September 30th, 2010
07:02 PM ET
One of the great perks of this job is that you get to meet the people who make your favorite movies. Seven years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting director Arthur Penn. When word of his passing came yesterday, I thought back to the 2003 Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. After interviewing Penn about the lifetime achievement award he was set to receive that night, we shut off the camera and I confessed to him that I was a HUGE fan of his western, “Little Big Man” – to my mind, one of the great, underappreciated classics. He couldn’t have been warmer or more charming. He was genuinely touched that someone my age was a “Little Big Man” fan.
Because when you say the name Arthur Penn, most movie buffs think of his ground-breaking work in “Bonnie and Clyde.” But “Little Big Man,” released during the height of the Vietnam War, and shunned by audiences perhaps because its anti-war themes hit a little too close to the bone, never quite got the same acclaim. I asked him when it was coming out on DVD and he said he was upset that the studio was dragging its heels about releasing it.
If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It would be a nice tribute to Penn if you did. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably the best movie you’ve never seen. Starring Dustin Hoffman, it follows the misadventures of “Jack Crabbe,” a settler’s son adopted by a Cheyenne tribe as one of its own. “Jack’s” life takes him across the Wild West and features Forest Gump-ian brushes with famous historical figures like General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.
But the movie’s probably best remembered for the scene-stealing performance by Chief Dan George, who plays, fittingly, the Chief. Penn and I recalled the scene where the Chief, broken by all the heartache he’s seen, hikes to the top of a mountain with “Jack,” hoping that his medicine man magic will allow his spirit to go up into the great hereafter. He does a dance and lies on the ground waiting for the big moment. It looks like he’s dead, but then the rain drops fall and he blinks his eyes and says, “Am I still in this world?” The answer is yes. “Meh. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
We laughed, and Penn, if you can believe it, gave me his home number and said to give him a call if the DVD ever comes out and we’d do an interview.
As luck would have it, a few months later, the studio finally announced “Little Big Man” was coming out on DVD. Unfortunately, it was a no-frills edition - no director’s commentary, no featurettes about the Cheyenne, not even a trailer. Penn was bummed. One can only hope when the film comes out on Blu Ray that oversight will be corrected and the studio will give it the deluxe treatment Penn would have wanted (I’m looking at you, CBS/Paramount Home Entertainment…)
Anyway, I gave him a call at home and we made arrangements for the interview. I told him that I was going to see Dustin Hoffman at the premiere of “Confidence” and hoping to get a few “Little Big Man” sound bites from him. Penn asked me to give “Dusty” a special message.
So the big night came and amid the flashing bulbs and shouting paparazzi, I shook Hoffman’s hand and said, “Arthur Penn sends his best.”
A warm smile crosses his face. “How is Arthur?”
“He’s fine. He has a special message. He said to tell you, ‘Sometimes the magic works…’”
And Hoffman, beaming, and no doubt remembering all the good times on the set with Arthur, finishes the thought: “…and sometimes it doesn’t.”
With Arthur Penn, more often than not, the magic worked.
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