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Westerns have poor aim when it comes to Oscar wins

By David Germain

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 23 2011 7:33 a.m. MST

In this undated film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Jeff Bridges, left, and Hailee Steinfeld are shown in a scene from "True Grit."

Paramount Pictures, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — "True Grit" is a rarity for modern Hollywood, a hit Western. With 10 nominations, including best picture, it's also a rarity at the Academy Awards, where only a few cowboy tales have had much success.

While the 1930s, '40s and '50s were the glory years of Westerns, two of the genre's three best-picture winners actually are from modern times: Kevin Costner's 1990 Indian epic "Dances With Wolves" and Clint Eastwood's 1992 gunman-for-hire tale "Unforgiven."

The other Western to lasso Hollywood's biggest prize was "Cimarron," a sprawling saga of the Oklahoma land boom that was the best-picture winner for 1932-33.

Joel and Ethan Coen's 2007 best-picture triumph "No Country for Old Men" has a lot of trappings of an old-style Western, but it's a contemporary crime story told with modern cowboys, lawmen and outlaws.

The Coens also directed "True Grit," based on the same novel that inspired the 1969 big-screen adaptation that won John Wayne a best-actor Oscar as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn.

Wayne's version earned only one other Oscar nomination, for its theme song.

The Western already was on the decline by the time the original "True Grit" came along. Wayne continued making them until the end of his career in 1976, and Eastwood — who got his start on the TV cowpoke series "Rawhide" and in such 1960s Spaghetti Westerns as "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" — occasionally went back to the genre in the '70s and '80s, culminating in "Unforgiven."

But studios have saddled up for Westerns only a few times in the last 20 years with such films as Mel Gibson's "Maverick," Costner and Robert Duvall's "Open Range" and Russell Crowe's "3:10 to Yuma."

With $164 million and climbing at the box office, "True Grit" is the most-successful Western since "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven." Its 10 nominations also rank second among Westerns to "Dances With Wolves," which had 12 (1956's "Giant," which has elements of a Western but is a more modern tale of Texas ranchers and oilmen, also had 10 nominations).

"True Grit" is considered a longshot in most of its Oscar categories, a familiar position for Westerns on Hollywood's big night.

Only a handful of Westerns have ever been nominated for best picture, most of them losers, including 1928's "In Old Arizona," 1939's "Stagecoach," 1943's "The Ox-Bow Incident," 1952's "High Noon" and 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Some of Hollywood's most-acclaimed Westerns, such as "My Darling Clementine," ''The Searchers," ''The Magnificent Seven" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," were virtually overlooked at the Oscars (the former two had no nominations and the latter two received only one each).

Along with Wayne, performers have scored some wins in Westerns, among them best-actor recipients Gary Cooper for "High Noon" and Lee Marvin for 1965's "Cat Ballou" and supporting actors Thomas Mitchell for "Stagecoach," Walter Brennan for 1940's "The Westerner" and Gene Hackman for "Unforgiven."

The list of losing actors in Westerns is much longer — about two dozen, including Eastwood for "Unforgiven" and all three nominees from "Dances With Wolves": Costner, Mary McDonnell and Graham Greene.

Among other Oscar losers in Western roles are Jack Palance in 1953's "Shane," Chief Dan George in 1970's "Little Big Man," Julie Christie in 1971's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," Madeline Kahn in 1974's "Blazing Saddles" and Casey Affleck in 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford."

Continuing his late-career renaissance, Jeff Bridges is nominated for best actor as Rooster Cogburn in the latest "True Grit," but this year's money in that category is on another period role from a different era — Colin Firth in "The King's Speech."

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