'Little Jo' throws a post-feminist curve into the familiar Western

MOVIES

September 17, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Ballad of Little Jo"

Starring Suzy Amis and Bo Hopkins

Directed by Maggie Greenwald

Released by Fine Line

Rated R

*** Just when you thought you'd seen it all, along comes a new set of hyphens to redefine the possible. Here's Maggie Greenwald's "The Ballad of Little Jo," the first post-feminist Western.

It could have been so dreary; instead, "Little Jo" is a richly amusing and satisfying movie that is attractive not because it inverts the conventions of the genre but because it also honors them.

You've seen the story before: Young tenderfoot goes West, falls in with rough characters, becomes tough and self-reliant, buckles on a gun, becomes a man. Starts his own spread. Lives free and clear, dies happy. Is this a great country, or what?

That's this story, too, except that the tenderfoot is a woman. She becomes a man etc., etc.

No, I mean that literally: becomes a man.

Loosely based on an authentic but enigmatic episode, it chronicles the life and times of Josephine Monaghan, born in society somewhere in the mysterious East, who broke one of the rules. You know, the one about waiting until you were married before getting pregnant. There's no mercy for unwed mothers in that time and place, and so after delivering her child, in disgrace Jo heads West.

But in this bleak and brutal zone, Jo soon tumbles to an elemental truth: to be a woman in the West is to be either a wage slave or rape bait. No other opportunity exists, and for a bit of time, as she's betrayed and nearly victimized, the film comes on like a standard atrocity catalog on familiar feminist themes such as All Men Are Guilty of Something.

And so it is that Jo, played by the sprightly, spirited Suzy Amis (who was so good in "Rich in Love"), puts on trousers and starts to walk with a swagger. And so it is that she enters male society, and though finding it crude and cruel she also finds it somehow necessary.

The key figure here is the great old Peckinpah discovery Bo Hopkins, too long absent from the screen. Hopkins is in the John Wayne role and it's a grace note of the film that although she initially despises Hopkins' Frank Badger, she comes in some way to respect his decency and courage and manliness and understand that those virtues aren't ipso facto evil.

In fact, there comes a time Little Jo and Frank Badger find themselves with Colt Hoglegs on their hips and Winchester saddleguns in their hands, facing bad boys, in obedience to the most ancient of male rituals. More, the ritual is invested with moral significance. Jo has learned what Gary Cooper and John )) Wayne already knew: Sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, no matter how provisional his/her grip on "masculinity."

Stylistically, "The Ballad of Little Jo" is in a Western subset called "snowy weather Westerns." The great snowy weather Western was Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and I doubt this one would exist if that one didn't. Still, Greenwald, like Altman, has a real feel for the austere beauty of the muddy, frozen tundra of the prairie and the landscapes a-glisten with white stuff and just vibrating with the chill of the cold. It's far from "Shane" country and it's far from heroic myth. But it's real and affecting, just like the movie.

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