Coming of age: Hal Holbrook shines in ‘That Evening Sun’
December 31, 2009
ASPEN – This past Monday night at Belly Up, bluesman B.B. King showed Aspen audiences what he’s still got at the age of 84. Not bad, all things considered.
King, who was rated as the third greatest guitarist of all time in a 2003 Rolling Stone article, apologized for any lingering effects of a recent bout with the flu. But he treated audiences to that full-bodied tone he coaxes out of his Lucille, his beloved black guitar; his growling voice; and versions of “The Thrill Is Gone” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” And perhaps the ultimate treat was just to see King himself, looking reasonably robust in his black tux.
This is, of course, all standard B.B. King, and that is just what the sold-out crowd showed up for. No one expected him to bust out new songs and new looks. Probably the latest addition to King’s show was “When Love Comes to Town,” a song he recorded as a duet with U2 in 1988.
Aspen audiences will get a look at another 84-year-old artist Friday when “That Evening Sun” shows, at 3 p.m. at Harris Hall, in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings. The film stars Hal Holbrook – who was born in February of 1925, seven months before B.B. King – as Abner Meecham, a Tennessee farmer.
Those familiar with the highlights from Holbrook’s work might expect his Abner Meecham to be a gentleman farmer, perhaps a Northeastern professional running out the clock, misplaced, in rural Tennessee. The actor’s best-known mid-career roles include a New York stockbroker in “Wall Street”; the senior law partner in “The Firm”; and the Washington insider/informant Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men.”
He has also played presidents, doctors, military officers and judges – all educated, white-collar characters. Holbrook, an Ohio product who graduated from the state’s Denison University, first made his name in a one-man show that had him playing the elderly Mark Twain.
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But in “That Evening Sun,” Holbrook is breaking out from his mold. Abner Meecham is a man of the Tennessee land all the way. So much so that he escapes from a nursing home to reclaim the farm that his son – a lawyer, as it turns out, played by Walton Goggins – has rented to the Choats, the area’s bottom-of-the-barrel family.
Abner is emotional, not particularly sophisticated, and direct about what he wants – not traits much associated with the standard Holbrook characters. And Holbrook’s portrayal here is fundamentally physical, in the way he stakes out a spot in the farm shed, his confrontations with Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), his fumbling for and holding a gun. The camera never shies away from zooming in on Holbrook’s octogenarian arms and face. It’s almost as if B.B. King had traded in his chair, tuxedo and three-chord blues classics in favor of becoming a swaggering rapper – MC B.B. – and was making music videos in a tank top.
“It’s funny. I feel like I’m still learning how to act,” Holbrook said from a hotel room in Houston.
Even funnier is that Holbrook is learning to act in different ways, in a different world than he has been accustomed to. Holbrook is featured in two upcoming films that, like “That Evening Sun,” are independent, small-budget productions. In the drama “Flying Lessons,” he plays a former soldier with Alzheimer’s. In “Good Day For It,” a thriller which is set almost entirely in a diner, he plays the cook.
“It’s a thrill – who woulda thunk it? A few years ago, I was doing a movie every three or four years,” Holbrook said of his busy schedule of late. “They’re both low-budget, but good scripts. There may not be much money, but the roles are interesting.”
Holbrook began this late-career rebirth in 2007, when he appeared as the paternal Ron Franz reaching out to the idealistic adventurer Chris McCandless in director Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” Holbrook earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor – his first Oscar nomination, and the oldest male actor ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
“I was amazed that Sean Penn chose me,” Holbrook said. “I still don’t know what the hell he saw in me. He said the first person he was thinking of was Marlon Brando. Maybe he was joking.”
Holbrook’s work in “That Evening Sun” doesn’t seem to be generating the same sort of attention from the awards-givers, though virtually every review praises his performance. It is, in its way, a more impressive and remarkable piece of work than what he did for “Into the Wild.” It truly was work: “That Evening Sun” – directed by Scott Teems and based on a short story by William Gay – was shot in 21 days, with the cast putting in 12-hour days in the 90-degree-plus heat of Tennessee. Holbrook was there for all of it; in the final version, Abner is almost never off the screen.
