In the early 80s, pushing 70, But Lancaster top-lines and gets a star entrance in Cattle Annie and Little Britches. The film, based on a true story, is about Cattle Annie (Amanda Plummer) and Little Britches (Diane Lane) but Burt’s Bob Dooley is the legend, the lodestar, who they want to emulate and with whom they want to join. He’s no longer the romantic lead, but the film’s protagonists have their own non-sexual romance of and with him, and so does the film.
Mannerisms in actors are usually seen as a negative. That an actor resorts to old tricks and lacks the imagination to inhabit character in different ways. But what if those gestures of body and face, those stances that indicate bursts of energy are part of what audiences love and look forward to in an actor’s performance? In Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Burt’s mannerisms bring up whole eras of audience affection, evoke authority, and are shortcuts to character and a base with which to create something new. He’s too old in the film to play the romantic leading man but the film has its own romance with him, his stardom and his own legend that feeds into that of his character’s. And displaying his body is still part of what he does as an actor and a star, even if pushing 70, it’s now filmed through mist (Pauline Kael said he looked like an old water buffalo). Perhaps that’s why he was still top-billed and headlining in vehicles guided by intelligence and social purpose into his 70s and almost right through the 1980s.
One of the reasons I pay no attention to all the Kael haters is that I vividly remember Kael’s review forty years after I read it, and this was a movie I’d never been able to see up to now. And now that I have seen it and re-read it, I agree with so much of what she says. And she’s so funny saying it. On Rod Steiger: ‘Rod Steiger is probably more contained than he has been in years. The last time I saw him—doing his padre number in “The Amityville Horror”—his spiritual agony was enough to shatter the camera lens.’
Pauline Kael is worth quoting at length: ‘here are some remarkable performances—Lancaster’s and Diane Lane’s, and, especially, the unheralded, prodigious screen début of Amanda Plummer. (Actually, everything about this picture is unheralded. It was finished over a year ago, but nobody wanted to release it, because a couple of other Westerns had failed. It wasn’t really released: it was just dropped into a Broadway theatre for a week, to plug up a hole before “Outland” arrived.) As Bill Doolin, Lancaster (who made this film before “Atlantic City”) is a gent surrounded by louts—a charmer. When he talks to his gang, he uses the lithe movements and the rhythmic, courtly delivery that his Crimson Pirate of 1952 had when he told his boys to gather ‘round. The great thing about Lancaster is that you can see the face of a stubborn, difficult man—a man who isn’t easy to get along with. He has so much determination that charm doesn’t diminish him. In his scenes with Diane Lane, the child actress who appeared in New York in several of Andrei Serban’s stage productions and who, single-handed, made the film “A Little Romance” almost worth seeing, Lancaster has an easy tenderness that is never overdone, and she is completely inside Jenny’s childish dependency. And when he’s by himself, naked, soaking at the hot springs (where the marshal traps him), he’s a magnificent, sagging old buffalo. Lancaster looks happy in this movie and still looks tough: it’s an unbeatable combination’.
The film itself is charming and a bit ramshackle. It’s unusual to see a film about women’s desires to be outlaws, one set in a period where those dreams were being shut down along with the frontier, and yet the film doesn’t makes those desires as central to the narrative as it should, constantly cutting to the bigger stars, Lancaster himself of course, but also Rod Steiger and Jon Savage — whatever happened to him? He seemed to be everywhere in this period — and even Scott Glenn (why didn’t he become a bigger star? He’s sexy, charismatic and so good here and in practically everything he did in this period). And the questions I ask above in relation to Savage and Glenn are even more worth asking regarding Amanda Plummer, a debut to compare to Hepburn’s writes Kael, and yet it seems American cinema of this period did not have the space for such an electric and original presence. Its loss. But this is a film that allows us to enjoy and mourn the magnitude of that loss.
According to Kate Burford, ‘critics would note that Larry Pizer’s cinematography glowed like a Frederick Remington vision’ (loc 2903), except for the clip of Burt’s entrance I’ve extracted above, where one can barely see anything.
In her extraordinary book on Lancaster, Kate Buford includes excerpts from a truly illuminating interview with Amanda Plummer on Lancaster’s acting in Cattle Annie that is worth extracting here in its entirety:
A bit of trivia: Steven Ford, son of the American President Gerald, appears in a small role as a man of the law and is very good.