The Girls of Westerns, part 1; or, The Quick and the Dead

I’m on a quest to find kick-butt cowgirl heroines, and although I appreciate the girl-next-door look of the singing cowgirls and I love-love-love the whip of Linda Stirling in Zorro’s Black Whip, I find that while there are many cowgirls that are hawtness personified, there are none with the on-screen charisma of a Clint Eastwood.

Is my search quixotic? Is the woman of western film doomed to stay the schoolmarm, the tart with heart, and otherwise merely a muse for the man’s civilization/wilderness conflict?

I never wanted to see The Quick and the Dead, the Sharon Stone vehicle from 1995, assuming that it was as terrible as the reviews said, but I decided to give over 107 minutes to watching it because

1.) Lists of western films with women as protagonists invariably include it.

2.) Sharon Stone looks hot.

2.) She’s a gunslinger, which is pretty macho.

3.) It had lots of western porn, as in shots of leather chaps, dusty boots, and silvery spurs that go ching. Always a plus.

I had my own checklist:

  • Does the woman protagonist follow or subvert the elements of a western movie hero or anti-hero? Or is she one more traditional example of a woman who wants her man to hang up his guns?
  • Does she look awesome in western duds, whether using gunslinger or rancher props?
  • Does she have the charisma that makes a viewer identify, at least just for the space of the movie, with her and her actions? As in, do your fingers twitch when she shoots those Colts?

In the Quick and the Dead, Stone as “The Lady” has the chiseled, golden look of a western star, like Clint’s steel-jawed Man with No Name. She has the same sort of murky past and the jet-pack propulsion of the desire to wreak vengeance. Her eyes can blaze with fire or seem as cool as ice. Her speech is laconic, her stride sure. She is of the mold of the classic gunslinger type, from her hat to her oh-so-gorgeous boots. Her guns spin nicely, and her narrowed eyes can drop wayward townspeople back on their heels. But she’s XX, not XY. She has to put up with men pawing her (her cool response is both funny and effective), and her visceral disgust when a lecherous man takes advantage of a young girl comes from some sort of story truth–The Lady might have had to overcome her own abuse at the hands of a lecher. She also cries, and confesses to be scared to a trusted confidant. Maybe a little too girly? Or a welcome change from heroes with improbable balls of iron? This jury is still out on that question.

Bent on vengeance, The Lady returns to the town where she had once lived. (Vengeance plot point #1) No one recognizes her. (Point #2) She has a special ability, being an ace gunslinger. (Point #3) She finds the town awash with hardcases, all ready to shoot each other for cash, a contest proposed by the object of her hatred, the killer of her father, John Herod. She joins the contest, looking for ways to kill her nemesis without being killed herself. Along the way she befriends a frenemy of Herod’s, cleans up nicely for a dinner with Herod, kills a few people who deserve their death, and becomes the savior of the town. (Plot point #4) Refreshingly, in the American version of the film she doesn’t have sex with anyone. Supposedly, they shot a sex scene but found it extraneous. I’d say that’s a tip of the hat to most westerns, which are about fetishization, not consummation.

Clint knock-off or homage?

Sharon Stone, who also co-produced the film, is joined by a fit Russell Crowe, who is a distracting, bizarre shade of brown, a scrawny Leonardo DiCaprio, and Gene Hackman, who could be villainous in his sleep and be excellent at it. While DiCaprio is a little unlikely as The Kid, every other actor fits his or her type, from blossoming towngirl to dirty convict. Everyone seems to have rolled in mud except the women and Gene Hackman. So the movie again takes the side of the spaghetti western style, with every detail lustrous in the camera’s lens, from rust crusting a clock’s minute hand to shiny gold front teeth.

Stone can walk the walk and often talk the talk, but what she has to say is one of the least compelling stories I’ve seen in a western. Westerns do well when the story is simple, the characters’ development adding resonance, the scriptwriter adding self-reference or subtleties, the director’s style giving the look. In this case, The Quick and the Dead’s story welters in a protracted gunfight. Yes, westerns are all about the freaking gunplay, but when it’s all spurting blood and spinnng bullets, one starts to yawn.

Her mysterious past is slowly revealed through flashbacks, leaving the quote-unquote shocker until the last minutes of the last reel. Unfortunately, one important aspect of the character that is held until the end, the reason she is scared to pull the trigger against the nasty Herod, is the reason you would give a shit about her. Without that information, she seems fickle, hot and cold, inconsistent. Yeah, yeah–I can hear it now–like a woman. Sigh.

A director’s style can pull a stupid movie off the dunghill of history. The Quick and the Dead would probably have stayed on its dunghill, except that The Lady is one of the rare women protagonists who is more chaste and vengeful, like the Victorian-style knightly cowboys, than a cringing girl or a hussy with low-slung chaps. The movie’s an homage to spaghetti westerns, from its close-ups of squinting eyes to the grubby gunnies that line up to shoot each other just for a chance to make money. But the direction is all  film-school enthusiasm, and little skill. Quick zooms on a canted POV do not a Leone film make. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was created as parody; The Quick and Dead killed the humor, and the genius, dead.

Altogether, I’ll include it on my list, with some caveats. It takes itself way too seriously, from its ham-fisted shots to the title weighted with biblical reference. The story has a cruelty that neither is redeemed nor has deeper meaning. But Sharon Stone can pull a gun with the big boys. My fingers twitched, all right.  Oh, they twitched.

Ellen: [female gunslinger walks up behind a preoccupied bartender] How about a room?
Horace: Whores next door.
Ellen: [carefully sets her cigar down] Say that again.
Horace: I said whores next door.
Ellen: [kicks the stool out from under him, catches his liquor bottle as he falls, & pours herself a drink] Now, do you have a room available?
Horace: Uh, room and bath, yes, ma’am, coming up!

The Quick and the Dead (1995), directed by Sam Raimi

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