And it is a grueling character Holbrook portrays, a combative old-timer who digs his heels in against the Choats and his own son, while hanging onto the happier, mellower memories of when his beloved wife was alive. (Abner’s late wife Ellen, seen only in flashbacks, was played by Dixie Carter, Holbrook’s wife of 25 years.)
Part of the reason Holbrook slips so convincingly into Abner’s skin is that the farmer is closer in character to the actor than the senators, lawyers and judges he has built his career on. Holbrook actually lives part of the time in Tennessee, “in a two-gas pump, one-cannon town.” (He lives the rest of the time in Los Angeles, land of infinite gas pumps, and perhaps a cannon or two.) “I don’t walk around in pinstripe suits,” the engaging, down-to-earth Holbrook said in a steady, clear voice. “I’m an outdoors-type person. So that was just me being myself.”
It was also Holbrook modeling other Tennesseans he has known. “As they say, there was no quit in him,” Holbrook said of Abner. “He was not going to be shoved around by anybody. That reminded me of people I know in Tennessee. Like my father-in-law.”
Holbrook’s late father-in-law lived with Holbrook for years. Holbrook says that he and Dixie Carter’s father, Cart, were at opposite poles politically, with Holbrook occupying the left end of the spectrum. But the two found a happy middle where they didn’t merely co-exist, but developed a relationship.
“He and I didn’t have a whole lot of things we could discuss,” Holbrook said. “Yet in this quiet relationship we had, I developed a lot of respect for him. He was a man’s man; he was belligerent. If he didn’t pull a knife on you, he’d at least yell at you.”
To create the character of Abner, Holbrook imagined his father-in-law in the circumstances Abner was in: the land he had worked sold off by a son he didn’t care for to a man he had no respect for. Abner, Holbrook said, “was not different from what Cart would be if he was threatened, his dignity was threatened, what he held important was threatened.”
Lifting Holbrook’s acting another notch, his Abner turns out not to be a saint. By film’s end, the viewer is left questioning whether Abner has gone too far.
“He had a lot to learn. He had to learn humility,” Holbrook said. “I wouldn’t say he learned it, exactly, but by the end you see the first rays of sunshine coming over the horizon.”
Lonzo Choat, too, might not have been quite the devil Abner had painted him as. “You understand this man had a life, was trying to make a life, make it work,” Holbrook said. “He just didn’t have what it takes, and that’s sad. Just sad, being looked down upon, being held back. Which is what happens to a lot of people in the South.”
Holbrook has played plenty of multi-faceted characters: the two-faced Lou Mannheim in “Wall Street” and the shadowy Oliver Lambert in “The Firm.” For a while earlier in his career, he worried he was being typecast as a villain. But Abner is a more genuinely complex character. Holbrook, accustomed to the black-and-white contrasts of Hollywood films, didn’t understand how audiences were supposed to react to “That Evening Sun.”
“I fought [director Scott Teems] a lot,” he said. “I didn’t get it. I said, ‘Who’s the hero here? You can’t leave it up in the air.’ And he kept quietly fighting me.”
The first time he saw the final film, in a screening room of cast and crew, Holbrook wasn’t convinced that viewers would get it. Then, when the film premiered, at the ultra-indie South by Southwest Film Conference in Austin, in front of an audience, “It was like looking at a different film,” Holbrook said. “It just reaches out and grabbed you. They got it.”
Maybe, after some six decades, the filmmaking world is getting Hal Holbrook, in his entirety. Before “That Evening Sun,” his last starring role on the big screen was in the 1974 romantic comedy “The Girl From Petrovka.” His romantic counterpart was Goldie Hawn. Hawn was just entering her prime, but the film flopped.
“It didn’t sell, and that was the end of my career as a leading man,” Holbrook said.
But at 84, he is experiencing a rebirth as an actor. “I’m hoping it continues to open doors,” Holbrook said of his work in “Into the Wild” and “That Evening Sun.” “Because I love acting. I never thought about doing anything else. Number one for me is to get a good piece of material and a chance to understand the person I’m trying to play.”