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Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994, Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves)

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Blessed — if that is the word — with thumbs the size of … um, well, a baby’s forearms, Sissy Hankshaw makes good by hitching all over America. Through the Countess, one of the weirder of her benefactors, she meets Julian who weighs her sympathetically but who regrets the thumbs which strike him, Tom Robbins writes, ‘as though Leonardo had left a strand of spaghetti dangling from the corner of Mona Lisa’s mouth’. A tampon commercial shoot takes Sissy to the Rubber Rose Ranch where she falls among and bonds with a chapter of cowgirls. Drugs (peyote) and girl-on-girl sex (especially with one Bonanza Jellybean) are liberally available and Sissy sticks around. Trouble eventually develops and a stand-off with armed sheriffs leads to tragedy. Sissy learns to accept what has occurred and settles at the ranch.

‘To Fleetwood Star Robbins,’ reads the dedication of Tom Robbins’ famous novel, ‘the apple, the pineapple, the mango, the orchard of my eye. And, of course, to all cowgirls, everywhere’. It’s as good an indication as any of the style of Robbins’ writing, a style common among American novelists of his vintage (John Irving, Don DeLillo), one of wacked-out, over-exuberant, ever-knowing verbosity that delights and infuriates by turns. Gus Van Sant’s movie, narrated by Robbins himself, is dedicated baldly and bleakly ‘For River’. And the then recently deceased River’s little sis, Rain Phoenix, is the glorious Bonanza Jellybean in Van Sant’s mouth-watering and highly eclectic cast, among whom is John Hurt, cast as so often as Hollywood’s idea of a sort of Christopher Walken of omnivorous sexual ambiguity. There’s Roseanne too, as Mystic Meg.

The movie has a chequered history. Several attempts were made to bring the story to the screen, for the novel was hot after its publication in 1976. Van Sant’s eventual version was extensively re-cut after it bombed in previews and festivals. Its British release was delayed by two years, the kind of thing that depresses expectation, especially for a project as anticipated as this. As it turns out, some of the strengths of both the book and Van Sant’s film-making survive to the screen. Inasmuch as it is a failure, it is a much more interesting and likeable failure than many a more conventional blockbuster. And everyone loves k.d.lang’s score.

production details
USA | 96 minutes | 1994

Director and Writer: Gus Van Sant after the novel by Tom Robbins

cast
Uma Thurman as Sissy Hankshaw
Keanu Reeves as Julian Gitche
Lorraine Bracco as Delores Del Ruby
River Phoenix as Pilgrim
John Hurt as The Countess
Crispin Glover as Howard Barth
Edward James Olmos as Musician at Barbecue
Udo Kier as Commercial Director
Ed Begley Jr. as Rupert
Carol Kane as Carla
Grace Zabriskie as Mrs. Hankshaw
Angie Dickinson as Miss Adrian
Pat Morita as The Chink
Rain Phoenix as Bonanza Jellybean
Sean Young as Marie Barth
Buck Henry as Dr. Dreyfus
Heather Graham as Cowgirl Heather
Roseanne Barr as Madame Zoe

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