The Power of the Dog and the Poisonous Cowboy Movies
Eventually, these classic westerns were largely replaced by the more morally ambiguous and stylistically adventurous westerns of the mid to late 1960s and 1970s, reflecting a period of political unrest. Films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, both released in 1969, and spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars (1964), undermine the idealistic view of the West with their nihilistic anti-heroes. These films were subversive in their lack of patriotism but were often intensely misogynistic. There were westerns that didn’t follow these rules, like Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), starring Joan Crawford as the saloon owner who literally wears the pants on, and the queer crossdressing and coded adventures of Doris Day in. Calamity Jeanne (1953). But for the most part, the western was both about and written by men. And while partnerships between men were celebrated, all sexuality was purely subtextual. The gay cowboy is certainly a fetishized figure in pornography and sometimes makes it into the mainstream in films like Midnight Cowboy (1969), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and, of course, Brokeback Mountain (2005), but these are rare. examples, and undoubtedly, only Brokeback Mountain is close to a true western.
Confront the Wild West
The emergence of several westerns over the past decade by female directors may seem like a new phenomenon. But, as Shelley Cobb, associate professor of film at the University of Southampton, tells BBC Culture, “women have been writing and directing westerns since the beginning of cinema. In the early decades. [silent film director] Lois Weber is known to have made two, now lost, and Anita Loos wrote at least one. They are rare, but not unknown. “
A milestone was The Belle Starr Story in 1968. Lina Wertmüller was called in at the last minute on this extra-cheesy spaghetti western, which she co-directed under a male pseudonym. Nine years later, Wertmüller would become the first woman to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director for Seven Beauties. But The Belle Starr Story wasn’t exactly a feminist triumph, with its questionable sexual politics and sordid soft-porn aesthetic. It was not until 1993 that another director ventured into the Wild West, this time with much more daring. Maggie Greenwald’s Little Jo’s Ballad tells the story of Josephine Monaghan (Suzy Amis), who is kicked out of her home for having a baby out of wedlock and forced to fight her way through a ruthless world. After escaping a sexual assault, she trades her dress for men’s clothes, cuts her hair and takes on the male character of “Jo”. Unlike Calamity Jane, whose cross-dressing is a fun eccentricity that she ends up giving up to get married, Josephine lives like Jo until the day they die. Sadly, perhaps because of its radical portrayal of gender nonconformity as empowering, The Ballad of Little Jo hasn’t had a major impact on culture.