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David Lynch Telluride Film Festival – The Straight Story

by Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun-Times, September 1999
with many thanks to Bill Ackerman

Richard Farnsworth seems to make a habit of coming to Telluride with the roles of a lifetime. In 1982, he was here with "The Grey Fox," about an aging train robber. Now he's back in David Lynch's "Straight Story," about an old man who drives a lawn tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his dying brother. Both films seem uniquely suited to his bedrock-solid acting style, which projects absolute, no-nonsense believability.

Farnsworth himself, at 79 still active as a rancher, is a walking repository of Hollywood lore. He spent his early years as a stunt man, working for John Ford and the other greats, and he drops memories like jewels: He was a steeplechase rider in the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races," and a soldier in "Gone with the Wind," and "ran around in a tunic all day" on "Gunga Din," and worked for Cecil B. DeMille on "The Ten Commandments," and is glad he wasn't an actor for Ford "because he was hard on his actors."

He came to speaking roles late, at 46, and got an Oscar nomination in 1978 for "Comes a Horseman," as an old cowboy. "I can't do Philadelphia lawyers or nuclear physicists," he smiles, "and I'm pretty choosy about my roles." At lunch with his fiancee Jewel Van Valin, he said they were on the way to a vacation in Tahiti when his agent begged him to have another look at the script of "Straight Story." He said he didn't know if he was up to the role: "I was scheduled for hip replacement, and riding on that tractor looked painful." But Lynch promised a custom-made silicon cushion on the seat, and Farnsworth took the role that got him a six-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

"I'm solvent," he said, "and I don't have to act for a living. I only want to make decent family pictures. I've never said a four-letter word on the screen and it's too late to start now." Ironic but appropriate that he stars in the first G-rated film by Lynch, whose credits include "Blue Velvet," TV's "Twin Peaks" and "Wild at Heart."


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