“Ornery” is a word that fits Tommy Lee Jones like a well-broken-in pair of cowboy boots.
“I don’t know the meaning of the word,” Jones grumps.
He’s being disingenuous, of course. We all know he was a Harvard man — Al Gore’s roommate — before he became an Oscar winner. He knows his image, because he’s reminded every Oscar night as hosts and others take it upon themselves to try and get a smile out of his perma-scowl.
“Ornery” comes up in reviews of his latest movie, “The Homesman,” a fine cowboy-free Western set in 1850s Nebraska. Sometimes, one suspects, the critics are talking more about Jones than about his character in the film, a claim jumper who calls himself George Briggs, a man who walks the line between ornery and rascal.
“Oh, he’s a lot of both,” chuckles Hilary Swank.
The actress plays a flinty spinster who blackmails Jones’ character into helping her transport three farm wives whom the hard life on the prairie has driven insane. The film opens locally Friday.
“He has this great sense of humor, and it comes across in his performances in the odd cadence he uses to deliver a funny line,” she said. “There’s a little laugh in there that he’s half-hiding. That’s really true of Briggs. And that’s him as a director, too.”
In interviews, Jones’ default mode can be clipped, dismissive. But he takes compliments well, and they’re as deserved for “The Homesman” as they were for his directing debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”
Jones earns comparisons to the cinema’s greatest Western director, John Ford, in Anthony Lane’s review of “Homesman” in The New Yorker. What Lane calls Jones’ “painterly” eye for a prairie unblemished by power lines, homes, or even hills or trees was the result of an extensive search for something America has in short supply — unbroken prairie horizons.
“We rejected a lot of places” during the lengthy location scout for the film, Jones says. “Something would be in your sight lines that wasn’t right. But when I found the country that was right — north and east of Las Vegas, New Mexico — all of the locations turned out to be in pretty much one place, all of them found in one day. You look until you find it. We were getting desperate, but that’s desolate, treeless country. I was much relieved there are still places like that out there in America.”
The scholar in Jones loved the process of adapting the Glendon Swarthout novel into a screenplay and researching the period. It’s a time little filmed by Hollywood, “which has made a lot of Westerns, but ironically, has told the same Western stories over and over.”
Research is a subject he warms to.
“There was a fellow named Solomon Butcher, an itinerant photographer, who worked in the middle of the 19th century in Nebraska,” Jones said. “He left extensive records, photographs, of those people and their houses, their lives.
“He had a standard motif. These people were not used to having their picture taken. It was a very big deal in their world. So when Solomon Butcher showed up and set up his camera, the angle would be very wide. He’d include the entire house.
“And the entire family would put on their best clothes — grandma, grandpa, the kids, everybody — come out and stand in front of this house, built of sod bricks, or built of mud, dug out of a slight hill or built with four sod walls. They would put their entire lives into this picture.
“If they had a good crop of watermelons that year, they’d bring out a table and put a watermelon on it. If they had a piano or a melodeon, that would be brought outside.
“The men would quite often have their gun. If they had a milk cow they were proud of, they’d get her in the shot. Somehow. I remember one picture, they were so determined to get that beautiful milk cow in the frame that they just walked it up on the roof of the house. Cow, standing on top of the dugout, looking down on the family in front of the house. Damnedest thing. Bizarre, but very, very real.”
Butcher’s photographs were all the research he needed for the sod houses, the hairstyles and the clothing of 1850s Nebraska.
And in Swank, already earning Oscar buzz for her Hepburnesque performance, he found “an impeccable actress who is strong, determined and physically perfect for the part.”
Jones filmed the Oscar-winning Swank in stark, colorless frames that could be snapshots from Walker Evans’ portraits of Great Depression and Dust Bowl women.
And being a trifle ornery, he didn’t sweet-talk her into playing a part that every other character describes as “plain as an old tin bucket” or, as Briggs himself mutters, “plain as hell.”
“They can all call her ‘plain,’” Swank laughs, “but I found her so beautiful in so many ways. It just goes to show you that how some people define ‘plain’ kind of misses the point. She has morals and values and manners. She chooses to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.”
Swank relished the chance to learn how to harness a mule to a plow, and the chance to work with another Oscar-winning actor turned director. And she lets the world in on a secret about her famously crusty co-star and director.
“He’s made a feminist Western,” she says. “He’s a brilliant person, well-educated and well-schooled on humanity and people. It transcends time, this movie. The objectification of women, the trivialization of women, women who are labeled ‘bossy’ when they’re just being independent. It’s all in this.
“It still goes on, and here’s a movie that shows us how far we’ve come, in some ways — treating the mentally ill for instance — and how far we have to travel in others.”