The real Osage County

I grew up in northern Oklahoma, so I’ve been noting with bemusement how Osage County all of a sudden has a presence in popular culture.  First there was Ree Drummond, a.k.a. the Pioneer Woman, whose show on the Food Network has introduced foodies to the cuisine I grew up with and whose blog about her life on the vast Drummond Ranch has introduced a wide audience to Oklahoma culture.  Then native Oklahoman Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer Prize for his play August:  Osage County, which was then turned into a movie featuring a whole army of A-list actors, such as Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, and (of course, since he’s seemingly been in every other movie this year) Benedict Cumberbatch. The film was shot on location, so all of these Hollywood superstars lived for two months in a condo complex in Bartlesville and shot the movie in a house in Boulanger, with scenes in Pawhuska and Barnsdall.  So I had to see this movie.To me, Osage County has some of the most beautiful and evocative landscape in Oklahoma, hilly prairie with streams and arroyos as far as the eye can see.  It’s wide open spaces with a big sky and hardly any people, true cowboy and Indian country.  These are the Oklahoma Hills that Woody Guthrie wrote his song about.

 

The county is also the Osage Nation.  Unlike in most Indian reservations, tribal members here could own their land, and the usual cycle of poverty was broken when oil was discovered.  About the only trace of humanity you can see in much of the prairie is oil wells.  (Ballet great Maria Tallchief, by the way, was also from the Osage nation.)

Osage County is right between where I grew up a couple of counties over and where my daughter and her family now live, we drive through it nearly every time we go to Oklahoma.  I was bemused to think so many movie stars spent time there in what would have been a very different environment for most of them and had breathed the same air that I was used to.  I was curious if they would get the accent right, what they would show of the land and the run-down small towns, if they would capture the feel of the place.

On the other hand, the plot of the movie did not sound promising.  Members of a dysfunctional family get together for the funeral of the dead patriarch, whereupon they start fighting and yelling at each other.  Also, what would be the effect of this cast?  It will surely turn into one big acting seminar.  Would the actors mesh into an actual ensemble or would they all just chew the scenery trying to keep up with Meryl Streep?  I also wondered if the filmmakers would treat their physical and cultural setting with condescension and mockery.

There was some of all that, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed the movie.  I suppose I shifted into my literature professor gear, but I took great pleasure from the darkly comic writing and the actors’ superb performances.  Meryl Streep, whose acting leaves me awestruck, was perfect as the harridan matriarch.  And Julia Roberts, playing her fed-up daughter, matched her blow by blow.   Then there was Chris Cooper as a good-natured in-law, and Margo Martindale as his wife, and, well, everybody.  Benedict Cumberbatch played a part nearly opposite to the forceful characters he had been playing in “Sherlock,” “Star Trek 2,” and “The Hobbit,” proving that he is an actual actor instead of a mere movie star.

Some critics have complained that there are no sympathetic characters, but I find myself sympathizing the most not over characters that are good and likeable and role models.  Those deserve my admiration, but I can only feel sympathy for those who are in some way broken.  In this family, characters break each other.  But they aren’t just fighting.  A story emerges as we learn more about them, and though parts of it were harrowing, I found it interesting and (mostly) satisfying.

As far as the local color goes, the actors nailed the Oklahoma dialect (which is not the same as a generic “southern drawl”–a dialect coach was acknowledged prominently in the credits, with the Scottish Ewan McGregor getting his own).  I recognized many of the places, such as Pawhuska, a once-prosperous town with a handsome red-brick downtown, now with empty shops and boarded-up windows, but ennobled by tribal murals painted on walls like graffiti.  The film showed some of the lovely sunsets and a lowering thunderstorm, and, of course, the prairie.

And yet, the landscape seemed to have been photograph with a filter that drained out much of the color, making it look primarily bleak and depressing.  (Rather than alive and mysterious, which is how I see it.)  Julia Roberts’ character, a daughter who escaped her maddening family by moving to Colorado (!!) had some lines that made me cringe, something about the “disease” of the plains and wondering why anyone would ever settle here.  That was balanced somewhat by what was said about the late patriarch, played brilliantly by Sam Shepard in a prologue, a poet and prairie intellectual (I know the type!).   A professor in a regional state college, he would reportedly turn down opportunities to teach at a more prestigious school, because “he would never leave Oklahoma.”

And yet, the motif of Osage county-and, more deeply, one’s family–as being something to escape from–to Florida, to Belize, to New York City– is prominent.  I understand, but everyone brings their background with them, for good or ill, wherever they go.  Wiser is learning to love one’s family and to cultivate love in a sense of place.

Also, real women in Osage County–especially those of the age and class presented–would not be nearly as foul-mouthed as the ladies in the movie.

Faith in the movie was part of the atmosphere–the funeral was in a church; Chris Cooper gave a heart-felt but humorously tedious prayer before the disastrous funeral dinner–but I couldn’t see it playing much of a role in the people’s lives.  Whereas it does for most of the folks of all races in the real Osage County, even when they are being dysfunctional.

Again, I’m not recommending that you see the movie.  It’s not for everyone.  The language is horrendous.  The characters can be disturbing.  The family problems are depressing.   And yet there is a lot of comedy in this movie.  If you have the kind of taste and sensibility that can reconcile that paradox, you will probably enjoy “August: Osage County.”  Or if you are entranced by acting at its very best.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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