"This Is my happy face."
Look at that face. Just look at it. That is a face built for Cinema. Not for beauty or posing, but for character.
Tommy Lee Jones has become, in just a few short years, the great old man of American Cinema. In recent times, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman have squabbled over that title in their choices of roles, but Jones has come along, up the outside, and overtaken both of them.
Its not about talent, not purely, at any rate. Each of these three men is a Great actor. They could all play Lear and do an awesome job (can you imagine Gene Hackman play King Lear?). Its about choices. In the last few years, Jones has started to take risks. Or maybe hes just realised that hes getting old, he'll never be Harrison Ford - because even Harrison Ford isn't Harrison Ford anymore, whatever Calista Flockhart may say - and decided to stop listening to his agent and start listening to his gut instead.
"The Fugitive" almost ruined him, you see. He was fantastic in it - charismatic, ambivalent, scary, obviously intelligent. It was a massive hit and it won him an Oscar. Often, winning an Oscar for a certain kind of role in a certain kind of film can screw up an actors radar. So it was with Tommy Lee Jones. He went all commercial on us. He slummed. I remember reading an article about the making of "the Fugitive" in Premiere magazine and it contained a picture of Jones reading the New York Review of books with his feet up - on a Directors chair, of course - on set. He was obviously an intelligent guy, its there in his eyes, along with many other things. But he made a series of dumb films, playing nothing parts. His first film after the Oscar, for instance, was "Blown Away". There is something demonic about Jones - that bitter, evil grin, those dark eyes. He should be brilliant at playing villains. And he was, once, in "JFK", where his character was a scheming, clever liar, an interestingly conflicted, complex creation. But his attempts to play cartoon villains, caricatures and pantomime figures bring out the worst in him - the ham. He just gets bigger, and all the subtlety and modulation that face is capable of is lost. "Blown Away" is a great example of this (as well as a good example of a bad Irish accent), as is "Under Siege" and "Batman Forever".
He played Hero roles, too. In trash like "Volcano" and "US Marshalls" he drifts through, obviously never really trying or taking any of it seriously. "Men In Black" had compounded the success of "The Fugitive", giving Jones little to do but act as a foil for Will Smith but rewarding his choice of material with incredible commercial success. It seems that success convinced him he was a movie star, but of course hes not. Part of him must have realised that and remained true to his Texan self, because he made his directorial debut with the amiable Texas-set Western TV movie "The Good Old Boys" in 1995.
Maybe he got tired of it all, of playing second fiddle to the likes of Ashley Judd in movies like "Double Jeopardy", because he seemed to take a break between 2000 and 2002. Maybe it was the influence of Clint Eastwood, with whom Jones worked on 2000's "Space Cowboys". Eastwood has ever been expert at playing the Hollywood system - he makes the films he wants to make. When he whores himself, its on his own terms. Yet he retains clout and commercial viability.
Jones returned to the game different. He sleepwalked through the troubled, flatulent "Men In Black 2", but after that all of his choices seemed a bit more personal, a bit more reflective of his own tastes. Even a piece of genre pulp like William Freidkin's (virtual "First Blood" remake) "The Hunted" seems more Tommy Lee, and in its thorough approach to its own limited ambitions, it is totally successful. Jones seems invested in the story and the role, concerned as the film is with solitary, haunted, solemn men and a pursuit through a near primal wilderness (it also features what maybe the greatest knife fight in any film ever). He seems more focused and present in it than he had done for a while. He followed it with Ron Howard's "The Missing", playing the kind of role he was surely born to play. He played a haunted, difficult man, struggling with his past, his mistakes and his own nature. The film - a dark, unsentimental Western with distinct nods to "The Searchers" - gave him a strong actress to play off in Cate Blanchett, an acknowledgement of his own Native American blood and a chance to prove anew that if there is any contemporary actor meant to make Westerns, it is Tommy Lee Jones. After all, in the earlier years of his career, when he was more successful in television than cinema, he had been notably fantastic (alongside Duvall) in "Lonesome Dove" as another driven, difficult, haunted man. Back then he had been convincingly playing several decades older, but by now he was the right age, and those years of experience and living showed in his face and in his eyes. This was a man damaged by life and by his own choices, and Jones effortlessly communicated that alongside an innate formidable quality he is never without. He is ever a man you would not want to mess with.
