It’s not easy for an actor to portray a character and comment on that character at the same time. Not without looking ridiculous, that is – which sometimes is the point. Think of pretty much any character the comic actor Mike Myers has ever played.
But in a drama? That’s a different story. You have to be true both to the essence of the character while continually reminding the audience that you, the actor, are in this artistic exercise with them. And, as I say, this is no easy task to pull off.
Yet it is a task that Sam Elliott has proved adept at from the beginning. After appearing in a number of TV and minor movie roles, Elliott in 1976 took the lead in a little star-making movie titled “Lifeguard” and has never looked back. He may never have been a serious Oscar threat, but he’s always proved to be a solid, dependable presence.
Take “The Big Lebowski.” The Coen Brothers cast Elliott in the role of The Stranger, a cowboy type who provides the narrated overview – such as it is – for Jeff Bridges’ character, aka The Dude, in their 1998 film. As The Stranger, Elliott intones in his classic baritone, “The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.”
Elliott plays the lead in Brett Haley’s film “The Hero,” which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a one-time huge Western movie star who, now in his early 70s, is finally beginning to feel the need to resolve a number of issues that are hanging over his head – the main one being a desire to repair his relationship with his daughter.
Haley wrote and directed the 2015 film “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which starred Blythe Danner as a woman also facing the challenges of 70-something life. Elliott had a small role in that film, which no doubt inspired Haley to write “The Hero.” And just as he immersed we the viewers in the life of Danner’s character, allowing us to learn as we go instead of providing a mass of up-front exposition, he does the same with Elliott’s Hayden.
So we see scenes of Hayden drinking, smoking dope and – his career long past its prime – doing voiceovers for barbeque sauce ads. We see him getting some unwanted health news, which spurs his efforts to reconcile with his daughter. And we see him face an emotional crossroads as he attracts the attention of a far-younger woman (Laura Prepon) and suddenly, once again, becomes a hot Hollywood property.
“The Hero” doesn’t pass on many, if any, profound ideas, nor does it answer all the questions it poses. But it does offer up a refreshing alternative to movies about superheroes, animated comedies or studies of millennial angst.
Most of all, it benefits from the presence of Sam Elliott, still abiding after all these years.