The approach of Phillip Noyce‘s Above Suspicion in mid May (digital/VOD platforms on 5.14, Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, 5.18) offers an excuse to recall a similar kind of film — Lamont Johnson‘s The Last American Hero (’73), currently streaming on YouTube for free and for cost on Amazon.
Noyce’s film is classic, grade-A moonshine, and so was Hero in its day.
Originally posted in July ’05: Loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s legendary 1965 Esquire article about one-time moonshine smuggler and stock-car racer Junior Johnson, it’s about a young guy (called Junior Jackson and played by Jeff Bridges) on the wrong side of the law who went on to become a famous stock-car racer.
For me, Hero is the super-daddy of redneck movies — a slice of backwoods Americana that got it right with unaffected realism and showing respect for its characters, and by being intelligent and tough and vivid with fine acting.
Jackson is more or less content to smuggle illegal hooch until he gets pinched and his soul-weary dad (Art Lund) persuades him to think twice, and he eventually uses his car-racing skills to break into stock-car racing. Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ed Lauter, Gary Busey and Valerie Perrine are among the costars.
Johnson’s film was widely admired (serious film critics got behind it, especially Pauline Kael). And its influence in Hollywood circles seems hard to deny, its commercial failure aside, for the simple fact that it was the only backwoods-moonshine movie at the time that was seriously respected for what it was, as opposed to being (nominally) respected for what it earned.
As movies steeped in rural southern culture go, The Last American Hero had roughly the same levels of honesty and sincerity as Coal Miner’s Daughter, which came out in 1980.
A punchy thing with a kind of B-movie feeling, The Last American Hero stood out for its avoidance of any kind of condescension toward the hardscrabble characters, and for the totally on-target performances.
Articles like Wolfe’s and films like The Last American Hero (which was co-adapted by Johnson and Bill Kerby) made me forget my loathing of red-state attitudes and even led to affection for the vitality of working-class types and the blue-collar thing. Characters who belong to my country and vice versa.
It’s not genuine Americana that I can’t stand — it’s the degraded, stupid-ass, hee-haw stuff peddled by downmarket opportunists and turned into corporate-brand jackoff diversions like the Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham redneck films and The Dukes of Hazzard TV series and motion picture.
What galls me is that most consumers out there don’t even know what genuine backwoods Americana is — they just know the Happy Meal-kind that corporations have sold to them.