Telluride 2014: Hilary Swank Tribute and “The Homesman”

At her Telluride Film Festival Tribute, a relaxed Hilary Swank joked that she didn’t feel old enough for a Tribute. She recently turned 40. After she received her first Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999 without many notable credits, Swank was called an overnight success. She said amusingly, that it was “one long night.”

Swank said she doubted such success could happen, but her mother believed in her. She began acting at 8 years old in school plays like “The Jungle Book.” She said she enjoyed making characters come alive.

Unlike her most celebrated films, Swank started out in comedy. She had a role on TV in “Beverly Hills 90210”, but her character was cut from the show. She said she felt she was “not good enough for 90210”, but 2 months later came “Boys Don’t Cry”.

Hilary Swank (left) in "The Homesman"

Hilary Swank (left) in “The Homesman”

Swank described her collaboration with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman on “Million Dollar Baby” (2002), for which she received her second Oscar, as a highlight of her life. She said her role of a boxer coached by Eastwood, who also directed the film, paralleled her off-camera relationship with him.

In both of her Oscar-winning performances, Swank’s characters died before the end of the film. She said she would like roles where she can “live to see the credits”. On films, she added “I love what connects us all” and that the quality of the script is important for her in making choices.

Hillary Swank’s latest film “The Homesman” with Tommy Lee Jones, another actor/director, was shown as part of her Tribute. She believes the film is “richer and better because of Tommy Lee” who also co-wrote the screenplay. She described Jones as “so specific” and said he “stands apart” because he is both “book and people strong.”

In preparation for a film, Swank always writes a sentence about her character on her script. Of Mary Bee Cuddy whom she portrays in “The Homesman”, Swank wrote “she goes where angels fear to tread” and also described her as “so selfless.”

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in "The Homesman"

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in “The Homesman”

Swank said it was “a dream come true” for her to work with Meryl Streep, but they have no scenes together in “The Homesman.”

Like Jones’ previous directorial effort, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005), “The Homesman” depicts a Western journey, but though well-acted, lacks the freshness of the earlier film.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) lives alone and independently in Nebraska. The film begins as Mary Bee prepares a meal for a neighboring landowner, with disappointing results, as she’s considered “too bossy and plain.” Swank gives another impressive dramatic performance, showing her character’s calm and forceful determination which is unable to hide her disappointment.

The plot has the unusual starting point of a trip to take three young women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter), severely traumatized by life in the remote West, back East to a church where they can receive care. The 3 actresses are very compelling. Gummer is Meryl Streep’s daughter.

While none of the local men will agree to take the women East, Mary Bee who considers herself “as good as any man” volunteers. Early on, she spies the grizzled George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) sitting on his horse, with his head in a noose, punishment for claim jumping.

Hilary Swank and  Tommy Lee Jones in "The Homesman"

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Homesman”

Mary Bee rescues him, as he agrees to join her on her quest to help the damaged women. Jones gives a colorful performance. Initially his character looks like comedy relief, but he is formidable in the trail and a dangerous opponent.

The film contains striking scenes of the desolate Western landscape as Mary Bee and Briggs continue on, with the constant threat of any of the young women trying to run away. As director, Jones maintains a lively pace.

The different characterizations of Swank and Jones play well off of each other and enliven the somewhat conventional Western plot. Though the setup is uncommon, during their travels Mary Bee and Briggs encounter familiar Western characters like Indians and greedy businessmen. The sexism of the era depicted is overlaid on the film, particularly in a key scene.

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