I have been a fan of Richard Farnsworth’s work since I first saw him in 1980’s Resurrection. His portrayal of Esco, owner of a funky gas station in the middle of nowhere, won Ellen Burstyn’s admiration and mine. I loved him in The Grey Fox (which, for some reason, isn’t available on DVD – or even VHS), and as Red Blow―the affable coach in The Natural, singing along with Wilfred Brimley in the dugout.
And so it comes as no surprise to learn that I loved him in The Straight Story; one of the few bio pics with a heart.
Richard Farnsworth had one of those marvelously well-lined, character-driven faces that photographers love to capture on film. He projected an image that was both gentle and genuine, and like Sinatra, he was extremely adept at phrasing.
He began his movie career in the 1930s, working as a stunt man in a series of iconic pictures like A Day at the Races and Gunga Din, and later, took on uncredited acting roles in much-loved classics like Gone With The Wind, Red River, The Wild One, The Ten Commandments and Spartacus. Later credits included a comedic turn as the sheriff in Blazing Saddles and far more serious roles, such as that of a slave catcher in Roots.
The Straight Story would be the last of his three hundred-plus credits, but certainly not the least. Cast in the lead role, he starred as seventy-three-year-old Alvin Straight, who in 1994, set out on an extraordinary six-week odyssey to visit his ailing brother.
The fact that this is a true tale makes it all the more remarkable. Brought to the screen by producer Mary Sweeney, who co-wrote the script along with John Roach, it is one of those special films that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
Directed by Sweeney’s long-time partner, David Lynch, it is the story of Alvin and Lyle Straight: two brothers who, in 1984, fought a fight fueled by anger and pride and far too much alcohol. Things were said that were hard to retract, and even harder to forgive, and so the brothers, who had been extremely close all their lives, went their separate ways.
The film picks up their story a decade later, when, after a sobering visit to the doctor, Alvin is forced to come to grips with the fact that time is no longer on his side. Learning that Lyle has just suffered a life-threatening stroke, he is overcome with the need to put pride aside and make peace with his brother before it’s too late.
Far from a wealthy man, Alvin hasn’t the wherewithal to hop on a plane and make the 240-mile trip from Laurens, Iowa to his brother’s home in Mount Zion, Wisconsin. With aging eyes, and an unforgiving body that has him falling to the floor more often than not, he is no longer able to drive a car, or walk without assistance. But Alvin is determined to make the trip on his own, if not by car, then by tractor.
And so he takes to the road on a 1966 John Deere, after a false-start on an even older tractor. The bulk of the movie follows him over the course of six weeks, as he makes his way down the highway at a break-neck speed of five miles an hour, the tractor pulling a make-shift trailer filled with little more than a blanket, a couple of rusty folding chairs, an ice chest full of beef jerky and hot dogs, a change of clothes, and a few basic necessities.
As Indian summer turns to fall, we watch Alvin deal with the elements, the tractor’s and his own short comings, while touching the lives of the people he meets along the way.
I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled this role off―not in such a natural, truly believable way. Whether Alvin makes it to Lyle’s, and if so, if Lyle is still alive and wiling to reconcile when Alvin gets there, is certainly part of the story, but not at the very heart of it. For this is a character-driven film. And over the course of some 110 minutes we will get to know the man behind the wheel, and what has brought him to this place in time.
We’ll also get to know his daughter Rose, (thoughtfully played by Sissy Spacek), who has had more than her fair-share of heartbreak, and rightly worries that her father and his tractor aren’t up to the trip.
While, like many true stories adapted for the screen, some names (including that of Alvin’s brother) have been changed, characters melded, and events merged or created for a variety of reasons, The Straight Story remains a purposefully small film, and is all the better for it. Shot, in sequence, along the same highway that the real Alvin Straight traveled, it is a simple tale, told simply and beautifully.
To this I add a small caveat, Upon coming to a scene involving a distraught driver who unintentionally hit and killed a deer, I chose to fast-forward past it, even though I knew that no animals were harmed - let alone killed in the making of the film. That doesn’t mean that you should do the same, or keep you from renting or buying what I believe to be an exceptional piece of movie-making.
Richard Farnsworth would receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the seventy-three year old traveler, and rightly so, especially when you realize that he was battling bone cancer at the time, his inability to walk unaided, required no acting on his part. That he believed enough in the film’s message to take on such a demanding role, is a tribute to him and to Alvin Straight, who passed away in 1996. According to one source, a mower much like the one he drove to Iowa, led the funeral procession to the cemetery. Way to go, Alvin.
For Richard Farnsworth, there came a time in 2000 when he could no longer live with the unrelenting pain of his disease, and opted out. But if anything, this last work is a testament to life: a heart-warming, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting look at the power of love; family and the kindness of strangers.