The Nicest Fella: The Life of Ben Johnson by Richard D Jensen – Last of the Cowboys

Ben Johnson

Published in 2010, The Nicest Fella is about one of the last of the cowboys. Ben Johnson was not just a “screen” cowboy, he was the real deal. Growing up in Oklahoma  Son, as he was known to family and friends, earned his spurs on the back of a horse before doing so on screen.  Johnson came to Hollywood to deliver horses to the film industry at a time when westerns were all the rage and the demand for horseflesh was high.

Richard Farnsworth
Richard Farnsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After discovering that he could make more money in a single day than he could for an entire month working on a ranch, he decided to stick around and began doing stunt work.  He worked a lot with another stuntman who became an  actor in his later years, Richard Farnsworth who was later nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Straight Story. Ben would actually win an Oscar for his work in the film The Last Picture Show, which he referred to as a dirty movie because of the cursing and nudity in it.

Richard D Jensen does an excellent job chronicling the life and times of one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors. He had an enormous amount of help from Helen Lee Johnson Christenson, Ben’s sister, who had collected over 30 years worth of information on her famous brother. Jensen himself met Johnson in 1984 at a film festival and the two got on so well that they ditched the festival and spent the evening at a cafe talking. Jensen says that it was then that he knew he would write about Johnson one day.

The book goes back to Ben Johnson’s own famous father Ben Johnson Sr. A rodeo champion and manager of the largest ranch in Oklahoma, he was well known and well respected. Ben Jr, or Son, new that he would have to do something different from his father if he wanted to make his own tracks in the world. Although he would later return to the rodeo world and attempt everything his father had done as a sort of catharsis.

When Johnson first came to Hollywood, the industry was still in it’s infancy. He was not the only real cowboy in the industry. In fact the famous Tom Mix had not only started life as a cowpuncher, but he had worked on the same ranch as Ben Johnson Sr.

Tom Mix
Tom Mix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben Johnson was the last of the cowboys though. His code and moral stand stayed saddle bound his whole life, He did not hold with using foul language in front of women or children and he would stop others from doing so. This same “code” meant that he continually attempted to get Hollywood money funnelled into his home state to help those who needed it.

Johnson also took a “break” from Hollywood to go back to the rodeo. He is the only actor who won an Oscar and the  Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association‘s Team Roping World Champion title in 1953.  Ben was later inducted  into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association‘s ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1973.

The title of the book came from paraphrasing Johnson’s acceptance speech for winning the Oscar in 1972. At the end of his very short speech, he announced that what he was going to say would cause  a lot of conversation but, “It couldn’t happen to a nicer feller.”

He was right. What the book shows is that very few, certainly not any in the book, had an ill word to say about the man. The cowboy turned stuntman; turned actor; turned rodeo star  and back to actor, was a man of his word and had time for everyone. His strict moral ethos gave him the strength to stand up to notorious bully John Ford, and it says volumes about Johnson. Even more so that Ford, later in his career, would talk Ben into working in The Last Picture Show. If Ford had not “pushed” Johnson to do it, he would have kept turning the role down.

At 299 pages, the book is not overly long, but after biography finishes, Jensen has one of the most complete filmography’s I have ever seen. This was a monument to a great man and the author has laid his foundation carefully and built a wonderful bio of a brilliant character actor.

Johnson

If you are a fan of westerns, you’ve seen Mr Johnson in countless roles in films that range from John Ford’s epic paintings  to Sam Peckinpah‘s brutal realism. Well known as the “sidekick” of Duke Wayne and the best horseman in Hollywood. It is a wonderful read and definitely a book for anyone who is a fan of this excellent character actor.

I have to give this a five out of five stars just because Richard D Jensen does a brilliant job and he is the only writer who has taken the time to write a Ben Johnson biography.  The book is available from most book sellers, but sadly, is not in an ebook format.

Ben Johnson (actor)
Ben Johnson (actor) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Smith

United Kingdom

4 September 2013

The Devil Inside (2012): Demons, Demons Everywhere

Directed by William Brent Bell (Stay Alive , Sparkle and Charm)  who co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Peterman (Stay Alive) The Devil Inside is the latest in a long run of ‘found footage films’ which have been presented as ‘documentaries.’

Considering that this film opened theatrically on 6 January 2012, it is pretty amazing that the film has garnered over 101 millions dollars gross profit to date. The film was made on a budget of 1 million dollars. By anyone’s calculations, that is an excellent return of investment.

The producers of The Devil Inside, were very clever in their marketing campaign and ‘lack’ of preview screenings for critics. This ensured a strong opening, so strong in fact that they knocked Tom Cruize’s latest Mission Impossible sequel off it’s three week run at first place. Despite the strong opening, word of mouth soon decimated the numbers of folks who wanted to see the film. They dropped a very impressive 76% in their audience viewing figures by the following weekend.

I downloaded the film and watched it this afternoon. I was surprised to find that I rather liked it. After the bad press this film got from critic’s retroactive reviews, I was expecting a complete mess of a film. It was a little disorganised, to be sure, but it wasn’t that bad.

