Sunday, September 7, 2014

Oklahoma Crude (1973)

          John Huston and Elia Kazan, among many others, have been credited with the quote that “90% of directing is casting.” To understand what this remark means, check out Oklahoma Crude, a handsomely produced but frustrating period drama about a belligerent woman operating a wildcat oil well in the early 20th century. The picture has four main characters, but only one is cast perfectly. The protagonist, Lena Doyle, is a tough-as-nails loner who works with her hands and dislikes people so much that she expresses a wish to be a third gender, complete with a matched set of sex organs, so she can tend to her own carnal needs. Improbably, she’s played by Faye Dunaway, a cosmopolitan beauty who seems more suited to a Paris fashion runway than a rugged work site. Further, because Lena rarely speaks during the first half of the picture, the role requires a performer with expressive physicality. Dunaway’s greatest gifts are her face and voice, so she’s wrong for the part on every level, even though it’s easy to understand why she relished a chance to try something different.
          The next important character is Noble Mason, a scrappy rogue whom Lena reluctantly hires as a laborer/mercenary once representatives from an oil company try to seize her well by force. Since the Lena/Noble relationship has a Taming of the Shrew quality, the obvious casting would be a handsome rascal along the lines of Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. Instead, Noble is played by George C. Scott, unquestionably one of the finest actors in screen history but not, by any stretch, a romantic lead. Rounding out the troika of casting errors is the presence of dainty English actor John Mills as Cleon Doyle, Lena’s estranged father. Seeing as how he plays the role with an American accent, why didn’t producer-director Stanley Kramer simply cast an American? Well, at least Kramer got the villain right, because Jack Palance is terrific as Hellman, the sadistic enforcer whom the oil company sends to menace Lena.
          The intriguing plot of Marc Norman’s script revolves around Lena’s ownership of a nascent well, which gains Lena unwanted attention once clues indicate the well might produce oil. Hellman makes a cash offer that Lena refuses, so Hellman simply steals the well, in the process ordering his people to beat Lena and her employees nearly to death. Then, with the assistance of ex-soldier Noble, Lena reclaims the well, sparking a lengthy standoff that culminates in a bittersweet combination of tragedy and victory.
          Oklahoma Crude gets off to a rocky start, because the first 20 minutes—in which the Lena/Noble relationship is established—simply don’t work, largely because of the aforementioned miscasting. Things pick up once Palance arrives, and the last hour of the picture is fairly exciting. Legendary cinematographer Robert Surtees contributes his usual vigorous work, and composer Henry Mancini’s music keeps things bouncy. (Occasionally too much so.) As with most of Kramer’s pictures, the tone rings false at regular intervals, since the filmmaker can’t decide whether he’s making a dramedy or a serious picture. The novelty of the story and the strength of the primal good-vs.-evil conflict ultimately sustain interest, but it’s a bumpy ride—especially when the syrupy, Anne Murray-performed theme song, “Send a Little Love My Way,” gets played on the soundtrack for the zillionth time.

Oklahoma Crude: FUNKY

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