Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Andrew C. Isenberg's "Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life"

Andrew C. Isenberg is the author of Mining California: An Ecological History and The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920 and the editor of The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space. He is a historian at Temple University and lives in Penn Valley, PA.

Here Isenberg dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life:
In almost all Wyatt Earp films, Earp is portrayed as a tight-lipped, duty-bound lawman. Both Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner played him that way in the early 1990s. Their portrayals recall the ways Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster played the role in the 1940s and 1950s.

This is exactly how Earp wanted himself portrayed. In the last decades of his life, he frequented Hollywood studios, where he befriended early silent-film Western stars. Earp very much wanted one of those actors, his friend William S. Hart, to play him on screen. Hart, the biggest Western film star of the 1910s and early 1920s, specialized in taciturn characters who were always on the side of justice.

In Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, I offer a very different interpretation of Earp. He was often on the run and always reinventing himself. He spent most of his life not as a lawman but as a gambler and a con man. He sold rocks painted yellow as gold bricks to unsuspecting buyers. He was involved in fixing a heavyweight championship prizefight in 1896. As late as 1911, at age 63, he was arrested by the Los Angeles Police bunco squad for running a crooked card game. Toward the end of his life, frustrated by the negative publicity his career as a gambler had earned him, he went to Hollywood. He began dictating his memoirs, reinventing himself again by editing out his missteps and modeling himself on the prototypical Hart character. The fact that we remember Earp as a lawman and not as a con man was his most successful and enduring confidence game.

He was, in a lot of ways, a type of Don Draper character, which is why Jon Hamm could step into the role, and play him as a complex figure for whom the role of forthright lawman was a facade. Matt Damon, who played a con man in The Talented Mr. Ripley, could also play the role well. (Like Hamm, Damon has the physical presence to play the role--the actor who plays Earp has to be believable as both a gunfighter and a gambler.) Leonardo DiCaprio has likewise played a con man (Catch Me If You Can) and a man who has reinvented himself (The Great Gatsby).

DiCaprio is also well suited to what is usually the plum role in a Wyatt Earp film: the part of Earp’s friend Doc Holliday. Val Kilmer set the standard for the part in 1993’s Tombstone, capturing the character’s androgynous combination of violence and frailty, world-weariness and loyalty to Earp. Walton Goggins from Django Unchained, would be ideal. Ben Foster  played a Doc Holliday type convincingly in 3:10 to Yuma.

Gene Hackman played Earp’s father, Nicholas, in 1994’s Wyatt Earp, as a stern patriarch. That film, with Costner as Wyatt Earp, overlaid Shakespeare’s Henry IV on Earp: he was a wayward youth, a disappointment to his father, but he righted himself to become a responsible adult. But the real Earp never righted himself, and his father was not a humorless, law-abiding patriarch but rather a blustery teller of tall tales: John Goodman.
Learn more about Wyatt Earp at the Hill and Wang website.

The Page 99 Test: Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.

--Marshal Zeringue