Sunday, February 17, 2013

Christine Bold's "The Frontier Club"

Christine Bold is Professor of English at the University of Guelph. Her books include U.S. Popular Print Culture, 1860-1920; Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860-1960; Writers, Plumbers, and Anarchists: The WPA Writers' Project in Massachusetts; and The WPA Guides: Mapping America.

Here Bold shares some suggestions for casting a big screen adaptation of her latest book, The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924:
Because The Frontier Club focuses on a group of clubmen who hunted, politicked, and wrote together, and so made the modern western, the movie would need an ensemble cast—say the boyish bonhomie of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (this would be Roosevelt’s Nine) crossed with the menace of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. In fact, a cameo figure in the book—the thuggish Cheyenne Clubman Major Frank Wolcott—already appeared in Cimino’s film, played by Ronnie Hawkins as patsy of the big cattlemen. Cimino also created the smoky clubroom settings—from 1870s Harvard to 1890s Wyoming—in which frontier clubmen hatched the violence which they wrote into the national psyche. Given that the book revolves around popular print culture (rather than casino heists or gun fights), I’d be well advised to seek a new director: if Steven Spielberg can make the oft-told passage of a constitutional amendment nail-bitingly suspenseful, he could surely convert the connections between popular westerns and government policy-making into high-stakes action.

Like the Boone and Crockett Club, the cast would need two strong leaders:

• Theodore Roosevelt—who tends to be played for laughs (Robin Williams) or as caricature (Tom Berenger)—is more complex as a hunter-writer: Philip Seymour Hoffman embodies the right combination of heft, raw energy, and vulnerability.

• George Bird Grinnell—co-founder of the Boone and Crockett Club book series, influential editor of Forest and Stream, and conservation lobbyist extraordinaire—complemented Roosevelt’s hyper-energy with his self-restraint: Daniel Craig’s tight jaw, disciplined physicality, and gentlemanly veneer are perfect.

• With Owen Wister, author of the bestselling novel The Virginian, we can mine the analogies with Ocean’s cast. Matt Damon exudes similar self-doubt: the talented junior, desperately eager to belong to the club but never secure about his position within it. (Damon and Wister also share the eeriness of seeing their deaths prematurely announced in the press.)

George Clooney—billed as “the smooth operator” in Ocean’s Eleven—looks right for Madison Grant, the dapper man-about-town who steered the club’s policies at some key junctures. Grant’s ruthless eugenics could be a challenge for the liberal actor, though.

Brad Pitt, taciturn except for his manic laugh in the film, is an intriguing match for Winthrop Chanler, the least known because the least published of the frontier clubmen, but epitomizing their blend of hi-jinks and aristocratic hauteur.

• Both ensembles contain elder statesmen. Elliott Gould conveys the cold wiliness of Henry Cabot Lodge, the frontier clubmen’s voice in Congress. A generation older, Carl Reiner could play S. Weir Mitchell, the Philadelphia writer-physician who mentored Wister but was prone to querulousness as his influence waned.

• At the febrile edge of the frontier club was the popular sports editor Caspar Whitney, a middle-class interloper on whom clubmen relied for their popular audience but never quite accepted; Scott Caan as a somewhat muscle-bound henchman could fit that role. For the final clubman—Frederic Remington, the pre-eminent artist of the West, often assumed to have been a Boone and Crockett Clubman but in fact an outsider—I’d have to reach more deeply into the Ocean’s trilogy for Robbie Coltrane’s girth, boorishness, and skin-deep amiability.

There are more women attached to the frontier club than to Ocean’s gang, but these actors would represent a strong start: Catherine Zeta-Jones as the feisty, dark-eyed Molly Wister; Julia Roberts as the long-suffering wife, Daisy Chanler; even Angie Dickinson (in the film’s first incarnation) as the imperious, domineering mother Sarah Wister. For reasons the book makes clear, Don Cheadle and Bernie Mac would be relegated to servant roles; the latter would be great as the boisterous ranch cook Homer.
Learn more about The Frontier Club at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Frontier Club.

--Marshal Zeringue