Friday, June 3, 2022

Running On About “A River Runs Through It”

A River Runs Through It is a 1992 film, the third directed by Robert Redford, that bears some superficial resemblance to East of Eden, the 1955 screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous novel. In telling the tale of two brothers, their rivalry, and their fraught relationship with their stern father, Steinbeck was evoking perhaps the most famous sibling rivalry of them all, that between Cain and Abel. His Cal and Aron vie for their father’s approval and for the love of the same girl, with tragic results.  

 In its closing credits, A River Runs Through It includes the usual disclaimer that this is a work of fiction, and that resemblance to any actual person is strictly coincidental. In point of fact, though, the film is based on a 1976 novella by Norman Maclean, a college professor who was inspired by his own family history. Like Steinbeck, he writes about two brothers, exploring their differences as well as their strong sense of kinship. He sets his tale not in the rural Salinas Valley but in the piney woods and fast-flowing streams of Missoula, Montana. And though their father might seem strict at times, he is by no means the unbending patriarch that Steinbeck portrays. Instead he’s a Presbyterian minister of Scottish descent, one who counts fly fishing as an intrinsic part of the family’s religious values.

 In a story pitting brother against brother, the rebel is always the more interesting of the two. This was certainly so in East of Eden, where the role of Cal brought James Dean a posthumous Oscar nomination. As younger brother Paul Maclean in A River Runs Through It, Brad Pitt is the one you can’t stop watching. Unlike Cal, Paul is not a rebel without a cause. He and his older brother, the far more scholarly Norman, feel a deep emotional bond, especially when they’re casting off in a trout stream. Paul is charming and lovable, without a doubt. But he is the one who refuses to conform, refuses to play it safe, craves the excitement of living on the edge. Ultimately he’s asking for trouble—and gets it. In his first major role, just a year after making a small splash in Thelma and Louise, Pitt shows he’s on his way to stardom.

 But for me, in a way, the bigger revelation was the actor who plays the boys’ father. Back in 1974, as a Roger Corman peon, I had never heard of Tom Skerritt when he was cast in a featured role in Big Bad Mama. As rogue and petty criminal Fred Diller in this Depression-era caper film, he robbed banks and romanced Angie Dickinson, before she moved on to the more mature William Shatner and he moved on to her two nubile daughters. It was an exuberant performance, and Skerritt also had fun behind the scenes, finding ways to knock Shatner’s toupee askew. But, speaking to Skerritt on-set,  I learned he had just switched agents, and aspired to bigger and better things. One came along in 1979, when—as captain of the Nostromo—he was assumed to be the eventual sole survivor in Alien . . . until his death shocked the moviegoing world. He was featured in Top Gun and many another action flick, while also taking on a dad role in Steel Magnolias.

 But none of this prepared me for seeing him as a small-town minister with well-defined values, a passion for fishing, and two rambunctious boys in need of guidance. Well done!

 Crazy credit: "No fish were killed or injured during the making of A River Runs Through It"

No comments:

Post a Comment