Is Hollywood Doing Fine With Oklahoma?
There was a moment at the start of Matt Damon’s new drama “Stillwater” that made me both proud and a little disappointed.
Damon’s character Bill is an unemployed Oklahoma oil rig interviewing for a new job when he mentions my little-known hometown, Shawnee. Exciting! But then he pronounces it wrong.
It’s a subtle difference that perhaps only an Oklahoman would dispute. It emphasizes the first syllable (SHAW-nee), but we emphasize both syllables. It’s all a story of how various cities in the state sound unexpectedly: Miami, Oklahoma, looks like the city of Florida until you get to the last syllable, which is not “mee” but “muh”. The city of Prague rhymes with Craig.
My feelings are definitely mixed about my Oklahoma roots. Growing up there, I was deeply involved but not always invested, even knowing then that this was not going to be the right place for my future. The state has a lot of space (maybe too much) and it was certainly easy to make friends. But I wanted more beyond its plains. Creative career options, like film journalism concerts, were limited to say the least. I moved a year after graduating from college and haven’t lived there since, although most of my family still live there. Still, there is something about Oklahoma that I can’t shake, and I protect it a bit when it appears in the movies.
Your first cultural experience with the state was probably the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical named after him. The people of Oklahoma breathe this spectacle, and the 1955 film version, as easily as air. For many theater kids out there, performing in a production is a rite of passage. I was in two, one in college, another in high school. The tendency of Oklahomans to stage “Oklahoma!” appears in Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 drama “I Think About Ending Things,” which is set in Oklahoma but explores the place and the musical more as a state of mind than an actual state.
Even though “Oklahoma!” exalts the wonderful smells of “stirred wheat” and the joys of hawk watching, a closer reading of these words might leave you with the perception of a place where there is not much to do. Hollywood probably felt it too.
When I started watching movies regularly as a kid, few took place in Oklahoma. Tulsa was home to the characters from “The Outsiders” (1983), which was broadcast a lot on cable. Although the venue itself was overshadowed by the cast (Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon) in a stream of career-launching performances. And there’s a scene from the 1988 comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” that lingers in my memory: Steve Martin, playing a crook claiming to be mentally retarded, screams the state’s name passionately and to many. times while hitting a pot. Although it was a ruse, it was the most excitement I have ever heard for Oklahoma. Later came the 1996 blockbuster “Twister,” about tornado chasers, which really couldn’t play out in too many other places. And yet, the state was still eclipsed by the effects of digital tornado (and those cows).
More recent productions have focused on shameful episodes of history. The HBO limited series “Watchmen” made the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre a central and sobering presence. And Martin Scorsese’s next film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” also set in the 1920s, looks at the murders of members of the Osage Nation just as the oil boom was increasing their wealth.
“Stillwater” takes its name from the north-central home of Oklahoma State University and popular restaurant Eskimo Joe’s. The title has a nice double meaning for a contemplative thriller (still deep flowing waters and all). While the film spends much of its time in Marseille, France, where Bill tries to find a way to get his daughter out of jail, the moments in Oklahoma capture a sort of unadorned working-class milieu with precise familiarity. And, city pronunciations aside, Damon does a good job with an Oklahoma accent, way more than, say, Benedict Cumberbatch in “August: Osage County.” Damon is definitely the kind of guy I knew back home. Seeing him walking around Marseille is certainly as if Oklahoma had arrived on the south coast of France.
I sense that “Stillwater” uses Oklahoma as a replacement for Central America. It would have been nice if the film spent a little more time in its namesake to characterize it beyond a core location of the heart, but it paints Bill with a complexity that belies the assumptions some characters make about him.
I hope Oklahoma has a better chance to shine on the big screen. Maybe someone will approach the state with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s spirit again and figure out how to present it, warts and all, in an authentic way and capturing a sense of its simple yet serious character. Who knows, maybe even Shawnee will finally get her close-up.
#Hollywood #Fine #Oklahoma