Elroy Jackson Jr.: I don’t want no job, neither. I work for nothin’, take fifty percent of the prize money.
Burton Colt: To begin with, I hire drivers on my terms.
Elroy Jackson Jr.: And end up nowhere.
Burton Colt: Where do you get off being so goddamn snotty?
Elroy Jackson Jr.: I know my potential. So do you.
Junior Jackson has a lot of pressure in his life. It doesn’t seem fair to this young man but … he’s been a little cocky on the roads lately. His daddy, a moonshiner, has just been pinched by the law, the family moonshine still blown up and destroyed. The business is ruined – for now. The reason? Junior, driving his 1968 Mustang fastback full of hooch, tears down the North Carolina country roads, not just whizzing past police officers but knocking them over, laughing and singing along to the bluegrass tune on his car radio. He feels he’s invincible. Of course he’s not. The world is going to come at him one way or another – be it the law, his family or the profession he will find himself in. And yet, there’s something beautiful and innocent and free about all of this, this young man speeding along, his talent and his out-and-out joy of driving. Moonshining is what he grew up with – his daddy got him in this business, it’s all his younger brother knows – but you can see where his passion lies – racing. Speed. Maybe deep down he wants to drive the hell out of this county, out of this business, even as he loves his family so much.
And he really does love his family.
But when his father is busted, Junior feels guilt and sadness and determination to help him out – and also to give his mother a break. There’s a lot hanging on him. His brother, Wayne, is furious: “It’s your hot doggin’ that put him there!” he hollers at him when he tears up to Junior distressed over their father’s predicament. He also knows Junior is the one who is going to have to fix it. Junior is upset and, in that flash, thinking about the next step – you can see it all register on his face: what the hell is he going to do about this? He’s got to do something. And he feels it’s all his fault. All of that “hot doggin’” in that car. But when Wayne slams his hand down on his Mustang, Junior says to him firmly, “Don’t hit the car, man.”
It’s a funny little moment, but it’s a truthful one, almost as if Junior knows right then and there that this car (or an even better car) and that law-breaking speed will be his key to success and wealth and, most importantly, his father’s freedom. There’s all kinds of wonderful moments like this in Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero, a movie about racing, yes, but really, more of an absorbing character study of a boy growing into a man and moving beyond his father – a country kid who is navigating through a world that is crooked and corrupt and paid off all over, and becoming tougher and more cognizant in the process. But through the course of the movie, he doesn’t become too hardened by what he experiences, not yet, and that makes the picture, at times, immensely touching. He’s a hothead, and while he’s not stupid, he’s still green in many ways. But even when he states his worth and stands his ground, he has empathy, and that seems to come to him quite naturally, it helps him understand; to put things in perspective. And with that kind of empathy and sweetness, you wonder how everything will turn out for Junior Jackson after the last beautifully frozen frame – is he gonna be OK? Will he harden, become too slick or commercial? He can’t stay the same. What will happen?
The real Junior Jackson, or rather, Junior Johnson – Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. (whom Tom Wolfe helped immortalize in his famous 1965 Esquire piece – “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” – which the film is based on – script by William Roberts William Kerby) was indeed OK – in terms of his success anyway. He won 50 NASCAR races during his career, he became a NASCAR racing team owner and was pardoned by Ronald Reagan for his past moonshining conviction. In real life Junior Johnson was the one arrested (his dad did serious jail time – a good portion of his life) but his arrest is omitted from this picture, giving the character, in some ways, more to work towards past himself – his daddy’s freedom. The name was also changed from Johnson to Jackson (I’m assuming this was a legal decision, though Junior Johnson was a consultant on the movie). Another revision: Junior Johnson’s driving career started in the 1950s and he retired as a driver by 1966 – here it’s right in the present – right there in the early 1970s with all of those gorgeous American muscle cars prowling the roads.
The movie doesn’t entirely mimic the appealing, hyperactive zeal of Wolfe’s piece either – a joy to read, like five really good shots of espresso – but that was a wise choice on director Johnson’s part. Johnson instead crafts an understated, personal, beautifully acted and shot (by cinematographer George Silano) and expertly edited picture (by Tom Rolf and Robbe Roberts – Rolf edited The French Connection II, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Jacob’s Ladder and Black Sunday, and was also co-editor on Taxi Driver, The Right Stuff and Heat, among many other pictures. He also had previously edited one of Johnson’s most interesting movies – The McKenzie Break). The picture knows it’s not a by-the-book chronicle of Junior or of stock car racing in general (though the racing scenes are exciting, beautifully textured and obviously carefully researched), and the director, instead, makes a thoughtful Lamont Johnson picture.