He has possessed that quality for decades. Its there in his performances - for television - in "The Amazing Howard Hughes" (1977) and "The Executioner's Song" (1982). In both films he plays strange, driven men, his energy burning in him, the dark anger in his eyes barely contained and hinted at by the reediness of his Texan whine. I saw "The Amazing Howard Hughes" on television not long after Jones' career had really taken off in the early 90s, and he was so good in it that I was stunned he had taken so long to find true fame and success. But then he is not a conventional leading man. Even in his youth, he wasn't beautiful in the right way, there was a flat hardness to his screen presence, something resistant and a little frightening. His persona, while revealing a surprising tenderness when properly scrutinised by the camera, always seemed somewhat cruel to me. As if he is too exacting, too hard on others. But he was capable of outright theft of a film. In John Flynn's "Rolling Thunder", Jones plays the hero's best friend, and great though lead William Devane is in the film, Jones makes a greater impression in his few short scenes. He just seems utterly alive and intense, playing his barely-there character with real belief and energy.
After "The Missing", he did something he'd never really done before - he made a straight comedy. In the "Men In Black" films he is essentially a straight man. His laughs come from the incongruity of his personality set against the outlandishness of the material. "Man of the House" works its few laughs along similar lines, but Jones is enjoyably game and self-deprecating throughout. Perhaps he knew then that his next project would be "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", his debut feature as a director. And what a debut - a magisterial, complex, beautiful, funny and moving examination of the New West which played like the kind of film Peckinpah might have made more often if only they had let him. In other words, it recalls his "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia", a brave move for any film to make. That Jones' film arguably surpasses the Peckinpah only makes it all more stunning. As well as his fine direction, Jones gives one of his very best performances - burying his characters grief and loss of sanity beneath his machismo and stoicism but hinting at it barely perceptibly. He followed it up with another set of brave moves - first he acted in "A Prairie Home Companion", Robert Altman's final film, and then he picked two other dark pieces set on his home turf: "No Country for Old Men" and "In the Valley of Elah".
The films seem almost like companion pieces, both set in the parts of Texas we rarely see on screen, and both concerned with America and the violence seemingly so central to its nature and identity. Jones plays an older man in both films, bowed beneath the weight of that violence and struggling to deal with it. Hes amazing in each film. The fire and anger of his youth and early middle age seems to have deserted him, and instead he is filled with sadness and an impotence which only becomes more moving in a man of such energy and vigour. He functions as a sort of chorus in "No Country for Old Men" and yet it is with him that the film's true interest lies - his bafflement at the violence he follows, his sadness at the dreadful things life does to people. "In the Valley of Elah" casts him in a similarly bruised role, struggling to find a reason for his son's death upon returning from service in Iraq, and not liking what he finds out. That sense he once carried of being too hard on others has been withered by age, and now he seems perpetually let down by them. Let down and hurt by that. The way he deals with this is heartbreaking - his stoicism, his refusal to give in, even to grieve. His age has given his acting a new depth, a new emotional heft that only experience can provide, and made him an even more fascinating screen presence than he was before.
A few years ago he purchased the rights to a couple of James Lee Burke's series of novels about Louisiana PI Dave Robicheux (Phil Joanou's "Heavens Prisoners" is an adaptation of another of the series). His next film, "In the Electric Mist" is the first to feature Jones in the role, and if its faithful to the books, then the casting will be a perfect fit - Robicheux is a man haunted by his past and subject to bouts of sentimental alcoholism and ultraviolence. French director Bertrand Tavernier is an intriguing choice of director, and his recruitment together with the distinct possibility that the film will play at this years Cannes festival (as both "Three Burials" and "No Country" did before it) suggests another ambitious, interesting choice of project by Jones. Perhaps he will be the one to play Lear after all...