All the King’s Men
There’s a delicious irony to the new film version of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men, written and directed by Steven Zaillian and starring Sean Penn as Willie Stark, Warren’s crusading politician turned proto-fascist demagogue. Willie rises to prominence by becoming an angry voice for the “hicks” of his state, identifying with them and their issues, promising to soak the rich to give his hicks the roads and schools and hospitals they need and which their hard work deserves. The irony is that Zaillian’s movie is bloated, literary and highfalutin, looking and sounding like it’s been reverently adapted from the kind of novel Willie Stark’s hicks would never read into the kind of movie they wouldn’t be caught dead going to see.
In Warren’s 1946 novel, Willie Stark was a thinly veiled portrait of Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long, who was assassinated in 1935 just as he was threatening to become a national force in the Democratic Party. In Zaillian’s movie, the veil is even thinner; unlike Warren, he specifically sets his story in Louisiana and films scenes at the Capitol building that Long built in Baton Rouge as a monument to himself. Zaillian even goes so far as to pan his camera across a bronze plaque of Long’s smiling face moments before Willie Stark is gunned down. In light of that, it’s hard to understand why Zaillian chose to update the action from the 1930s to the 1950s—from the depths of the Depression to the Korean War—robbing the story of its natural setting in a time of national desperation, when Willie’s rise (like Long’s) paralleled that of Adolf Hitler.
All the King’s Men has been filmed before, in 1949 by writer-director Robert Rossen. Rossen’s film was released through Columbia Pictures, but it was all but abandoned by Columbia’s president, Harry Cohn, who only grudgingly agreed to open it in Los Angeles for Oscar consideration. To Cohn’s chagrin, Rossen’s film was one of the biggest hits of the year, receiving seven Oscar nominations and winning three: Best Picture, Actor (Broderick Crawford as Willie), and Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke, Willie’s speechwriter and mistress).
People seeing Zaillian’s movie, with Patricia Clarkson as the bitterly cynical Sadie, might wonder how such a minuscule role could ever win anyone an Academy Award; well, you’d have to see the 1949 version, and McCambridge, to understand.
They’ll probably be less bewildered at Crawford winning for the role Sean Penn plays now. Many people consider Penn one of our best actors. Well, he’s certainly one of our most actors; he seems to turn every role into a noisy demand for an Oscar nomination, and Willie Stark is no exception. But Penn’s performance, unlike Crawford’s, doesn’t take the character from little-guy honesty to the corruption of absolute power; in his hands, Willie Stark is oleaginous and smarmy almost the whole way through, as only an actor affecting a foot-thick Southern accent can be.
Penn’s tub-thumping histrionics throw the film all off-kilter. He’s pretty much a foaming demagogue from the start, which makes the people who believe in Willie in the early days—like Sadie Burke and Jack Burden (Jude Law), the reporter who quits his job to join Willie’s campaign—look like dupes or opportunists rather than idealists betrayed by their leader’s descent into megalomania.
As the film goes on, director Zaillian becomes more and more bogged down in the swampy bayous of his actors’ thick cracker accents. By the time Willie and his assassin reach their final rendezvous, the movie is barely moving at all, mired in a glacial mix of agonized slow motion and the bellowing pomposity of James Horner’s musical score.
Columbia Pictures is releasing this version of All the King’s Men, too, and the company seems to want to atone for Cohn’s neglect back in ’49—Zaillian’s film is already being touted for Oscar season. The selling point is its pedigree: Zaillian, Penn, Law, Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo. But this version is pretentious and artsy-fartsy. In 1949, Rossen used unfamiliar actors (without accents) who fit their roles. His movie had dirt under its fingernails, and it earned its Oscars honestly. And the hicks ate it up.