`The Missing' gets Tommy Lee talking

Lots to say about his role in 1880s Western

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

November 27, 2003|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Tommy Lee Jones does not often expound on the art of acting. Tommy Lee Jones does not often expound on anything much, at least not to the press.

But the Harvard graduate (and college roommate of former Vice President Al Gore) was clearly inspired by his latest movie, The Missing, to consider at length what still engages his creativity after nearly 3 1/2 decades of successful acting, beginning with Love Story and extending through an eclectic range of big- and small-screen triumphs. These include The Executioner's Song, for which he won an Emmy, and Lonesome Dove on television; and Coal Miner's Daughter, JFK, The Fugitive (he's got a supporting-actor Oscar from that), Natural Born Killers and the Men in Black comedy blockbusters movie-wise, among many others.

Perhaps it's The Missing's setting - the New Mexico frontier, circa 1885 - that makes this lifelong Texan so happy to gab about it. Maybe it's the complexities of his role - an artist named Samuel Jones who comes back into the life of his resentful adult daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett) after abandoning her decades earlier to live with the Apache - that he feels need explication.

Once Jones gets talking, you realize that, yeah, he has some comments on those subjects. But they're not at all what you might expect him to say. Unlike most actors trying to sell a movie, his thoughts are very carefully considered. And uniquely his.

The obvious first question goes something like: You're a real-life cowboy who owns two ranches, so it must've felt great to make a full-blown movie Western (as opposed to TV's Dove and his own cable-directing debut, The Good Old Boys). The obvious answer is: Heck yeah!

The Jones dissertation is much more interesting.

"Well, I like the good movies, and I don't like the bad ones," he says of what some refer to as the horse-opera genre. "Genre is a literary term to me; I don't easily apply it or find much meaning in the term as it applies to cinema. There have been some awfully good so-called Western movies: The Angel and the Badman, the first Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rooster Cogburn. All those movies have some originality to them, or they did when they first came out, and they are very dear to my heart.

"And there are some real dogs that can be called Western movies," the 57-year-old actor notes. "And you can say that the business has been guilty of racial stereotypes. It's a fact that you can find Western movies where Native Americans do nothing but chase stagecoaches and howl at the moon and look for chances to scalp you. And there are, of course, revisionist Westerns where all Native Americans are kindly grandfathers or dedicated environmentalists, and that's an equally stupid and prejudicial point of view.

"I'm happy that this movie represents all people as human beings. Native people are human beings: They're good, they're evil, they're tragic, they're funny, and their belief system is respected as much as the Judeo-Christian tradition might be. And that suits me just fine; I'm kinda proud of that."

In Ron Howard's film, which was adapted from Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, Sam finds the homestead of his long unseen daughter, who's raising two girls on her own. His motivation is pretty selfish: Sam's been bitten by a rattlesnake and told by Apache wise men that he'd better make amends with his family if he wants to save his soul. Maggie, understandably, wants nothing to do with the deserter.

But when renegade Apaches kidnap the eldest girl, Lilly (Thirteen's Evan Rachel Wood), along with other young women they intend to sell in Mexico, Maggie must team up with the one man who can track them and rescue her daughter - Sam. Along the way, they receive help from friends Sam has made in the Chiricahua branch of the tribe.

These friends converse with Sam almost exclusively in their dialect, a language spoken by fewer than 1,000 people living today - and which Jones studied intensively. One of his instructors was Elbys Hugar, granddaughter of the legendary Apache leader Cochise.

"We were under some time pressure, so I actually had to learn these sentences phonetically - but we did know what they meant, of course, and why," Jones explains. "The first thing you have to do is learn how to make all of the noises that comprise the language. It has, for example, glottal stops and sibilant L's that people who speak languages of European origin find totally foreign. So you have to learn that, you have to learn the words, and then you have to figure out a way to give it expression. The thought of trying to get an audience to laugh at a line of Chiricahua was a real privilege. That was a happy undertaking, and I hope it was successful."

Tell a joke in Chiricahua? This from a man so taciturn he's been presumed to have no sense of humor (he is, after all, Will Smith's MiB straight man) and who has even been quoted in the past acknowledging that.

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