July 22, 2014
Working on a big hat piece for the next issue (October) and want to cover some hat issues I have. Here's where I'm going. Need your feedback and input.
Under The Hondo Brim
The right hat can make all the difference in a Western. If you don't believe me, check out Robert Duvall's pheasant-taking-over-his-head job he wore in Joe Kidd, vs. the hat he wore in Lonesome Dove. Case closed.
Hats are very strong indicators for a character's being and once a strong character has been established, it's tough to change the uniform, especially the hat. For example, John Wayne stuck with his "Stagecoach" hat for numerous movies, from The Shepherd of The Valley thru the so-called cavalry trilogy and on up to Rio Bravo and beyond.
Hats can peg a man but they most certainly define anyone attempting to portray a cowboy.
Here's Cowboy Hat Rule #1: the hero cannot change hat styles in the middle of a film. Val Kilmer as Billy the Kid got caught in this trap when the movie makers attempted to duplicate the only-known-photograph hat. So Val as Billy wore this hat in several scenes, but then when they cut to later riding scenes he was back wearing the wider brim sombrero. This is not impossible in the real world (most cowboys have different hats for different occasions) but it just looks wrong in a movie. We want to see the hero with the same hat. Now, there are exceptions
Another example is John Wayne wearing a big, wide straw during one of the early scenes in The Alamo, then at the end he reverts to the coonskin cap. It's ultimately jarring, or, at least unsettling. We want our iconoclastic cowboys to stick with one style hat throughout.
Sometimes actors get romanced by a hatmaker who foists a ridiculous hat style on the actor, who then demands to wear the innapropriate hat in the movie. This happened to John Ford when Pedro Armendariz showed up with not only a new hat, but chaps, vest and gear, all designed by a friend in Mexico. Ford put his foot down and told him he was portraying an outlaw who probably stole his clothes and couldn't afford such fancy duds. Pedro threatened to quit but Ford prevailed. Some directors aren't so lucky. Check out Ellen Barkin in Wild Bill, playing across from Jeff Bridges as Hickok. She was allegedly enamored of Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1950s) and showed up with a similar hat. She looked so goofy it ruined her performance. At least it did for me, but then I'm a serious hat guy.
Hat Rule #2: a hat brim can be too large for the actor. Robert Mitchum's sombrero in "The Wonderful Country" is a great hat but it's precariously close to a beach bum hat and as accurate as it may be, Mitchum looks less than studly wearing it.
Hat Rule #3: a hat brim can be too small. It's hard to play a big dog with a little brim. Just ask Paul Newman in "The Life & Times of Roy Bean." Face it, he looks a little goofy.
Hat Rule #4: The hat that endures in movies is the hat that tells us who the character is before he opens his mouth.
"If that was my hat I'd sh** in it and bury it."
—Bad hat behavior