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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Missing McMurtry

by Philip Martin | April 6, 2021 at 3:35 a.m.

A couple of days before Larry McMurtry died, I got a message from a friend who also happens to be a friend of his, giving me a head's up that the sad event was imminent. The author was in hospice; his family was gathering.

The flattering assumption is that I have some kind of connection to Mr. McMurtry. The closest I ever came to meeting McMurtry was planning a trip to Archer City to visit his bookstore. I never made it there, but wandered around his bookstore in Georgetown a couple of times.

Another close call was in 2005 when I went to Los Angeles to talk to Ang Lee about his movie "Brokeback Mountain." McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana had written the screenplay, which began life as a short story by Annie Proulx. While there were all sorts of people associated with that movie made available for our interviewing convenience that weekend--Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Jake Gyllenhaal--none of the writers were around.

There are a couple of reasons for that; the demand for writers would be pretty low among the ilk that typically attends film junkets, and anyone not contractually obligated to shill for a movie would probably steer clear of subjecting themselves to a series of round-table interviews with the likes of us. I once heard a notebook-carrying representative of the Fourth Estate ask Catherine Deneuve what kind of cat she would be were she a kitty.

I've read a fair number of McMurtry's books, though I hadn't religiously kept up with him over the past 30 years or so. Until recently, the last book of his I'd read when it first came out was 1987's "Texasville," the sequel to his 1966 novel "The Last Picture Show."

I don't remember the details of the book so well as I remember my reaction to it; it seemed as funny as one of Dan Jenkins' books but felt a little lightweight after "Lonesome Dove." If I read it again I'd probably receive it differently.

Anyway, one of the reasons our mutual friend might have connected me with McMurtry was because I wrote about Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 film version of "TLPS" a couple of weeks ago, kind of by accident.

I screened the movie for a class because of technical troubles with the DVD I had intended to show and knew it well enough to talk about it for an hour or so without doing any deep last-minute research. After watching the movie again, it was different than it was when I was 12 years old, and the 1951 depicted in the film might as well be ancient Rome to most of us.

It holds up really well. People don't remember how hot Bogdanovich was in the early 1970s; the run he went on with "TLPS," "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) and "Paper Moon" (1973) is remarkable. Maybe not up there with Stevie Wonder's early '70s albums (no American pop artist ever had a better run than Wonder did from 1972's "Talking Book" to 1976's "Songs in the Key of Life") but for a while, Bogdanovich was a genuine American superstar.

Bogdanovich turned around and made a film of Henry James' novella "Daisy Miller" in 1974, which for some reason was met with a lot of hostility (though I prefer it over the Merchant Ivory productions which it anticipated).

Some of that probably had to do with Bogdanovich casting his "TLPS" discovery (and then-girlfriend) Cybill Shepherd in the title role, a role she reportedly desperately wanted to play. Rex Reed made fun of her for telling him she was "born to play the role" of the tragically flirtatious and uninhibited American girl intoxicated with European society.

(Daisy's truculent little brother Randolph, who thinks his hometown of Schenectady is in every way superior to Europe, is played by McMurtry's then 11-year-old son James, allegedly named after Henry James and now the famously grumpy first-rate Americana singer-songwriter. Young McMurtry gets the best line in the movie, when he meets the dandy-ish American expatriate Winterbourne early on: "You live in Europe? Why? What happened?")

Bogdanovich didn't really go bad until 1975's "At Long Last Love," a '30s-set musical which delved into the Cole Porter songbook. It stars Shepherd (again) and Burt Reynolds, neither of whom could sing or dance well. (Kindly Roger Ebert, one of the few critics who didn't actively hate the movie, advised Bogdanovich that before making "further attempts to present Miss Shepherd as a singer, he'd do well to rerun 'Citizen Kane,' particularly the scene of Susan Alexander's disastrous opera debut.")

When I wrote about "TLPS" I mentioned Larry McMurtry, who'd also written the screenplay, but was writing more about the film than the book. And I didn't even make all the points I wanted to make about the film; about how the film had no score but Bogdanovich used the songs of Hank Williams (and also Johnny Ray and Eddie Arnold and others) coming from various jukeboxes and radios to evoke the film's 1951 setting.

I didn't get around to my theory that Duane Moore was the closest character to the actual McMurtry, and that casting charming Jeff Bridges in the role was the only thing that kept Duane from coming off as a irredeemable jerk.

After that piece about "TLPS," my friend Jim Jackson asked me if I'd ever read McMurtry's 1999 "Duane's Depressed," which is the third (of a total of five) of McMurtry's books to feature the character. I've been reading in it for the past week or so.

And it's good, in a sneaky way that doesn't call attention to how sensitive and carefully wrought it is. It's a story of an under-educated but intelligent guy who, having navigated life more or less successfully to a certain point, begins to wonder if he'd missed something, that had somehow gotten away from him while he was busy attending to business and family.

McMurtry felt that way sometimes; I read in one of the obituaries that he went through a long stretch where he couldn't stand his own writing. Anyone who's any good at anything might relate to that.

Reading someone's work is more intimate than shaking a hand or taking a selfie. We still haven't found anything better than that kind of telepathy.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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