Jude Law plays the role of Jack Burden, the ex-newspaperman in flight from a patrician upbringing drenched in sorrow. Burden becomes the aide and alter ego to Stark. Law's melancholy expressions and sterile smirks capture Burden's passivity to the agile body language that Penn brings to his role as the populist whose quest for power will use any means available -- graft, strong-arm tactics, blackmail -- to achieve his ends.
"Rampaging around town in a double-breasted suit, a hat covering that rooster hair, Penn walks with his gut thrust out, his arms swinging at his sides," writes David Denby in The New Yorker magazine. "He gives a strenuous, at times shrewd and acid performance, which has been embedded, unfortunately, in a clumsy and ineffective movie."
In the popular mind, Willie Stark is Huey Long. Long was a product of the Great Depression, a political force of nature who galvanized the hopes of poor folk in a state so saddled with poverty as to resemble a Third World backwater. Popular memory has forgotten how bad the roads were in rural parishes in the 1920s and early 1930s, making it tougher for farm families to deliver their goods to market. Director Zaillian erred by setting his film in the 1950s, when white hostility to school desegregation opened a stage for demagogues across the South and Huey's younger brother Earl was a governor who stood in contrast to the political bullies of his era by being surprisingly progressive on matters of race.
Two made-for-TV movies dealt with Huey in a more straightforward biographical way. The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish starred Edward Asner (1977) and Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long starred John Goodman (1995) in the respective leads.
The performances by four front-line actors -- Penn, Crawford, Asner and Goodman -- capture different strands of an epic personality. Each one showed his own take on the nature of demagoguery, how a leader gains support with appeals to the suffering and hopes of a troubled people.
IF WE WANTED TO DO A TRUE STORY IT would have been a miniseries of two weeks, and that would just scratch the surface," John Goodman remarked of Huey and his portrayal in Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long.
We were sitting in an empty conference room at House of Blues in the French Quarter in 1995, shortly after the film wrapped. I was interviewing Goodman for a piece in the Los Angeles Times. Downstairs, his father-in-law and several buddies were having drinks in the HOB restaurant. Goodman met his wife Annabeth in New Orleans and lives here.
Goodman brought flashes of comedy to his role, something rather missing from the other films, perhaps reflecting how Hollywood and the Eastern press traditionally viewed Huey Long. Long struck empathy with the poor by joking and strutting in his speeches, showing holes in his socks and making sport of his enemies, as when he said that there was "more honor in the heel of a flea than the States-Item newspaper." The real Huey Long was entertaining.
In one scene, Goodman is walking up the stairs to the state Capitol, all smiles, when a reporter asks a nettlesome question. The character shift is stunning as Huey/Goodman turns on a dime and practically eats the guy. In another scene, he moves sleepily from bed to bathroom like some outsized Cupid on tiptoes. The dark strain of the man obsessed with power comes through in spades. Sean Penn moves through the new film with a cock-strutting intensity, as if all the energy in the world is coiled inside him, waiting to erupt. Goodman, a much larger man physically, used eruptions of anger to capture the roil of Huey Long's power surge.
Penn was working from a more circumscribed plot and story line. For Willie Stark, in point of fact, is not Huey Long; there is little comedy to the character in the novel or either film version of the book.
I asked Goodman if he had used any figures from history or literature as models in his take on the real Huey Long.
"Macbeth," he replied.
Goodman's notion of Huey as a tragic figure echoed the sensibility of Robert Penn Warren's novel, and the 1970 biography Huey P. Long by historian T. Harry Williams of LSU. Both books won Pulitzer Prizes.
Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long, directed by Tom Schlamme, was based on the historical Long. Paul Monash's script owed much to the Williams biography. In his introduction, Williams paid tribute to Robert Penn Warren for the novelist's treatment of Willie Stark; the good that Willie does to uplift the poor sinks beneath his hunger for power. Power becomes its own goal as Stark violates the boundaries of his cosmos. "His story is a reminder," the biographer wrote, "that a great politician may be a figure of tragedy."
"Huey exaggerated his poverty a great deal because it made good copy," explained Goodman. "But remembering what my mom went through trying to raise two kids on a salesgirl's salary, you could sure buy into a lot of what he was saying. I'll never get my finger on the guy. I have our slant. His heart was good, but absolute power corrupts.
"I love this state," Goodman continued. "I'm a kind of adopted son, and the Kingfish is almost mythological down here, a Zeus. I wanted to do it with as much respect as I could and also without shading it, to get down and dirty with him but not run his name into the ground."
ROBERT PENN WARREN HAD LITTLE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE with Long, though he taught English at LSU in Baton Rouge during Long's last year. In a 1963 introduction to a soft-cover reissue, Warren wrote that he had begun the work in 1938 under an olive tree in Perugia. Reading Machiavelli and Elizabethan tragedy during a fellowship in Italy, he brooded on the myth of the populist, a hero to the masses. Long also attracted "parasites of power," wrote Warren, to "a world of sick yearning for elegance and the sight of one's name on the society page." Warren saw a similar myth-making around the dictator Mussolini, whose "bully-boys wore black shirts and gave a funny smile." The literary portrait of Stark thus drew its inspiration from two latter-day Caesars -- Mussolini and Long.
Robert Rossen directed the 1949 All The King's Men and packed the black-and-white movie with images suggestive of fascist rallies. The bearish Crawford looms over the crowds in torch-lit nights, thick jowls glistening. That menacing, totemic persona registered a worldview of Hollywood and the nation looking back on dictators like Mussolini as evil forces of the night. Broderick Crawford filled out the role with swagger, bluster and a crusty cynicism that stand out in high relief from his later years in the one-dimensional role of a good cop in the TV series Highway Patrol. Millions of Americans remember him not as Willie Stark, but for putting the phrase "10-4" into popular use.
Nothing else in his career came close to Willie.
Stark rationalizes trampling those who get in his way by saying that "plain simple goodness" can't be inherited. "You got to make it out of badness," he says, "because there isn't anything else to make it out of." The scene is pivotal in film and novel.
The 1977 CBS movie, The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish was billed as a docudrama. Edward Asner conveyed the dark side of Huey Long with a balance of gruffness, cynicism and flashes of sweetness. As he moves through the crowds, his facial gestures warm to the adoration of the throngs. Asner is the shortest of the four actors who portrayed Willie-or-Huey. Long also was short, under 5 feet, 5 inches. Throwing himself into a commanding walk, shoulders hunched, Asner uses his hands in cutting gestures, the bullish body language folds into a menacing personality, without need of torches at night.
The film ends with a priceless scene. As in life, the Huey of the film has been extorting money from state workers and contractors for his infamous "de-duct box."
The de-duct box is an enduring mystery of Louisiana politics; what happened to that big chunk of cash that Huey used to fuel the machine? As the wounded titan, Asner sits up in the hospital bed, rolling his eyes heavenward, and then expires. A crowd of cronies is bunched around him. One of them says, "Huey, where is the de-duct box?"
Art imitates life: the big man dies with the money, somewhere, out there, just where, none of them knows.
John Goodman confessed to his own sense of mystery about the character. "Huey came along with a bloody lip after he was shot and said, 'Who hit me?' What does that mean? There are people who would bet their lives that Carl Weiss didn't kill him."
And what was Goodman's take on the assassination theories?
The big man shrugged. "I'm just an actor."