Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"The only other actress I've ever seen make a movie debut this excitingly, weirdly lyric was Katharine Hepburn.”  -- Pauline Kael

Given its cast, the weak and delayed distribution of Cattle Annie and Little Britches is puzzling. The film was completed in 1980, but its release was delayed until 1981, and then it was allowed to fizzle--in New York it opened only in "a basement theater with a television-sized screen," according to Michael Sragow of Rolling Stone. And yet it starred Burt Lancaster as the outlaw Bill Doolin--Lancaster's celebrated performance in Atlantic City, released in the United States earlier in 1981, would win numerous Best Actor awards from critics and would be in the running for the Oscar; Diane Lane as Little Britches--Lane had been on the cover of Time magazine in 1979; John Savage, an in-demand young actor after The Deer Hunter (1978's Best Picture winner) and Hair (1979); and Amanda Plummer herself as Cattle Annie. Plummer had, as Vincent Canby noted, "just received rave reviews" in New York for an off-Broadway revival of A Taste of Honey, which would go on to win her a nomination for a Tony Award as Best Actress.

And then there were Pauline Kael, America's most prominent film critic, and Michael Sragow in Rolling Stone, doing their best to arouse interest in the film. Kael had recently returned from a highly publicized stint working on film production in Hollywood, and at the time she was also infamously being attacked by Renata Adler in The New York Review of Books--in other words, you'd think interest in Kael would be at a premium. Sragow and Rolling Stone devoted three pages to the film. But by then Cattle Annie had already disappeared, hardly reviewed at all.  

In 2013, the Boston Society of Film Critics gave Cattle Annie and Little Britches an award, along with four other films, as Best Rediscoveries of 2013. Cattle Annie had played at a Burt Lancaster retrospective in Cambridge. The movie has not yet (as of January 2015) been released on DVD, but perhaps it will be sooner than later.  

Amanda Plummer is the actress who kick-started Pulp Fiction (1994) as Honey Bunny, who with her lover, played by Tim Roth, attempted to hold up the diner in that film's opening scene: "Any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfuckin' last one of you!" She had also had a major role as Robin Williams's girlfriend in The Fisher King in 1991.

Otherwise, in the 1980's, her work centered on the stage. (She herself was the daughter of the famous stage actors Christopher Plummer and Tammy Grimes. In interviews, she has talked about some of the difficulties of being the only daughter of successful actors.) She co-starred with Geraldine Page, Jessica Tandy, and Peter O'Toole, among others. She created the role of Agnes in Agnes of God in 1982, and won a Tony award as Best Featured Actress in a play, although both she and Page as the Mother Superior were passed over for or passed on the 1985 film. She was Laura to Jessica Tandy's Amanda in a revival of The Glass Menagerie (1983) and Eliza Doolittle to Peter O'Toole's Professor Higgins in a revival of Pygmalion (1987). She created key roles, again with Page, in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind in 1985. [? - fact check]

On film, she did have a small but unforgettable role as Ellen James in The World According to Garp (1982) and a larger role in Daniel (1983), directed by Sidney Lumet, but it was little-seen. Since Pulp Fiction in 1994, she has appeared in offbeat parts in a number of other independent films and recently more mainstream ones (The Hunger Games: _______)

The character Cattle Annie was based upon a real-life Oklahoma girl from the 1980's who, with her friend nick-named Little Britches (played by Diane Lane in the film), ran away to find Bill Doolin and his gang of outlaws. Plummer has said that she loved riding horses as a girl and even dreamed of being a jockey.


“…. The fiercely strong Annie (Amanda Plummer), who's about sixteen, shames the men and inspires them--almost catastrophically--to try to become what she had imagined them to be…. You don't find out what brought the girls together, or what their earlier lives were--what the fantasy played off--but there are some remarkable performances--Lancaster's and Diane Lane's, and, especially, the unheralded, prodigious screen debut of Amanda Plummer….

