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Joel Coen on Jeff Bridges: 'He Didn't Give a S---' About Living Up to John Wayne

Jeff Bridges in 'True Grit
Wilson Webb/Paramount Pictures

Joel and Ethan Coen phoned THR's Tim Appelo this week to talk about their film True Grit. 

Here's their take on 1969 True Grit star John Wayne's acting teacher (his horse), Jeff Bridges' attitude about Wayne, the Wayne/John Goodman/Wallace Beery connection, and the incredible luck of a film expected to hit $100 mllion in grosses on Saturday.

The Hollywood Reporter: Did John Wayne’s iconic performance cast a shadow on your True Grit?

Joel Coen: Jeff kinda didn’t care. The one person who might have been put off by it. He just kinda didn’t give a shit.

Ethan Coen: A lot of people might take umbrage, but I’m not sure that was the iconic performance of John Wayne. To think of it as iconic largely because of the Oscar is a mistake.

THR: Wayne got it for being John Wayne.

J. Coen: People remember the Oscar, but not the performance.

E. Coen: John Wayne was fantastic in other movies. Joel had a theory he learned about acting by watching his horses. Like a lot of big guys, like John Goodman, he had incredible physical gracefulness, like a dancer. People think of him lumbering around and leading with his gut, but he was graceful.

THR: That’s why biographer Garry Wills says Raoul Walsh promoted him from prop man to star in 1929: his grace.

J. Coen: Fran [McDormand, Joel’s wife, star of Fargo]  was into John Wayne a few years ago: Rio Bravo, Rio Grande, Liberty Valance.

THR: Wills claims Wayne's Rooster Cogburn performance is just an imitation of Wallace Beery. Since Wallace Beery’s wrestling picture was what inspired Barton Fink, is Wallace Beery at the center of film history?

J. Coen: I don’t think you’ll find a lot of Wallace Beery in Jeff Bridges’ performance, or John Wayne either. I’m not 100% buying that.

E. Coen: Maybe there’s some Wallace Beery in John Goodman [in Barton Fink].

THR: True Grit is a departure from some of your movies in its straightforward narrative structure. In Fargo and No Country for Old Men, you jump between several characters’ stories – the cop, the killers.

E. Coen: It’s more pointed in No Country, because we have these great actors who don’t have scenes together. Burn After Reading is another example of parallel characters that sort of converge. In True Grit we never leave the point of view of the girl. It’s a simple linear story.

THR: Was that part of what attracted you to the story?

E. Coen: It was neither an attraction nor did we see it as detrimental.

On the circumstances of their first $100-million movie:

J. Coen: You’re in a business where people are constantly being surprised. Movies with big stars and real straightahead genre movies fail, and other things where people go out on a limb do great.

THR: Like The Tourist or How Do You Know?

J. Coen: Again, we’ve been on both sides of that. We’ve come up with three lemons.

E. Coen: Also – yeah, we were kinda lucky in the release date. Some of the would-be competitors, heavyweights, tanked. You’re lucky in the wind you get at your back, a few weekends where the competition is not too strong. And usually we think the critics are full of s---, but this year, they’re full of discernment.

Follow THR's The Race Awards blog on Twitter: @timappelo.

Feedback, brickbats, shameless lobbying to: Tim.Appelo@thr.com.