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[whitespace] Billy Bob Thornton
Sling Hotshot: Filmmaker Billy Bob Thornton, who came to prominence with 'Sling Blade,' showed off a different side in the comedy 'Pushing Tin.'

Southern Maverick

Cinequest lures Billy Bob Thornton to San Jose for special appearance and Maverick Spirit Award

By Richard von Busack

BILLY BOB THORNTON, the actor/director making a surprise guest appearance at Cinequest at the end of this month, rose to fame as an actor and director far past the age of 30. Even if he'd been younger, he'd be too roughhewn to be a romantic lead, and he was a character actor basically from his debut.

I saw him in his first movie in 1987, at the grind-house New Mission Theater. Thornton's debut, Hunter's Blood, was double billed with a self-referential slasher movie satire titled Return to Horror High, which anticipated Scream by 10 years.

Hunter's Blood, filmed in the Ozarks, was an inspired knockoff of Walter Hill's Southern Comfort and John Boorman's Deliverance before that. Thornton plays a hillbilly character called "Billy Bob." Since then he's been playing other Billy Bobs--slow but proud rednecks with a burning, lethal, even maniacal bad side.

Born in Arkansas, Thornton was the son of a football coach and a psychic. He recently memorialized his mom in his screenplay for The Gift, in which Cate Blanchett plays a Southern psychic nearly undone by her powers.

Thornton moved to L.A. in 1981 for what sounds like a very rough time. His breakthrough was a role in Carl Franklin's One False Move, which Thornton co-wrote with his regular writing partner, Tom Epperson. Afterward, Thornton directed the short film Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, which was later extended to a full-length feature, critical acclaim and an Oscar.

Thornton's been married four times, most recently to the equally volatile Angelina Jolie, his co-star in Pushing Tin, a relationship so public that Thornton has confessed to wearing her underwear for a goof.

Maybe Jolie brought out Thornton at his best, in a torrid karaoke number in the middle of Pushing Tin--a duet that pushed John Cusack into one of his hugely amusing slow burns. Pushing Tin was a very odd buddy comedy that resisted buddy-buddying; it kept snapping back into an exposé film about a marriage breaking under the strain of overwork.

It's still hard to believe that a movie based on a New York Times article on air-traffic controllers, filmed by a heavily unionized industry, didn't mention Reagan's busting of the union as the reason for the overworked fury and craziness of the air-traffic controllers. Cheated of social commentary, director Mike Newell went for wonky satire. Most importantly, Newell went against the grain of Thornton, casting him as a supernaturally calm air-traffic controller with a center of gravity so low that nothing could bowl him over.

While Pushing Tin showed off the gift of intimidation that's made Thornton a success, it also showed how dubious and suspicious macho behavior looks to those who can never believe it. Too often Thornton comes on too strong, and it's still no help. Even in performances as solidly locked as the low-IQ mother-killer Karl Childers or the helpless yokel in A Simple Plan, I didn't believe a minute of either film.

Thornton's right to believe that there is no such thing as Southern Gothic. What sounds to outsiders like exotic tales of the South takes place in the most ordinary settings, as in the tract houses in Sling Blade. He got more stylish in his film of All The Pretty Horses; though the movie's commercial failure was due either to a brutal editing-down or to Thornton's ambitiousness in making it hours long in the first place. When you read Cormac McCarthy's original book, you can guess that a film director would want to make the Western that ended all Westerns out of it.

Seduced by McCarthy's sterling dialogue, Thornton didn't see the trap of the retrograde plot. All the Pretty Horses is about the age-old ritual of manhood, Texans going south of the border, pitting their bodies mano-a-mano against Mexicans and emerging triumphant. It's the kind of book Hank Hill on King of the Hill would have thought was deep spiritual art.

Ultimately, Thornton's more frivolous side ought to be encouraged, maybe by Jolie, the most extremely gothic actress in Hollywood today. One hopes for more performances in the vein of Pushing Tin, more comedy, as in his newest film Daddy and Them, and less the of brooding man of the South. Why should he brood? Any man who confesses to wearing his wife's panties can't be all that bad.


Billy Bob Thornton will appear at Cinequest Feb. 24 at 5pm at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose for "A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton." He will also be awarded a Maverick Spirit Award from the festival. Cinequest runs Feb. 22-March 4 in San Jose. Call 408.295.FEST for details. (Metro is one of the executive sponsors of the festival.)

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From the February 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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