The film opens with with a 9-1-1 call and footage from a 1989 murder scene. The first few moments deal with a multiple murder that is covered by local television news and we get to see the police comb the area for clues. The film then jumps forward about twenty-one years and we meet the daughter of the woman who murdered the three people whose corpses we met at the very beginning of the film.

Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) is the daughter of Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley). Maria, we learn, killed the people who were from the Catholic Church and were attempting to exorcise her. It went, obviously, very wrong. Maria is moved to Rome to be cared for by the Church’s medical facilities.

Isabella is taking part in a documentary being shot by Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama) and they are going to Rome to meet momma Maria.  After arriving in the Vatican city, Isabella joins an exorcism theory class being taught by a Priest to a roomful of theological and psychiatric students. In a move that can only be translated as a huge sign post, the padre circles the last category of his lesson which is Multiple Demonic Possession.

The only thing the priest did not do was to smack the circled word with a pointer and yell, “This is important! I will be asking questions after the class.” We, the audience, see that this ‘important’ possession is going to feature later in the film.

After the theology class, Isabella joins a small group of novice priests and other theology students and they  talk about Exorcism‘s and how you cannot really learn anything about them in a classroom setting. Two of the priests, Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth) are best described as ‘renegade” men of the clergy. Both the men feel that the Church doesn’t do enough in helping folks who are possessed.

Father’s Ben and David have already performed a number of Exorcism’s that the Church had turned down. Both men have the strength of their convictions and take Isabella with them to an on-going exorcism that they have been doing.  While they are performing the ritual on the possessed girl, Michael is filming it and the possessed girl knows Isabella’s name. The girl also walks on the wall and suspends herself over the bed.

Convinced that Ben and David know what they are doing, she asks them to look at her mother as the Church is refusing to perform the ritual on her. After tricking their way into the medical wing where Maria is being held, they set up their equipment and start the ritual.

Maria is possessed by more than one demon and she reacts very badly to the exorcism. After things calm down, they are thrown out of the hospital. Both Ben and David are excited about their ‘findings.’ Ben says that the Vatican can’t deny Maria help now.

Unfortunately that is precisely what the Church does and now they want Maria to be taken back to the US. Meanwhile, David is acting very strangely, eating in the dark dining room and baptizing a baby a little too long in the holy water. Isobella is acting strangely and everyone is upset and stressed out.

The police are after David for attempted murder and he kills himself, Isobella goes into some sort of fit and Michael and Ben rush her to the hospital. While Isobella is ‘resting’ in her room, Ben and Michael are talking to a nurse about how she is doing, the nurse replies that Isabella is stable and resting.

While the nurse is talking to Ben, we see staff rushing to Isabella’s room. She has attacked a nurse and it is taking several members of staff to try and control her. She eventually fights her way out of the room, only to be brought down to the floor. While she is lying face down on the floor, she gets bent so far backwards that it’s amazing that she isn’t broken in half.

Ben and Michael get Isabella in the car and drive to get help to exorcise her. While Isabella attacks Ben, Michael takes his seatbelt off and deliberately crashes the car at high speed.

Fade to black.

Reading various reviews on this film, I noticed quite a few critics slammed the ‘very quick ending’ and pretty much panned the entire film. I felt the ending worked well with what was going at that point in the film.

My problems with the film were many, but, not enough for me to not enjoy it. One problem I’ve already written about and that was the ‘this is important’ clue about Multiple Demonic Possession.  A little too obvious for my tastes, something akin to killing a fly with a sledgehammer.

It was also obvious from the first time we meet Father’s Ben and David, that their motives for helping Isabella aren’t for the most selfless reasons in the world. Ben wanted to prove the Church wrong and David wanted to show that they, he and Ben were right. I know that at first glance, it seems like they want the same thing, but there is a difference between the two men and their hidden agendas.

At the end of the film, after they attempted to drive Maria’s demons out, everyone who was in the room became ‘infected’ so to speak. David, Isobella, and Michael all begin changing, with David bring the most obvious and quickest. The film makers also deviated from the ‘verse’ of exorcism films.

From the very first Exorcist in 1973, the demon (or demons) attack only the people directly performing the ritual, the priests. In The Devil Inside the demon attacks everyone in the room with a primary target of death for each person it possesses.

The film was meant to look like a documentary cobbled together from ‘found footage’ and it is to the film’s detriment. Too many other films have used this format and it is rapidly turning into a stilted cliché. It is also just one more film to add to the growing list of Exorcist films already out there.

The Last Exorcism (which actually did the documentary theme a hell of a lot better), The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Last Rite. All of which were, in my humble opinion, better films.

The Devil Inside was choppy, uneven and the ending did indeed feel a bit rushed, but that did not bother me as much as the illogical direction that the film veered off into. It did have a fair share of scares and creepy scenes in it, but not enough to warrant any further viewings.

The cynic in me believes that the producers decided to abstain from critic previews and teaser trailers to hype up the films opening weekend. This strategy appeared to have worked very well by their box office receipts. I can see why audiences were ultimately disappointed by this film. But really, it doesn’t come near qualifying as the worst film in 2012.

Of course I could be wrong.