And Johnson, throughout his long and varied career, was frequently thoughtful – he was also intelligent, gritty, daring and enlightened. Johnson started out as an actor (he played Ishmael in a 1954 TV movie of Moby Dick, and appeared on stage and in numerous television series, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Climax! and Cavalcad
Johnson often delved into social and political themes in his work – progressive ones, including racial issues (like the powerful “Deadlock,” the 1969 pilot for the television series, The Bold Ones: The Protectors, and his 1970 TV movie, My Sweet Charlie) and the blacklist, (the 1975 TV movie Fear on Trial starring William Devane and George C. Scott about the blacklisting of John Henry Faulk), which had to have been personal since Johnson, himself, had been blacklisted during his career. He directed a well-regarded 1972 TV movie, That Certain Summer, about a gay couple (played by Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen), and how a father will come out to his teenage son. It was a relationship and subject not often seen on television, if ever, at that time, and is considered a milestone moment in television history. Two years later, he made what some consider one of the greatest TV movies ever made, the 1974 The Execution of Private Slovik (also starring Sheen) about a real-life WWII American solider who was executed for desertion. At the point of The Last American Hero he had directed some compelling features in what would be a long and fascinating career in film and television – The McKenzie Break (with an excellent Brian Keith), A Gunfight (Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash as aging gunfighters – worth the price of admission for that – they have great chemistry), You’ll Like My Mother (with Patty Duke – a terrifying movie) and the trippy The Groundstar Conspiracy (with George Peppard and Michael Sarrazin). Later on we’d see Cattle Annie and Little Britches (featuring terrific performances by Burt Lancaster and young Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane), One on One (starring Robby Benson) and the much-maligned Lipstick (which is understandably disturbing in its graphic depiction of rape, but also manages to show how sexist the judicial system is, and Margaux Hemingway is a lot better than she’s given credit for – there’s much to discuss about this controversial picture).
Having been an actor himself, one of his directorial strengths was working with actors – and in casting such excellent players and knowing their strengths – he really allowed his casts to inhabit their characters, make them come alive, feel real and lived-in. In some of his work, Johnson shows that there’s something deeper within the material – and material some viewers might expect to be less insightful, particularly in Johnson’s more “genre” films. The Last American Hero was a race car movie, a moonshining movie, a movie that could have leaned on easy clichés – but it never does. And Jeff Bridges makes this picture something special.
When Junior really rises up in his field – getting around some untrustworthy characters (like Ned Beatty’s promoter Hackel) – and he’s on his way to becoming not just a hero of stock car racing, but a folk hero in general, (he also goes head to head with his car owner and sponsor, Burton Colt, played by a fantastic Ed Lauter) – we watch Bridges truly feel the inner turmoil this young man is experiencing. On the one hand, he’s proud of himself, he’s full of youthful exuberance and cockiness, but on the other, he’s nervous and a bit of unsure about the world. He wants his freedom to remain independent, but sponsorship and ownership seems increasingly necessary. How long can he outrun that?
When he starts having feelings for a racing secretary named Marge (a poignant Valerie Perrine who always seemed to possess an overlay of sadness – she’s wonderful) the movie takes the time to actually present this woman as something more than just a groupie. Yes, she’s sleeping with another driver, Kyle Kingman (a terrific, almost humorously macho William Smith), and though he’s not pleased about it, Junior doesn’t stay mad at her, and neither does the movie. When Junior and Marge do have their intimate moment together, she tells him about how she was before she came to her present – in her words not attractive – and she relays a horrifying, sad story about being invited to a pig party by a fraternity. She describes it almost humorously, even though she was the butt of the awful “joke,” and she laughs at the humiliation now. But you can feel the lingering sadness within her. And Junior feels it too. He tells her she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. And then … she will eventually move on again. What’s refreshing is the movie doesn’t center itself on a typical love story or a by-the-book heartbreak arc – it doesn’t damn her for her decisions, as if Junior has to learn some lesson about the wrong woman (she’s not wrong or right – she just is), and it doesn’t present his loss as a tragedy. It’s just bittersweet. That’s the way of life, it says. It’s lovely.
