Liz Smith: Sam Shepard’s Compelling “Blackthorn” — A New Western Classic?

Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard

And more from our Gossip Girl: Have Sam and the divine Jessica Lange split?

“I AM so nervous. My English is stupid. Maybe it’s better you just watch the movie and we have drinks later!”

Those were the brief and charming remarks of director Mateo Gil, introducing his new movie, “Blackthorn” last week at Cinema 2 in Manhattan.

The packed audience gave him a huge, grateful round of applause. If you’ve ever been to one of these screenings, you know that the director, producer, stars and various others will get up and bore the audience to death with superfluous remarks. As these screenings generally start late, nobody much wants to hear remarks of any kind.

And it was an unusually full house, coming as it did on the Jewish New Year holiday. Peggy Siegal, who presided over the event, wasn’t too happy to be working that night, but the screening couldn’t be changed. In her gray ballerina-type dress and adorable little flat shoes, she scurried around the theater, re-seating her favorites, meeting and greeting, Knowing All. However, the size of the crowd surprised her. “Not too many devout Jews in New York tonight, I see,” she remarked at one point.

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LATER, after the screening, the crowd thinned out a bit. Had to, because the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served at the charming, but small Desmond’s on East 60th Street. Among those gobbling sushi, salmon, lamb sliders, spring rolls and cupcakes were actors, artists, media types, and NYC staples including: Michael MailerGregg BelloMagda and Ed BleierDuncan SheikLois SmithHolly MilleaScott Currie … The Warren HogesPeter Tunney.

One of the handsomest men at Desmond’s was Bryan Batt, most recently of “Mad Men.” He is also beloved as the “Cats” chorus boy in the stage and movie versions of “Jeffrey.” Bryan — quite trim and gym-fit — has allowed his hair to grow into striking salt and pepper. And he has cut it short. He has never looked better. Bryan said, “I’ve never in my life made a decision that so many people fought me on, as my hair color. All my friends said, ‘Don’t let it grow in!’  Even my mother. She passed away not long ago, and she was against it too, at first. I think maybe she just didn’t want to accept that she had a gray-haired son!” (Bryan wrote a wonderful memoir about his mom, She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother). Bryan, a New Orleans native, has a new book out, Big Easy Style: Creating Rooms You Love to Live In. Mr. Batt wisely has cultivated talents other than acting. It is always good to have a fall-back career.

Also on hand was Darren Bagert, who is producing the big tribute to Ralph Lauren at Lincoln Center on October 24. Oh, you know, the one where Oprah will interview the famous designer, onstage? This is a big, big deal. It has already raised $7 million for Ralph’s breast cancer foundation. The evening will include mini film clips in-between the Oprah and Ralph chat, and a spectacular fashion show, featuring 44 models. They will be snatched up from all over the world for this very special event. Darren says, “I spend a lot of the time on the phone with them, while they talk. I don’t say much. I just listen — I feel like a fly on the wall, even though they know I’m there — and I get better ideas of how the show should present Ralph. He’s actually terribly shy and humble.”

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OH, YES — the movie! Well, “Blackthorn” is a fascinating, ravishingly photographed coda to the fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It is set in Bolivia, where Butch (who now calls himself Mr. Blackthorn) has lived in exile even since he and The Kid vanished and were presumed dead. Sam Shepard plays the aging Butch, who is determined to return to the U.S. All he wants is peace and quiet, but that is not in the cards. He meets a younger man — a bandit himself — (Eduardo Noriega), who turns Butch’s plans upside down. This has to be the role Sam Shepard was born to play. There is a stillness to his performance that is mesmerizing, even in action sequences. Shepard himself says that “This the first time I felt completely calm in front of a camera.” Noriega is terrific as the troublesome young Spaniard, and Ireland’s Stephen Rea appears to great effect as the lawman who once pursued Butch and Sundance. He is rather surprised to find the old coot alive in Bolivia!

The camerawork is crisp and stunning. Shot on location, you’ll be surprised at the beauty of a dry salt lake. What was most fascinating about “Blackthorn” is that it is a daylight-drenched Western noir. Certainly the story is lifted right from Raymond Chandler — disaffected anti-hero, lured to perdition (or close to it) by a mysterious stranger, who has several tales to tell. Shepard is Bogie in “The Big Sleep” or Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past” or Dick Powell in “Murder My Sweet.” Noriega is Lauren Bacall, or Jane Greer or Claire Trevor. The film is not perfect — unnecessary flashbacks and an unsatisfying freeze-frame ending that doesn’t wrap up neatly and resembles the end of a cheesy TV movie — a startling mistake, given the evocative camerawork that drives the rest of “Blackthorn. But the overall slow-motion power of the film — and some quite amusing and profane dialogue –trumps these failings. I predict big cult status.

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HOWEVER, the news of the night, gossip-wise, was the non-appearance of Sam Shepard’s longtime companion, the great actress Jessica Lange. Mr. Shepard attended the event with producer Heather Ray. She has been a Sundance Film Festival fixture for years and is very friendly with the actor/playwright/musician.

The word is, after more than 20 years, Miss Lange and Mr. Shepard have parted ways. Not that anybody asked Shepard. He is hardly the type to confirm or deny it. (Neither is Miss Lange, for that matter.)

But forget Demi and Ashton, if Jessica and Sam are really apart, that is an epic event on the domestic landscape of showbiz relationships!

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Everyone should get the DVD of Jessica Lange in Grey Gardens – a movie of last year.  Can’t get it out of my mind.  She has been with Sam Shepard for so long, we forget she has a daughter — one that just graduated from a small college on Vermont — and has her daughter with Mikhaail Baryshniknov who has already graduated from a wonderful small college in Vermont.  She has gotten into photography big time — and I’ve been following her as she has an exhibit of quite some size in Spain right now.  IF she and Sam do part, she pretty much has a good life for herself . . . but let’s hope it is wrong. 

  2. avatar Count Snarkula says:

    I thought Jessica Lange was in LA shooting some supernatural horror TV series.  Totally agree with Joan:  the HBO version of “Grey Gardens” is not to be missed.