Friday, October 12, 2012

Cat Ballou (1965) - Jane Fonda at her Sexiest

Cat Ballou 1965 Italian film poster
"Cat Ballou" (1965).

"Cat Ballou" (1965), directed by Elliot Silverstein, is best remembered for Lee Marvin's transformation from stereotyped tough guy (as in "The Killers") to multi-dimensional actor. He won the Academy Award that year for his performance in "Cat Ballou," not bad for a guy who saw serious fighting against the Japanese during World War II and could have gotten killed. For serious Marvin fans, that is reason enough to see "Cat Ballou," but there are many other reasons to give it a whirl.

Cat Ballou 1965 Asian film poster
The Chinese (or whoever) got the picture that "Cat Ballou" was selling, all right

It's easy to forget, though, that the "Cat Ballou" of the title wasn't Marvin. Instead, it was the character name of the quite luscious Jane Fonda. This was pre-"Barbarella," which dramatically raised Jane's profile and made her a superstar, and "The Shoot Horses, Don't They," which turned her from ingenue to full-fledged "serious actress." Thus, getting top billing in a film whose title was the name of her character was a big deal for Jane at this point in her career. Perhaps it would propel its lead to stardom? Well, yes it did - but not Jane Fonda. That fell to Lee Marvin and his display of a real flair for comedy.

Cat Ballou 1965 Jane Fonda
So, what is your stance on Quemoy and Matsu, Ms. Fonda?

In those days, Jane Fonda was better known as Henry Fonda's little princess than as a serious actress. She had been stereotyped as well, as a kind of ditzy woman. Almost nobody remembers her pre-"Cat Ballou" films (she had been making them for five years). If you do, bravo, you are probably either a Fonda fan or a real trivia expert. Everybody remembers Jane Fonda's stuff from after "Cat Ballou," even though her performance here did not win an Oscar and really did not serve as a breakout role for her. Not many can name films that she made before it, but they, by and large, weren't worth remembering on any account.
Cat Ballou 1965 Jane Fonda
"Oh, this is so degrading, so insulting - hey, am I showing enough cleavage?"

Jane Fonda hadn't yet made her transformation from rich kid to self-proclaimed revolutionary Socialist. Thus, as in the following year's "Barbarella," she is not averse to playing up her sexiness in order to further her career. It wasn't until Jane had achieved acting prominence with "Klute" that her resentment at her early cheesecake roles (and apparently, according to her, deeper-seated issues) bubbled to the surface and she became as intentionally obnoxious to her old fan base as she possibly could. In 1965, though, that was still years away and she was just doing whatever she could to prove that she could make it on her own.

Cat Ballou 1965 Jane Fonda
That is some kind of phallic imagery being exhibited by Jane Fonda in her promo shots for "Cat Ballou."

Jane Fonda apparently has had psychological issues throughout her life, everything being some reaction to what went before. She herself has made some suggestions to that effect. But, regardless, she was one of the sexiest women of her time - or anytime, for that matter. So, even though she became annoying to many people later, her career progression interests a lot of people, and "Cat Ballou" is an overlooked milestone in her career.

Cat Ballou 1965 Jane Fonda Lee Marvin
I know, I know, there were some others in the "Cat Ballou" cast besides Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin.....

The plot of "Cat Ballou" is very simple. It is a fairly standard Western, and its plot foreshadows that of the more serious (but with its own unique brand of humor) "True Grit." A wronged young woman, Cat Ballou, seeks revenge for her murdered father (John Marley) and hires a famous gunman (Marvin). The gunman turns out to be eccentric and hammy, thereby setting up our complications. Both films ("Cat Ballou" and "True Grit") won Oscars for their leading men, and the female leads were overlooked when it came to awards season. Such is life in Westerns, even comedic ones, which typically showcase male gunslingers.

Cat Ballou 1965 Jane Fonda
Yes, that's what those notches mean.

The "Cat Ballou" supporting cast is pretty pedestrian. It includes Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman and Tom Nardini, none of whom became particularly well known thereafter (Hickman had played Dobie Gillis in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" for four years on television, but in those years television stars were looked down upon by the film industry). However, not so fast: Nat "King" Cole makes a rare screen appearance along with Stubby Kaye (of "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" in "Guys and Dolls" fame) to sort of serve as a western Greek chorus. Their appearance singing together in the background is another reason "Cat Ballou" is well worth watching.

Cat Ballou 1965 Jane Fonda
Jane showing her various skills

Many will want to watch "Cat Ballou" simply to see Fonda in her prime. There is, for instance, a scene of her riding away which shows off her best qualities in exquisite detail. I'll let you find that particular scene for yourself, but, believe me, it is worth looking up. Before you get offended, just look at Jane's promo pictures for "Cat Ballou" and you'll see that she knew perfectly well what she was selling. Jane was in her prime during filming at 27 years old, and her youthful exuberance transfers well to the screen.

Lee Marvin Cat Ballou 1965

I recommend "Cat Ballou" to all connoisseurs of fine acting, fine westerns and fine women.

Cat Ballou 1965 film poster
"Cat Ballou" (1965).


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