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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008
TOMMY LEE JONES
Hollywood's cowboy back in the saddle
Special to The Japan Times
There's not many of them around. Those 60-plus-year-old actors who are at the peak of their powers in Hollywood and at the box office. Yet Tommy Lee Jones, an English major from Texas who was the Harvard roommate of former Vice President Al Gore, notes, "I don't ever recall having consciously thought to myself, 'I am a movie star.' No, sir."
Since winning a Best Supporting Oscar in 1994 for "The Fugitive," Jones has appeared in several hits — including "Men In Black" and its sequel — and earned critical applause for his work in nonstudio films. He has directed a television movie ("The Good Old Boys," in 1995) and the excellent 2005 big-screen feature "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," which he also produced. Now aged 61, the significant wrinkles around and under Jones' eyes have not kept him from getting work.
"How I look really only worried me when I was courting," says the Texan, who married three times. However, he recalls that when he last watched his younger self as a romantic lead opposite then-superstar Faye Dunaway in 1978's "The Eyes of Laura Mars," he was rather shocked to see his pockmarked face in extreme closeup. (Although he was the male lead in the movie, he also turned out to be its villain — not unusual for a dark-haired actor who rarely smiles on screen and who admits he has an "intimidating and somewhat aloof manner, or so I've been told.")
Jones recently earned widespread praise as an aging Texas sheriff in "No Country for Old Men," which opens in Japan on March 15. The dark crime thriller dominated the 80th Academy Awards on Sunday, winning best film and best director for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The two brothers also won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay (the picture is a faithful interpretation of Cormac McCarthy's novel).
Jones himself was up for an Oscar in the best actor category for the little-seen but highly acclaimed "In the Valley of Elah" as Hank Deerfield, a man seeking the whereabouts of his soldier son — who was sent to Iraq and disappeared — with the aid of his wife, played by Susan Sarandon.
But asked last week about his chances of winning a second Oscar before the awards ceremony took place, the actor curtly brushed the topic aside.
"We don't really want to engage in idle speculation, do we?"
In the end, Jones lost out to the widely tipped favorite Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of an oil prospector in "There Will Be Blood."
A man who says he prefers to "focus on one thing at a time," Jones would rather shift the conversation to "No Country for Old Men," though he won't elaborate on the late Heath Ledger's early withdrawal from acting in the sleeper-hit movie, other than to note the tragedy of the Australian actor's early death from an accidental drug overdose.
Asked about the many plaudits for the movie, Jones makes it clear that this was a picture he wanted to be involved with from the very beginning.
"I wanted to be in on it from the time I read the script's first few pages," he said. "The rest of the script only confirmed my feeling, heightened it."
Jones dislikes the term "Western," although many of the films he's been involved in — including the two he's directed — could be labeled as such. "Sometimes the word is used to put a film down," he explains. "It's an easy category. They're judging on the basis of scenery. Now, scenery can be almost a character in some movies, true. But the stories can vary dramatically so that one so-called Western has nothing to do, not at all, with another one.
"Each story is individual, and it's the story I'm telling or involved with that interests me, not any arbitrary category."
That said, he admits a story set in Texas is likely to carry a particular sway with him. Jones was born in San Saba, Texas, to Clyde and Lucille (ne Scott) Jones. He reportedly has Cherokee blood, but he shies away from questions about his youth or background. What is known is that as a young man he worked briefly in the oil fields with his father (who worked there full-time) before leaving to study at Harvard.
Jones made his Broadway debut in 1969 in John Osborne's "A Patriot for Me." His movie bow came the following year with a small role in the Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal blockbuster "Love Story."
Two of Jones' wives have been photographers; one is the granddaughter of the late writer Ring Lardner Jr., one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted and jailed during the McCarthy era for his political views. Jones himself is a Democrat and remains close friends with Al Gore. During a television appearance in Australia, the host asked Jones to confirm if he had stated previously that U.S. President George W. Bush was unable to form a coherent sentence. The actor replied, "I did not say that; you must have read my mind."
It's understandable, then, that some of Jones' projects have brought the issue of social justice to the fore. He's also had to contend with some critics of "No Country for Old Men" who feel the picture portrays his country in an unfavorable light. Jones says he opposes "that brand of blind, mindless patriotism," the sort which can lead people to champion their country — or more specifically, its government — in "a fraudulent war," which many, including Jones, feel the current Iraq war is.
"People have to think for themselves and not get carried away by the cheerleading and the speeches and applause. Applause may be for the wrong cause. You have to consider the motivations and the consequences of any given action — on a personal level, and on a national and international level."
Passion for a cause
An example of Jones' passion for a cause could be seen when he got back in the saddle for his role as rancher Pete Perkins in the 2005 movie "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," based on a true story of a killing in 1997 in Texas. The script, by Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga, concerned a Hispanic ranch hand discriminated against in life — and even death — who wanted to be buried south of the Rio Grande, the river that serves as the natural boundary along part of the United States-Mexico border.
The story was inspired by the case of an 18-year-old Mexican-American, a U.S. citizen, accidentally killed near the Rio Grande by a rookie Border Patrol agent.
Jones, who supports Hispanic migrants and speaks Spanish, notes, "There was a certain politician (a female Republican) who was arousing the people of Texas and winning votes by saying such things as the border was 'hemorrhaging,' and that Mexicans had to be stopped from entering this country. But this country is built on immigrants."
"The closer you get to the border," explains Jones, "the less you think about 'illegal aliens' and any so-called threat. You simply see the people as human beings, not as an issue, not as a threat. It's the people who live in north Texas, or elsewhere in the country, who can more easily be stirred up to a mindless 'defense' of the country by opposing people who are willing to come here and work hard for less money, to better themselves and also this country."
Politics couldn't be ignored in the controversial "JFK," for which Jones earned his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the supposed villain Clay Shaw. Numerous critics charged that the film was highly fictionalized and that director Oliver Stone was targeting gay men as the chief conspirators behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"Shaw was a character with several sides to him, a lot of mystery," says Jones. "It was something I had to do."
As for playing a gay man, Jones says, "I can't understand the incredulity of some people who wonder how I — or any other actor — could get up the courage to play such a role.
"The gay aspect was nothing unusual; the question was, did this man try to kill the president, and why? It is, on any level, a fascinating story."