager was the heart of it all. The character didn't change, but the world around him did.

Posted by at August 3, 2017 3:57 PM

  

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