Larry McMurtry’s Hard-Won Beauty

The way most of us will (and should) remember Larry McMurtry is as a novelist. Beginning with Horsemen Pass By in 1961 (later adapted by Martin Ritt into the classic Paul Newman film, Hud), McMurtry wrote more than 30 novels and several non-fiction books in his 60-year career.

Occasionally, very occasionally, he worked as a screenwriter. His television work isn’t all that notable (his novel and beloved mini-series Lonesome Dove was adapted by William Witliff), and his film work is slight in volume, but oh, how mighty it is in quality.

McMurtry’s foray into film began in 1971 with The Last Picture Show, which he co-adapted with director Peter Bogdanovich. Hailed rightly as an instant classic by critics, The Last Picture show was also a success at the box office, and received eight Oscar nominations (including one for McMurty and Bogdanovich’s screenplay). As a portrait of a dying Texas town, the film was so perfectly written, so astutely observed, that it has become more than a “classic” film—it is a landmark in cinematic history.

Bogdanovich’s astute and patient direction, the decision to film the movie in black and white, and McMurtry’s in-depth characterizations meshed perfectly. The film made stars of its younger cast members (Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, and Timothy Bottoms) and Oscar winners of Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson. It also began Bogdanovich’s remarkable three-film run that included What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon.

Three more of McMurtry’s novels would be adapted by other screenwriters (Lovin’ Molly in 1974, Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment in 1983, and The Last Picture Show‘s sequel Texasville in 1990) before McMurtry himself would write for film again.

1992’s Falling From Grace, directed by and starring John Mellencamp, is seen as a bit of an oddity on both McMurtry and Mellencamp’s resumes, but for the few of us who’ve actually seen it, it is a thoughtful and character-driven film. Mellencamp’s direction and performance are both authentic and involving. Partially inspired by Mellencamp’s own life, Falling From Grace tells the story of a famous country artist who’s philandering and irresponsible ways finally catch up with him. In many ways, it’s sort of a cousin to the lost Rip Torn classic, Payday.

Falling From Grace isn’t easy to find, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s a lovely film with grit under its nails. I would say it’s ripe for rediscovery, but perhaps it’s more apt to say it’s deserving of discovery.

In 2005, McMurtry teamed with Diana Ossana to adapt Annie Proulx’s short story, first published in The New YorkerBrokeback Mountain—for Director Ang Lee. It’s helpful to remember that Proulx’s original story was just 13 magazine pages long. As beautifully written as Proulx’s story is, for a feature-length film, that barely qualifies as a treatment—an outline, maybe.

Ossana and McMurtry took that template, fleshed it out, and created one of the greatest tragic love stories in the history of cinema. The film, which focuses on two closeted Wyoming cowboys (played so wonderfully by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) is rightly seen as queer cinema’s breakthrough into the mainstream, the magic of it, and what will make it a touchstone long after these stories become commonplace in film, is the sheer beauty of its depiction.

Lee’s film was not only a critical phenom, earning eight Oscar nominations and winning three (including one for Ossana and McMurtry’s screenplay), it was also a hit in theaters. Brokeback Mountain was film about two gay men that did not compromise in its vision (unlike Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia 12 years earlier, which was more constrained by its time) of two men in love.

Brokeback Mountain took what was considered a niche in cinema and brought it to the masses. I think the reason it was so successful in that regard is due to its universal theme of missed opportunity and lost love: two things that any person, gay or straight, can connect with. I truly believe it is one of the greatest films ever made.

McMurtry has one more filmed screenplay to be seen: Joe Bell, starring Mark Wahlberg. Early reviews are mixed to positive, but until the studio decides on a release date (the film has been moved multiple times), film-goers will have to wait to form their own opinion.

Right now, we can evaluate the slender film career of Larry McMurtry by just three movies: The Last Picture ShowFalling From Grace, and Brokeback Mountain. Two masterpieces as bookends, and a cult classic-in-waiting in the middle. What these three films have in common is an uncommon sensitivity towards their characters and an unflinching view of the difficult reality of their circumstances.

Larry McMurtry was a beautiful writer, but it was a hard-won beauty. His stories were about imperfect people trying to make their way through the challenges in their lives.

What an honorable legacy to leave behind.

Larry McMurtry died yesterday, he was 84 years old.

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