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Leave Sam Elliott The Heck Alone

If a person can’t debate art on a podcast without becoming a news cycle that threatens his career, we’re in trouble.

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Sam Elliott, who knows a thing or two about Westerns, is enduring a wave of bad press for making a perfectly reasonable point about “Power of the Dog.” If a person can’t debate art on a podcast without becoming a news cycle that threatens his career, we’re in trouble. But, of course, that much is perfectly clear.

Elliott was asked about “Power of the Dog” on Marc Maron’s podcast this week. “You want to talk about that piece of sh-t?” he responded, launching into an extended criticism of the film’s authenticity and director Jane Campion:

That’s what all these f-cking cowboys in that movie looked like. They’re all running around in chaps and no shirts, there’s all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the movie. … She’s a brilliant director, I love her previous work, but what the f-ck does this woman from down there, New Zealand, know about the American West? And why the f-ck did she shoot this movie in New Zealand and call it Montana and say ‘This is the way it was?’ That f-cking rubbed me the wrong way, pal. …Where are we in this world today? It’s not the biggest issue at hand, but for me it was the only issue because there was so much of it. I mean, Cumberbatch never got out of his f-cking chaps. … He had two pairs of chaps, a wooly pair and a leather pair. Every time he’d walk in from somewhere, he never was on a horse, maybe once, he’d walk into the f-cking house, storm up the f-cking stairs, go lay on his bed in his chaps and play his banjo. It was like, what the f-ck? Where’s the Western in this Western?

The West, Elliott contended, was about “multi-generational families that made their living, and their lives were all about being cowboys.” This is a serious and reasonable argument against an Oscar-nominated film but because Elliott questioned the authenticity of its gay “allusions,” the clip went viral on Twitter, blue checks jumped on him, and the entertainment media picked it up.

What most of the coverage about Elliott’s comments left out, however, is how he started the critique. At Maron’s prompting, Elliott first recalled seeing something in the Los Angeles Times about how “Power of the Dog” amounted an “an evisceration of the American myth.” More likely, he was referring to this review in The New York Times that called the film “a great American story and a dazzling evisceration of one of the country’s foundational myths.” With this crucial context, his comments make even more sense: Elliott was “rubbed … the wrong way” by a foreign director shooting a movie about his country on foreign soil in a way that criticizes a genre he loves and in a way he felt was unfair.

Elliott is a rich and famous guy who can defend himself and needs no sympathy, but the rest of us need to stop treating artists like politicians who are expected to make every point with focus-grouped precision and sensitivity.

What about Spaghetti Westerns and “Brokeback Mountain”? his critics asked. Great question! Let’s not pretend one of the greatest Western actors ever is unaware of the genre’s basic history. A quick search would have brought them straight to Elliott’s praise of “Brokeback Mountain,” which he called a “beautiful film.” It wasn’t “anti-cowboy,” said Elliott, who also argued the movie didn’t qualify as a Western because it was “about sheepherders, not cattlemen.”

“I’m a purist when it comes to the Western,” Elliott explained earlier in the same interview, which was published in 2006.

Which brings us back to 2022. On the day of the State of the Union, amidst the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Elliott was the third most popular trend on Twitter as of Tuesday afternoon. I took screenshots of the headlines related to his interview with Maron from Google News, which you can see below.

This is a case study in how Twitter and the entertainment news media perpetuate cancel culture. Journalist groupthink coalesces on Twitter and publications know they can mine the controversy for clicks, even if most readers disagree with their framing of the story as an issue over “homophobia” or Elliott’s comments on sexuality at all.

Clearly he saw Campion’s treatment of sexuality as one part of its broader problems with authenticity. Clearly the guy who just did “Grace and Frankie” is not anti-gay. Clearly the legendary actor knows about Spaghetti Westerns. But, hey, he didn’t spell all of that out in his conversation with Maron, so it makes for easy clickbait.

I think Elliott’s gripe with a major film in a genre he practically owns is newsworthy and fair game for entertainment outlets. I also think his passion for purity is commendable and correct. There’s a distinct American culture that good Westerns tap into. The genre is one of our greatest cultural exports. (The left, of course, is very concerned about purity and authenticity when it comes to “culture appropriation” but only when the “oppressed” culture is being appropriated.) As Lee Van Cleef told Variety in 1967, Sergio Leone’s films “were authentic and heavily researched, saying that on the set the filmmaker ‘carried a small library of well-illustrated American books devoted to American history of those times.'”

Elliott wants to hold Western filmmakers to those standards. He wants to defend the purity of a great tradition. That’s it. It’s harsh but hardly controversial or unreasonable. If the journalists and publications who jumped on this story to frame it with an identity politics lens (Entertainment Weekly’s story invokes Campion’s gender) actually wanted to have that conversation, the coverage would be fine.

The effect of their cynical clickbait, however, is to create a personal and professional headache for Sam Elliott over his comments in a heated podcast discussion. Which, by the way, is why people listen to podcasts, to hear people speak with more depth than they get from cheap clickbait. Unjust punishments for reasonable speech just create less reasonable speech.