In his latest film, The Hero, Sam Elliott plays an aging movie star facing end-of-life decisions and wishing he had handled his past in a more responsible way. It’s not an autobiography, but Elliott is so simpatico with the character that you can feel — both cheer and grieve — all the emotions he endures. The role is a comfortable fit for Elliott — director/co-writer Brett Haley created it for him. In some ways, this male-centric film is a lovely companion piece to Haley’s previous film, I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015), in which widow Blythe Danner comes to realize she’s not too old to kick up her heels and find love again — which shouldn’t be too hard, since her romantic interest is that sexy devil himself: Sam Elliott. What a double bill it would be to see these two films together in one day.
Actor Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is in a recording booth giving his all to “Lonestar Barbecue Sauce — the perfect pardner for your chicken.” It’s too hilarious, but Lee delivers a sales-perfect reading in his hypnotic drawling baritone. (Elliott has done many iconic voiceovers, including for Coors beer and Dodge Ram Trucks.)
Watching the world go by from the deck of his Malibu beach house, Lee, despite his lucrative part-time employment, is not happy. He drinks too much and never met a marijuana joint he didn’t want to light up. The unpleasant diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is not a surprise, it’s just a long postponed wake-up call. Avoiding his real life, Lee often remembers the glory days of his most famous movie, The Hero. The young Lee Hayden rides his stallion on the plains, stares at a friend hanging dead from a tree, and quick-draws on the bad guys before they know what hit them. Yesiree, he was a real cowboy back then. Was it really 40 years ago?
At his drug dealer’s house (Nick Offerman,TV’s Parks and Recreation), Lee meets another customer, a mysterious Amazonian lovely named Charlotte (Laura Prepon, Orange is the New Black). It’s instant electricity, but Lee, to his credit (and unlike most movie men his age), is reluctant to pursue Charlotte because she is at least three decades younger. But she, no doubt captured by That Voice, the mustache (Elliott was inducted into the International Mustache Hall of Fame in 2015), and his irresistible old-fashioned charm, aggressively goes after him. He takes her as his date to the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild to receive a lifetime-achievement award. Instead of thanking everyone, Lee pulls to the stage an enchanted matron from the audience and puts the plaque in her astonished arms — it is she, Lee says, not he, who deserves honor for achieving a life well-lived. The crowd applauds madly and the videotaped speech goes viral (“Viral? What does that mean?” Lee asks) — and suddenly Lee Hayden is a hero on everybody’s Hollywood script list.
Meanwhile, he must deal with the harsh realities of his cancer diagnosis. Since he’s never been a good father, trying to reach out to his grown daughter (Krysten Ritter, Marvel Jessica Jones on Netflix) is a disaster. His ex-wife Valerie — played by Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife of 33 years — is sympathetic but aloof. Ross, who exploded on the screen in The Graduate in 1967 and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969, had been married four times before she met Elliot in 1978, on the set of The Legacy. You might not recognize Ms. Ross after all this time, so look sharp, she’s in two fleeting scenes.
In one odd development, the age difference between Lee and Charlotte becomes painfully obvious. It turns out that Charlotte is a stand-up comedian — who’d a thunk it? What’s considered cutting edge in today’s comedy world often manifests as vicious, and she ungraciously chooses her recent lovemaking session with Lee as the subject of her routine. It’s not funny, but at least it’s mercifully short. Lee does the only thing a gentleman of any age would do — he walks out. Wiser, maybe, and sadder, which makes the audience love him even more.
Which, of course, is the purpose of the movie.
The Hero is a darned good movie, full of heart and dignity, a simple tale of reconciliation. Mature audiences will enjoy that it expresses things about growing older that most of us find hard to voice in real life. Younger audiences will appreciate the chance to see Sam Elliott as they never knew him.
The Hero opens June 30th at Flat Rock Cinema.