Junior Bonner

“We could’ve won.” – Ace Bonner

“We did, Ace.” – Junior Bonner

The experience of watching Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah, 1972) in tandem with Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) works so brilliantly that it ultimately cannot be explained in words: this double-feature operates on your heart. Surprising as it might seem, these films, one dripping in western nostalgia, the other in crime fiction and Blaxploitation motifs, have similar musculature. Jackie Brown and Junior Bonner both expertly explore the feelings, goals and desires behind a certain “one more time around” approach in life. While many films may use this aphorism as an opportunity to squeeze sympathy out of the audience, what these two films do is exactly the opposite. These films allow you to feel pride and strength with their characters, even in their failings or periodic brokenness. These are beautifully fragile films and they should not be missed.

 

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Heads’ up: I am the last person that could speak to either Jackie Brown or Junior Bonner objectively. So if you want a neutral report on either of these films, get it someplace else. The cast of Junior Bonner alone makes my heart stop. Firstly, it’s a Sam Peckinpah film. As I’ve mentioned to my colleague Kim Morgan, who has written beautifully about Sam Peckinpah both here and here, I have never seen him as the brutal/controversial filmmaker many others have. He’s incredibly nuanced and sensitive. Even films like The Wild Bunch (1969), supposedly one of the most violent films ever made up until that time, has moments of pure joy and heartbreak. Peckinpah’s work in Junior Bonner, his first film after Straw Dogs (1971), was notably tame. Ideally, Bonner was supposed to “bring the audiences back” after the ferocity of what they had witnessed in his last film (admittedly, Dogs can be gruesome). But it is a Peckinpah film, through and through. It also depends on how you define “tame.” While there are no guns or killings, there is a strain of emotionality running through the picture that is about as raw as it gets. Junior Bonner will break your heart (as long as you have one).

Playing the injured rodeo star Junior (or “JR” as he is known) is Steve McQueen. He may have been great driving cars around San Francisco, but there is something about the way that his face is built, the way his skin is weathered just so, and the way his eyes romance a woman or express determination that makes him ideal to say goodbye to the old west. In many ways, he is analogous to Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, as there is a bit of the Old West in Max Cherry’s world too. He is, in his own Elmore Leonard-esque manner, the Last Cowboy, and no one is going to rule his range but him. These old school masculinities have very vibrant and dynamic landscapes and whether they tend towards noir, western or even sci-fi at times, many of them exist in a truly liminal space, blending into one another, borrowing genres, slipping into one another’s stories, Max becoming Junior, Junior becoming Max. At the end of the narrative, the one ultimately important principle is some success and not always for themselves. For Max the success was for Jackie, for JR, it was for Ace, his father.

 

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And Ace – can we please talk about Ace??? WOW. So Robert Preston, the Music Man himself, plays Ace Bonner. But Ace – well, Ace is sorta a…loser. There’s just no nice way to say it. Ace is the kind of man who could sell dirt to a farmer but then go drink and gamble away all his money. A smart and extremely charismatic man, but a fumbler. He’s intent on getting to Australia for his next “big find” (gold prospecting). He knows it is going to be a success! And, much like all of his other “successes” it is pretty clear that this too will likely fail. But he believes in it. HARD. With the same intensity that Junior believes that he’ll win this one. Last. Competition. Like father, like son, eh?

Junior isn’t Ace’s only son. Curly, played by yet another one of my all-time-favorite actors, Joe Don Baker, is the one who lives and plays by the rules. He’s the one who’s gone “straight” as it were. He has made a good life for himself and his wife there in Prescott, AZ, and is the thorn in the side of his brother, reminding him that Junior is exactly like their father and yet not to end up like their father. Peckinpah’s choice of Baker for this role is also a small nod for those who know. When Peckinpah was editing The Wild Bunch, editor Lou Lombardo showed him a clip from a network TV show called The Felony Squad starring Howard Duff. This particular episode (“My Mommy Got Lost”) featured Joe Don Baker in a wonderful role and a brilliant slow motion gunfight that was groundbreaking as far as editing techniques were concerned. Peckinpah utilized this for TWB.

Speaking of Howard Duff (we weren’t *quite*, but look into The Felony Squad since that TV show seriously kicks ass), the woman he was married to for years changed the face of cinema and happens to be one of the stars of Junior Bonner. Her name is Ida Lupino. Much like the use of the incomparable Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, the appearance of Lupino in Bonner brings a hardcore feeling of feminism and women’s cinematic history to the picture, whether the director intended it or not. Peckinpah was many things but he was NOT a stupid man. Lupino had not worked in many years. Junior Bonner was her first film since 1966; so having her in this work was certainly a bold statement (and Sam was nothing if not bold). While only 12 years older than Steve McQueen, she played Ellie Bonner, his mother. But goddamn if she doesn’t play her well.

 

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Lupino had a way with the camera, both behind it and in front of it, throughout her life. It didn’t hurt that Lucien Ballard was her cinematographer for Junior Bonner, since he was a goddamn genius. Her scenes with Robert Preston are beautiful and lingering, feisty and fabulous, funny and engaging. Ellie Bonner is another character in this Peckinpah population that is concurrently facing success and failure (her relationship with Ace, her children, her own existence) and working to handle that in one of the most beautifully resilient ways that any woman could. Junior Bonner, for all its depictions of human missteps and examinations of flaws as part and parcel of life’s beautiful journey, mostly celebrates the ability to survive. Even if it’s just once. Please consider that when you watch Jackie Brown as well. They fit like peas in a pod.

The rest of the cast in Junior Bonner is nothing to sniff at either – the wonderful Dub Taylor, Ben Johnson, the stunning Barbara Leigh (who was carrying on affairs with McQueen, Elvis and James Aubrey at the time of filming!)…They all add to the richness of this work. Junior Bonner was also the final film for Mary Murphy, a wonderful actress who was in a favorite Western of mine, Westward the Women (William Wellman, 1952) as well as The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1954) and the great Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955).

Jackie Brown and Junior Bonner are an exquisite double feature. They both operate on the idea that women are strong through and through and that even the most damaged and exhausted of men can fight one last fight. These days, I’ve been thinking that the lines between genres are becoming far more blurred. This double feature, playing the New Beverly on September 6th, is most certainly a Western double, because both films come down to that final blaze of glory-HFS-let’s-goddamn-do-it ending. But they are also both melodramas, and Jackie Brown is a great fucking crime fiction Blaxploitation film with some of the greatest music and feminist work I’ve ever seen in my life. It may initially seem like a strange double bill. But watch these films together: they work. Beautifully. They are challenging, wonderful, funny and complete treasures.

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