Monday, July 20, 2009

Dance with a Ranger; Johnny Depp and "Donnie Brasco" Director Break Out the Silver Bullets

It's been reported that director Mike Newell is in talks to direct a new movie about the Lone Ranger for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. This news confuses us. We go far enough with Newell that we will always think of him as a specialist in dark-toned, downbeat British films such as Dance with a Stranger, The Good Father, and An Awfully Big Adventure. That last one has a title that sounds kind of fun until you remember that it's Peter Pan's description of what death must be; even Newell's big romantic comedy hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, had a funeral in it. It's not the kind of resume that one associates with high-spirited Western action, but Newell was allowed to direct a Harry Potter movie that Guillermo del Toro couldn't fit into his busy schedule, so apparently that makes him Howard Hawks. The big casting news about this picture concerns not who's playing the Ranger, but Johnny Depp's eagerness to play his faithful Native American sidekick, Tonto. Leaving aside the question of whether Depp intends to go traditional with the "Me Tonto, you kemo sabe" business or attempt something more multiculturally cutting-edge, there's the fact that his previous collaboration with Newell, Donnie Brasco, was a gangster movie that nobody has ever described as frolicsome.

The thing is, we've been here before. 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a heavily touted fiasco that, in attempting to revive the character, succeeded only in dumping mountain load of dirt on the heads of his resuscitators. It was directed for maximum pomposity by William Fraker, an artist best known as a cinematographer, though he had already directed Monte Walsh, a grotesquely depressive Western that seemed to run for half the lifetime of it dazed star, Lee Marvin, and that was lit with a 30-watt bulb. Fraker's Lone Ranger movie was most notable for the tsunami of bad publicity that hit it when the Wrather Corporation, which owned the rights to the character, sicced its lawyers on Clayton Moore, the actor who had played the Ranger on television, and who the company wanted to prevent from showing up at any grocery store openings in his die mask and cowboy hat. The company won in court, but in the process reaped more bad karma than Caligula. Some of it hit the new Lone Ranger, a fellow named Klinton Spilsbury, whose performance so dazzled the suits that they had his entire performance re-dubbed by the uncredited James Keach. Lone Ranger was Spilsbury's acting debut, and since he never got work again, he has the special distinction of being the rare star of a major motion picture of the talking era who seems likely to leave no evidence of what he sounded like behind for posterity. Spilsbury subsequently won Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Actor and Worst New Star of the year, which means that he has twice as many Golden Raspberry Awards as he has movie credits.

On the plus side, the new Lone Ranger movie is being written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who wrote the ferociously whimsical Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so maybe their surfeit of jolliness will balance out Newell's natural dolor. That still leaves the question of how Depp will approach his role. In the Fraker movie, Tonto was played by Michael Horse, later of Twin Peaks, who went into the project with some trepidation and who seems to have wound up basically taking the attitude that he was just out there enjoying the scenery while some idiots shot a Lone Ranger movie around him. In an interview, Horse recalled telling the fillmakers "that in this day and age, if you portray Tonto with disrespect, there will be more Indians on your lawn than Custer saw." (Horse also recalled being bothered late one night because Spilsbury had gotten into a brawl, possibly with someone who made fun of whatever his voice sounded like: "Some guard called me at three in the morning to come and get him. I said, ‘whoa, that
faithful companion stuff is only in the movies.'") As we've all been well-informed by now, Depp modeled his performance in the Pirates movies on his good buddy Keith Richards. Maybe he can model his Tonto on Jimmy Carl Black.

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