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Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Comes a straight-talker

For fans of director David Lynch, the title of his latest movie can only be taken as a wry in-joke. For "The Straight Story," unlike just about every Lynch film so far, is indeed "straight." So straight, in fact, it's an honest-to-goodness G-rated family film -- no backward-talking dwarves, no portals to another dimension.

For some, no doubt, this will be a disappointment. For those who don't have to pigeonhole artists, however, "The Straight Story" will charm and entertain. Lynch is obviously reaching a whole new audience with this film, his first "hit" in a decade, since 1990's "Wild at Heart." While it's less idiosyncratic than his previous work, it's still hard to imagine anyone other than Lynch choosing to make a film about a stubborn old farmer who drives 300 km on a lawn mower.

Based on an actual story, "The Straight Story" follows 73-year-old Alvin Straight (played by Richard Farnsworth), an ornery old guy who goes on a road trip to reconcile with his long-estranged brother, Lyle, who has suffered a stroke. Alvin is falling apart as well (he's almost legally blind), but with the determination of a tortoise, he takes to the open highways of Iowa and Wisconsin on his lawn mower -- top speed, 8 km an hour. The film documents his sometimes funny, sometimes moving encounters with the characters he meets along the way: a runaway teen, griping twin mechanics and a woman with a road-kill jinx.

Lynch has always been genuinely interested in the rural American heartland and its inhabitants, although that's often obscured by his equally great love of the bizarre. In the conservative '80s and early '90s, Lynch was playing up the dark side; now that the sickness can be found on national TV seven days a week on "The Jerry Springer Show" et al., Lynch has once again gone against the grain by making a film that celebrates the folksy heart of America.

Embodying those qualities is Lynch's leading man, veteran actor Richard Farnsworth, who received an Oscar nomination and an Independent Spirit award for his performance. In Tokyo Friday, the octogenarian, who looked like he had just walked off the set in his cowboy hat, plaid shirt and jeans, walked with a cane, but displayed a quick, dry wit in his remarks.

His gee-whiz approach to his profession no doubt endeared him to Lynch. Farnsworth's humility is such that he will admit, repeatedly, that "[Alvin Straight] was probably the easiest part I've ever done. I don't really consider it acting; I was just maybe doing myself. So when I was up for a nomination, I guess the Academy members thought, 'Well he wasn't acting, he was just doing himself. This award is for acting, so we won't give it to him.' "

When asked how he came to work with Lynch, Farnsworth replied, "I didn't know who David Lynch was, frankly. My agent had called me, and I said, 'Who's David Lynch?' My agent knew that I didn't like violence or four-letter words or a lot of sex in a film, so she carefully said, 'Did you see "The Elephant Man"?' And I said, 'Yeah, well I loved that film.' So when I got on the phone with [Lynch], I said I didn't like too much violence or four-letter words, and he said, 'There won't be one four-letter word in this film. It will be strictly family-oriented.' " (Good thing Farnsworth never consulted Dennis Hopper.)

Farnsworth's career has been a long one, taking several twists. He got his start as a stunt double for Gary Cooper in 1937's "Marco Polo." The heaven-sent job moved Farnsworth from his $6-a-week wage at a polo field to $7 a day "and a box lunch" at Paramount. He went on to appear in seven John Ford films with John Wayne, and as a gladiator in "Spartacus" for Kubrick's marathon 11-month shoot, before he finally landed his first speaking role with Jane Fonda and James Caan in "Comes a Horseman," for which he received an Academy Award nomination in 1977.

"When that happened, I realized I might be able to make it as an actor," explained Farnsworth, adding that for a stuntman, "the ground gets pretty hard after you're 57 years old.

"A lot of people asked me why I didn't try to start an acting career earlier. I had a few little lines thrown to me, like 'Hanging's too good for him!' That kind of thing. But I had a high squeaky voice when I was a kid, and for years I never would even try to do dialogue. I waited till I got older. It was the best thing that happened to me. I started getting a little bit of character in my face, maybe."

Spending three hours a day on that lawn mower for six weeks left Farnsworth with a healthy respect for the real Alvin Straight's tenacity. "I admire that old guy. I don't know how he made it, frankly. We had three little mowers as spares, and we broke those down all the time, and he made it with just one."

When asked what he would have liked to ask the late Mr. Straight, Farnsworth paused a moment, and then smiled and said, "I would have asked him, what possessed him to take that journey, when he could have gotten on a Greyhound bus? From the way his kids talk, he was very determined. The more they tried to talk him out of doing it, the more he was set on showing them that he could. I think had they not pursued it so much, he would probably have let them drive him."

One last question asked about Farnsworth's plans to tie the knot with his fiancee, Jewel, who's been spotted on his arm at recent awards ceremonies. "I haven't got a date yet," admitted Farnsworth, adding, "We've been engaged for 10 years. My doctor told me, 'Y'know, Mr. Farnsworth, Jewel is only 41 and you're 80. This could be fatal.' And I said, 'Well, if she dies, she dies.' "

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