Remembering ”The Straight Story”’s Richard Farnsworth
Let us now praise semifamous men. Richard Farnsworth died last Saturday of a self inflicted gunshot wound. He was 80 and suffering from terminal cancer, and while the manner of his death may seem awful and tragic on the face of it, it also seems in keeping with the quiet directness with which he walked the screen.
Some of you may be saying, ”Who the hell is Richard Farnsworth?” Others may be saying, ”Oh, yeah, the old coot in that weird David Lynch movie.” A few folks with long memories may even spit out his unusual stats: former stuntman in the business since 1936, nudged into acting late in life, twice nominated for Oscars (including Best Actor for Lynch’s very aptly named ”The Straight Story”). None of that touches on what made him special: He was the most graceful man in modern movies.
As an attribute, as a character asset, grace has long since fallen into disrepair. You might say it died in the mid 1950s, when James Dean hit the movies, Elvis Presley hit the airwaves, and youth culture was born. Sexiness, rebellion, and danger became the verities of pop culture charisma, and while they’re not bad things in and of themselves, they tend not to run very deep, and they’re all about the Moment. Grace, on the other hand, knows that if you fixate on the Moment, you’ll miss the stuff that matters.
Richard Farnsworth worked in a medium where the moment — the scene — was what mattered, but each scene in his films seems to be a calm island that hints at the full man beneath. Think of the crucial sequence in ”The Straight Story,” where Farnsworth’s Alvin Straight sits in a bar with another old cuss and talks about a particularly horrifying memory from World War II: It’s a painful moment because so little is said, and because Alvin is trusting the stranger (and Farnsworth is trusting us) to connect the dots with his (and our) own tragic remembrances.
Or think of 1982’s ”The Grey Fox,” in which the actor plays a gentlemanly thief who gets out of jail, goes to a screening of the early silent film ”The Great Train Robbery,” and quietly embarks upon a prosperous career as a railroad bandit. He doesn’t kill people with a big old Magnum. He just politely asks for their money — at gunpoint — and gets it.
”Taciturn” is one word to describe Farnsworth — the star he most admired and emulated was Henry Fonda, because, he said, ”Hank … was real laid back.” ”Polite” is another (Farnsworth turned down any and all film roles that involved swearing). But ”generous” may be the best, because in all his films you sense that he’s actively interested in what other people have to say — that other people are, in fact, what make this world interesting and alive and worthwhile. Think of any other actor you can say that about and you’ll begin to recognize what made this one special.