Bound for Glory
The 1970s’ brand of New Hollywood filmmaking produced so many identifiably landmark movies, many of which went on to Oscar recognition and wins, that those slipping through the cracks of the greater public consciousness tend to stand out by omission. Scan a list of Best Picture Oscar nominees of the decade and there tends to be good reason they aren’t remembered. Why even The Towering Inferno makes more of a mark than Lenny. Or why Bound for Glory is the odd man out of the 1976 line-up. A folk hero biopic that, while its appeal to hash-haze director Hal Ashby is readily evident, fails to pass muster in any dramatic or vital fashion, its messaging and virtues arriving somewhat stodgily as a foregone conclusion.
Indeed, as authentically lensed and earnest as Bound for Glory is, I was often caught wondering if it was one homily away from a grittier, unionised episode of the saga of Walton’s Mountain (the actual Woody Guthrie was pals with Will Geer, Grandpa Walton, and an active Communist and victim of the blacklist; Geer introduced Guthrie to Steinbeck). Haskell Wexler’s rust-toned cinematography is extremely impressive and evocative of the dust-bowl era – it won him one of the film’s two Oscars – but slap on some full sepia and you have the concurrent title sequence of one of TV’s most popular shows.
In her review, Kael presciently commented “This is the kind of picture that Hollywood gives awards to, with great pride. Coming out now, it can seem the first movie of the Carter era”. It’s certainly emblematic of the kind of picture made during that decade, when there was enough uncertainty about what worked – and certainty that the formerly unlikely often could – that greenlighting a languorous biopic about a folksinger political activist might, under other circumstances, have been a goldmine (none of these things were deal breakers; Woody’s son Arlo had a hit less than a decade earlier with Alice’s Restaurant, and Sally Field’s aggressively rote Norma Rae brought her an Oscar three years later for playing a union activist).
The problem was probably not so much the potential of the material, as inclined as Depression-era tales are to follow a certain kind of abject route, but the stage its auteur director was at in his career. After some early quirks in his transition from editor to director, Ashby had scored big time with long-gestating Warren Beatty vehicle Shampoo. As Peter Biskind tells it, that movie’s success had made him more confident and confrontational; Bound for Glory’s budget ballooned from $4m to $7m, the seventy-day shoot turning to 118. It was “the start of Hal’s inability to deal with his success” per producer Charles Mulvehill. He’d added coke to his diet of cigarettes and weed and his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. Wexler chewed him out after being fired, which tempered matters somewhat, but unlike the later Coming Home, saved in the edit, Bound for Glory has no dramatic kernel, no through line beyond the vaguely episodic nature of Woody heading for California and getting famous. And then, like a rambling man, moving on.
Ashby also romanticised the material. As Biskind reported, “Having grown up on a farm in the ’30s, he felt a real kinship with Guthrie” and the freedom he had, whereby he was “never tied down to anything”. However, looks can be deceptive. While he cultivated the working-class hero, Guthrie’s roots were resolutely middle-class (you wouldn’t know this from the movie, which makes his denouncing Gail Strickland’s rich Pauline a bit, er, rich). Which is not to say he didn’t clearly undergo a series of tragedies and hardships, but it’s emblematic of the “idol” to reinvent their establishment roots (as anyone who has read Weird Scenes from the Canyon will appreciate).
Ashby’s Bound for Glory is the last vestige of pot-fuelled utopians’ hippy dream. Woody via Hal becomes, as Kael put it, about one who “fought the good fight against greed, and about his radicalisation’s being the same thing as his finding himself as an artist” (Ashby clearly identified with this, as his ’70s work testifies). And, suggesting she was well aware of its director’s proclivities, she called it “A dreamy, druggy young kid’s view of hard times. It’s so beautiful you can get high from the dust”.
Kael criticised the picture’s mythologising of the man, something she saw as merely following suit an individual who “mythicised himself… as the voice of the downtrodden – as the embodiment of the masses moving into a bright future, bound for glory”. She also considered the picture lacked insight into the movement’s political complexities, the willingness to use workers without heed to immediate consequences.
But isn’t this exactly how the typical figurehead for a propaganda movement is bound to operate (for glory)? As it is, to one only superficially familiar with the man, it was very easy to read the film’s Woody as a useful, easily-politicised tool, the way any popular front or spokesperson may be. And therefore, one who inherently invites suspicion, as opportunistic or worse, soaked in the cloth of fundamentalism, a sanctimonious true believer espousing a sacred doctrine (I mean, can anyone really listen to Billy Bragg?)
It was as interesting, then, to see in the film what Guthrie isn’t – a devoted husband, a participant in back-breaking labour (he gets a guitar gig almost as soon as he hits California). The artist who tells the people how to live from a comfy pedestal chair. That’s all there, but Ashby lends him a tacit free pass, because he is the artist. He’s allowed to live to a different set of criteria. Time Out’s Ian Birch was even less charitable, believing Bound for Glory turns him into “a beatific eccentric who mimics the actions of others more than forges a radical lifestyle”.
At its best, ’70s Hollywood cinema was refreshingly grey across the board in its depictions, but there were limits, the essential Hegelian boundary lines requiring that Woody stand unvarnished, pursuing his muse (which entails leaving the ball-and-chain family, cocking a snook at his employers and heading for New York to spread the gospel). One can agree broadly with his recognition of justice and also recognise he was caught like a fly in the amber of a limiting paradigm, predicated by others as a control mechanism.
Bound for Glory occasionally rouses itself from its self-satisfied slumber. Early on, a sequence with an apocalyptic dust cloud would make Roland Emmerich wince with jealousy, and the air is so thick in those scenes, it leaves you choking. The sequence of Woody’s travels, most especially on trains, are engaging and lively.
Melinda Dillon is strong as Woody’s first wife, but the nature of the beast is that her screen time is limited; she becomes an adjunct, having a tantrum that confirms why Woody needs free himself from domestic ties (Dillon was so devoted to the film, Ashby cast her as Memphis Sue when her role as Mary was completed, just so she could continue working on the production). You can see Wendy Schaal (Joe Dante regular), Brion James, James Hong and M Emmet Walsh in small roles. Ronny Cox floats a mighty tache as the activist-musician who gets Woody noticed, and Randy Quaid is on hand as a migrant worker to deliver some stick-in-the-throat sentiment, validating why Woody needs to keep singing for all the schmoes out there. “You’re going to wind up singing to this whole damn country” is the kind of retrospective insight biopics need to resist at all costs.
Bound for Glory received six Oscar nominations. None were in the acting categories (Carradine, in an atypical mainstream Hollywood starring role, is a wiry and a believable musician-performer, but I couldn’t help feeling he was too old for the part, a good decade more than Guthrie was during many of the movie’s events, and wearing his years on his face). It deserved the cinematography award (out of those nominated, anyway), but I’m less convinced by Original Song Score, as Leonard Rosenman – later contributing a travesty to Robocop 2– lays it on a bit thick. Paul Williams’ Bugsy Malone is much more deserving. Bound for Glory’s lack of enduring status isn’t, unfortunately, the sign of a neglected classic. It’s agreeably staged but indistinctly told, and winds up almost effusively unremarkable.