“Young Amanda Plummer gives a scarily brilliant performance: her Annie could teach Lucas and Spielberg a few things about tomboy gumption. Annie is scrawny, a guttersnipe showoff and dreamer, but there's also a woman there, with a spark of womanly greatness. When Annie saves the gang from a posse by stampeding a herd of cattle and stands among the running beasts with her arms outstretched, if your mind clicks to the tableau in Women in Love, with Glenda Jackson poised, dancing in front of a herd of swaying bullocks, Amanda Plummer doesn't suffer from the comparison. Whatever this young actress does here she does in character--whether it's the exaltation as she stands among the cattle or the resolve she show when the outlaws seem cowardly. Her gaze is steely--implacable. She could burn holes in you with those eyes. Even her romance with one of the outlaws, played by John Savage, is fully felt--on her side, at least. No doubt the director guided this young actress, but her spirit is so distinctive it has to be all hers. It takes a few minutes to adjust to her face and voice, because you can see both of her parents (Tammy Grimes and Christopher Plummer) in her and you can certainly hear her mother's inflections, whcih have never seemed to belong to any country or class but only to the theatre, and to oddity. The daughter uses those inflections with a special vehemence: Annie is a taut young girl whose hoarse voice gives her raw emotions away. The only other actress I've ever seen make a movie debut this excitingly, weirdly lyric was Katharine Hepburn.”

Pauline Kael
New Yorker, June 15, 1981

Kael would not write about Plummer again (other than noting that she was Ellen James in The World According to Garp) before she (Kael) retired in 1990, but in two later interviews from the early 1990's, Kael singled out the four principals of The Fisher King for performances she regretted not getting to write about in her retirement. They were "really extraordinary" and had "great teamwork"--Robin Williams and Plummer "were like boy-and-girl Marx brothers." [As quoted in Conversations with Pauline Kael, p. 142-3, 173--get cites] 

“…. [Johnson's] proved more adept than any other American director at treating adolescence as it is: a dangerous intersection between childhood and adulthood. He's also gotten terrific performances from young talents like Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero) and even from nonactresses like Margaux and Mariel Hemingway (Lipstick). Here, Johnson gets to work with two fabulous fledlings: Diane Lane as Little Britches and Amanda Plummer as the stronger, more cantankerous Cattle Annie.

“In her motion-picture debut, Plummer makes the fiery, indelible impression of a branding iron. She's got powerhouse guttural flair. Her stare is riveting--and so's her hellcat growl. In contrast, Lane's Little Britches is cotton soft and gives the movie gentleness…. Without Lane's skillfully shy, halting performance, we wouldn't appreciate the innocence the girls are leaving behind.”

Michael Sragow
Rolling Stone, July 23?, 1982

“Amanda Plummer, who makes her screen debut as one of the girls, has neither the brilliance of her father Christopher Plummer nor the wind-up-toy charm of her mother Tammy Grimes….”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, June 6, 1981

“It has two major assets—one old, one new—in the performances of Burt Lancaster, playing a tired desperado with the kind of laid-back, comic assurance that comes only after a lifetime on the screen, and Amanda Plummer, the daughter of Christopher Plummer and Tammy Grimes, who is making a smashing film debut.

“Miss Plummer, who just received rave reviews in an Off-Broadway revival of 'A Taste of Honey,' is not conventionally pretty, but she’s a most winning, appealing new screen presence. Even when her accent doesn’t quite match the character, she’s marvelous as Annie, the tough, common-sensible, foul-mouthed ghetto kid from the East who bums her way West....

Vincent Canby
New York Times, May 15, 1981

“…. What, I wonder, will Hollywood do with Amanda Plummer, who is scrawny and homely and one of the most talented actresses the movies have ever seen?”

Stephen Schiff
"The 80's Generation", Vanity Fair, late 1983/early 1984
 (After her debut in Cattle Annie in 1981, Plummer had also appeared in Daniel in 1983 and in a very small, though crucial role in The World According to Garp 1982.)

"Annie has a self-dramatizing bravado, and she’s a life embracer; the men try to laugh at her, but her idolatry of them and her take-no-prisoners resolve and her insistence that they live up to the image she has of them from Ned Buntline’s books make it hard for them to do so.... Besides, she’s inventive and thinks on her feet. When Sheriff Tilghman (Rod Steiger) shows up to capture the gang, Annie opens a gate to release a head of steer that get between Tilghman’s posse and the outlaws, so the lawmen can’t see their targets. Earning her nickname, Plummer’s Annie perches on the corral fence, waving her arms theatrically, as if she were choreographing a ballet. She’s wildly eccentric but vibrant and singular, like Katharine Hepburn as the gawky and gallant Jo March in George Cukor’s 1933 film of Little Women or like Julie Harris, at twenty-six, as the twelve-year-old Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding."

Steve Vineberg, "Neglected Gem #48," criticsatlarge.ca, November 2, 2013