Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

All the King’s Men


I read the book in college, and remember very little of it. I saw the 1949 version with Broderick Crawford, and was greatly impressed. My understanding of this version is that Steven Zaillian (who has some very impressive writing credits) thought that movie was not sufficiently faithful to the book, and decided to remake it with an all-star cast. It’s a southern tale, so he chose Sean Penn (from Santa Monica), and … get this … Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Anthony Hopkins. Two Brits and a Welshman. Now, I’m the first to admit that many Brits are damn good at doing American accents; much better than their American counterparts are at pretending to be British, of which there are too many awful examples to name here (stand up, Julia Roberts, and take a bow!). Cate Blanchett, an Aussie, can do accents better than anyone but Meryl Streep. However, there are many American actors who cannot do a credible southern accent without making me wince. Sean Penn is one. And of these Brits, none of them were convincing. Anthony Hopkins didn’t even try. I was asking myself what the wonderful Patricia Clarkson (from N’Awlins) was doing in this piece of shit.

For shit it is. And it’s not just the bad accents, that’s just the flies circling the cow flop.

Every once in a great while a book is improved by the changes Hollywood works on it. I’m not saying the book wasn’t good, I remember being moved by it, but what works in a book doesn’t always work in a movie. This story was being told by a cynical journalist whose own story often eclipsed what I think was really going on there, in cinematic terms, and that 1949 writer/director, Robert Rossen, greatly de-emphasized the journalist’s story and concentrated on the red meat: Willie Stark, as played so powerfully by Broderick Crawford. (Won the Oscar for it, and well-deserved. It also won Best Picture and Supporting Actress, and was nominated for 4 others.)

This is probably Sean Penn’s worst performance. He flails around like a puppet with an epileptic Geppetto holding his strings, his arms don’t seem to have a clue about what his mouth is doing, all the while talking like he’s got a mouthful of cold grits. And the whole journalist/narrator stuff just flat doesn’t work. I began to think I’d fallen by mistake into Tennessee Williams at his most turgid. This should be a story about political power and how it corrupts, perhaps inevitably, even a populist man. Sean Penn isn’t that man. It makes you long for the days when movies weren’t afraid of being a bit bombastic, even operatic, to get a point across. I would have voted for Broderick Crawford, when he started out. Hell, maybe he can do what he says he can do, and anyway, he sure knows how to talk to me. Maybe it’s bullshit, but he forks it well. I would never vote for Sean Penn’s Willie, wouldn’t follow him through the Pearly Gates. He’s wimpy, no other word for it. One thing Willie Stark/Huey “Kingfish” Long never was, was wimpy. This movie went into the toilet in its first week, and deserved to.