Phallus idols

Nobody's Fool and Legends of the Fall peddle icons of masculinity

Nobody's Fool ends with a dedication to Tandy. Alongside this graceful note, you can't help but feel the film's a tribute to Newman as well, still very much with us but in need of a new guise suitable for his septuagenarian status.

He has found it in Russo's character and Benton's movie--an old-timer who can still call on his charm, wit, and virility as life approaches last call. In short, the kind of man found only in the movies. But that's why we need legends like Newman--to embody our romantic visions at every stage of life.

No other young actor in the last five years has capitalized on his looks the way 25-year-old Brad Pitt has. Indeed, after surveying the blur of magazine covers, you're startled to recall that Pitt made his first (and rather brief) film impression less than four years ago as the skinny hitchhiker stud who conned Geena Davis out of her panties and pennies in Thelma and Louise.

On a rapidly accelerating cafeteria line, moviegoers have been served endless Pitt. We've seen him emoting through a series of mediocre star-maker projects--as the ironic pouter (in the little-seen, edgy comic trifle Johnny Suede); as the aw-shucks, ne'er-do-well, fly-fishing pouter (A River Runs Through It); as the pouting, spitting hayseed serial killer (Kalifornia); and as the noble, effete, pouting bloodsucker (Interview With the Vampire, a film that used far too much anemic Pitt and far too little Cruise).

The problem is, Pitt doesn't emote nearly as well as he pouts--even though the two are, for him, often inseparable. Still, to be fair, snide insults about the young man's acting ability are premature. He has the raw materials to develop into a talented leading man--a lanky, good-natured ease with his own body, and a big-hearted enthusiasm for scenes that require him to express powerful feelings.

But as Interview With the Vampire demonstrated painfully, he doesn't know how to handle the quiet moments. He can capitalize on his bubble-lipped, preadolescent face only so much longer, and then Pitt's going to have to find some nuance in his roles to justify the time and money we spend watching him parade through so many vanity flicks.

The silly, one-dimensional Legends of the Fall only adds to the overriding impression given by Pitt's career--too much, too soon.

There's nothing wrong with star vehicles, providing they service a star of proven ability. But director Ed Zwick is shameless and clumsy in his adulation of Pitt's character, a reckless-as-the-dickens, wild-souled wanderer who shares an intense attachment with his brothers (older Aidan Quinn and younger Henry Thomas) and his father (Anthony Hopkins) in early 20th-century Montana. Pitt gets no less than three full-orchestra entrances--two of which, for those dim audience members who didn't catch how at one he is with nature, occur amid a herd of wild horses.

He falls in love with his youngest brother's fiancee (Julia Ormond), also the object of Quinn's more veiled affections. Presiding over this predictable (and, by film's end, extremely bloody) triangle is patriarch Anthony Hopkins, bestowing the bluster of a benighted Great Actor to mediocre material.

All four male leads share an affinity for American Indian philosophy that bludgeons us with its good intentions. Gordon Tootoosis, the actor who plays Hopkins' faithful, non-English-speaking sidekick, is used as a handy repository of wisdom, but never voices an opinion about anything. His name might just as well be Tonto for all we get to know about him.

Indeed, Zwick and company can proudly say they've contributed to contemporary cinema its first American Indian version of Steppin Fetchit--in one scene, Tootoosis dances around the corpses of two of Pitt's adversaries, swinging his blade through the air to the delighted laughs of his Anglo comrades. The narration goes: "I wanted so bad to collect scalps that day...but they were not my kill."

Legends of the Fall has all the worst narrative contrivances of a TV mini-series, most notably the rushed, hysterical quality given to each turn of the plot. The artistic reasoning seems to be this--because these are the highlights of a whole lifetime, every single moment must be made a revelation. It doesn't help that James Horner's gelatinous musical score is heaped on every scene like layers of fat, and the viewer must constantly cut through it.

Another false note is the actors' uniform good looks. It's a fact someone discovered early on and used as an excuse to coif and manicure them into mannequinhood. They look too scrubbed in their costumes, too composed to be enduring the constant hardships thrown at them by the screenplay. Pitt, Quinn, and Thomas end up looking as strained and corseted as Julia Ormond, who's forced to weep a lot and stand by helplessly while all the vaguely homoerotic fraternal power struggles play out.

The many problems that sink Legends of the Fall can't all be attributed to overzealous star-making. Ed Zwick cut an impressive balance between battlefield action and camp-fire intimacy in his Civil War tear-jerker Glory. But Legends of the Fall covers a much wider space geographically and emotionally. Zwick is unwilling or unable to shift moods, so he delivers everything from a kiss to an angry confrontation at a stampede pace.

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