And for a fast movie – and it’s fast – the racing sequences are incredibly visceral; you can smell the motor oil, the country air, the fumes, you really feel like you are there – it takes its time presenting Junior’s experiences, and particularly his inner feelings. You get this from the supporting performances as well – Art Lund as Junior’s proud, moonshining father, Geraldine Fitzgerald as his long-suffering mother, and Gary Busey as his younger brother – they help create a more nuanced family portrait. These aren’t simply moonshining stereotypes, and Lund brings a poignancy to the role of what could have been a stock heroic criminal daddy, or simply a terrible father.
What he really wants, in the end, is for his sons to not follow in his footsteps. After they build him a new still when he gets out of prison, they’re thrilled to show him his new set-up. He’s not. He says to Junior: “If you lose a race, you get other chances. If you lose runnin’ liquor you get a prison cell, ’cause boy, they got your number.” When Junior asks him just how he’s going to get money to race his car without working moonshine, his dads asks him what his name is. Junior loudly states: “Elroy Jackson, Jr.” His dad then says – “You’ll find a way.” Meaning, go out on your own, you have the stuff. And, you’re not a kid anymore. Junior is already rumbling with a need for something bigger, while being tied to helping out his father. At this moment, father sets son free.
In an extraordinary scene (before his daddy is out of jail), after Junior has dropped Marge off from a party he’s not too keen on (too many strutting peacocks), the young man finds himself wandering around a Kmart at night. That image itself, the fluorescent lights and the Kmart bright colors, is so distinctly American that it catches you off guard with how evocative and, in this case, melancholic it is. He’s lonely. He calls what might be home but no one answers. He then goes into a vinyl recording booth located in the Kmart and records a greeting to his family: “I sure hope you got your stereo fixed, Wayne, so you can play this.” He keeps talking, laughing a bit nervously while trying to put a little showmanship in his message: “This is Elroy talking to you from Hickory where the cars are fast and the women are faster.” He continues with some thoughtful pauses, smiles and lingering sadness:
“Excuse me Mama. Hey, uh, see if you can send this along to Dad, and maybe they’ll let him play it, you know, uh, get that lawyer fella to jerk on some strings. Well, I, uh, I sure been havin’ a fun time here, uh, drivin’ and all .… I don’t know. These us, people out here – they ain’t exactly what you’d call, uh, normal. These drivers – they strut around like they’s damn movie stars or something, laughing all the time, talking too loud… Oh, uh, Mama? I got a real nice motel room. It’s got a color TV and a shower and – uh – And a shower. I mean, the, you know, the color TV ain’t in the shower. I guess the real rich folks get them kind of rooms, huh, Mama? And, uh, Daddy. I just want to say that I’m sorry. And that I love you. And don’t you worry ‘cause I got this plan. So I’m gonna see you real soon. Okay? Okay. Well, goodbye, Mama. Goodbye, Daddy. See you after a while, Wayney. You little suck ass!”
It’s a powerful piece of acting, and not easy (it made me think of Montgomery Clift’s brilliant phone booth monologue in John Huston’s The Misfits), and Bridges goes through a multitude of emotions here without any strain – he is layered and so utterly natural – it’s incredible. It’s also a beautifully composed sequence – a long lens composition, it splits the frame 50/50 between Bridges and his own reflection on the stainless-steel recorder faceplate, working almost like a monologue Junior is having with himself. You can see that he’s not sure about this recording – it seems like just something to do on a bored, alienating night, and maybe it’ll be fun. But while recording, he’s possibly revealing how he’s feeling a little in over his head, how he’s vulnerable. He seems anxious, doubtful. Does he want his family to sense this? When he’s done recording he picks up the record and then breaks it right there. He chucks it in the garbage.
At this point Junior is set to face a lot more in the movie, things he doesn’t know yet. But he must know, somewhere deep down, that things are really going to change for him. There’s something sad in realizing that you’re going to have to let go someday – both to let go of your family, and finally, to let go of some of your independence (he’s going to need a sponsor). You see it all on Bridges’ face, but with such minimalism and mercurial nuance. And Johnson knows how powerful this is. He takes his time with it – unfolding Junior’s feelings with beauty and sensitivity.
The film’s tender theme song, “I Got a Name,” sung by Jim Croce (written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel), follows Junior Jackson around with a mournful kind of pride. It could feel a bit too on-the-nose, but the way Bridges acts and Johnson directs, it never feels that way. It feels like an elegy. Proud but wistful, claiming yourself, but, maybe, losing something in the process. “Moving’ me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway, movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by…”