"Coal Miner's Daughter," an admirable movie version of Loretta Lynn's autobiography, is everything "The Rose" wasn't: down-to-earth, modest, affectionate, authentic.
Young American screenwriter Tom Rickman and British director Michael Apted have made an astutely crafted and performed film which is one of the straightest biographical narratives ever distilled for the screen. In fact, they steer so clear of the customary overdramatization in this rags-to-riches show-business legend that the movie may not appeal enough to customers thrilled by the aggressive vulgarity and shameless sentimentality of "The Rose" and the Streisand version of "A Star Is born."
"Coal Miner's Daughter" is basically a survival story. Keeping faith with this fact eliminates certain melodramatic alternatives, such as the portrayal of Loretta as a tragic heroline (an opportunity seized by Robert Altman and Joan Tewksbury when fictionalizing her into the ill-fated Ronee Blakley character in 'Nashville"), or the portrayal of Loretta's husband Mooney as a tragic victim of her celebrity, in the tradition of "A Star Is Born."
The Lynns were, of course, closely involved with the production of "Coal Miner's Daughter," but it appears that their cooperation only reinforced the filmmakers' preference for factuality. There is no attempt to conceal significant character flaws; and it is apparent that the emotional bond between Loretta and Mooney -- smartly impersonated by Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones -- was always vulnerable. Initially, it's threatened by the colossal ignorance and impulsiveness that prompt them to marry when Loretta is barely into her teens. Finally, it must survive the stresses created by her fame. But survive it does.
Rickman's chronicle begins with the first hint of romantic attraction between Doolittle "Mooney" Lynn, an energetic ex-GI, and Loretta Webb, the eldest daughter of a coal miner and farmer scratching out a living for his wife and seven kids in Butcher Hollow, Ky. The scenario moves ahead purposefully, hitting the highlights, accumulating impressions of this combative and yet curiously fortunate alliance as it weathers a rocky start, settles into early parenthood (Loretta had four kids by the time she was 18) and then confronts the limelight, after Mooney encourages his wife to go public with her singing.
Apted locates this straightforward narrative in a persuasively depicted social and regional setting: Every stop from Butcher Hollow to the Grand Ole Opry seem accurate and evocative.
Curiously, the film turns into a stronger vehicle for the coal miner's son-in-law than the coal miner's daughter. The role of Mooney Lynn should be a decisive popular break-through for Tommy Lee Jones, who reveals a richly humorous, personable side not previously discernible.
Presumably, Mooney himself was a keen inspiration. It appears that tinting his hair red has somehow inflamed Jones with a fresh, winning, eccentrically funny screen personality that grows on you. Jones is most endearing as the middle-aged Mooney we observe at the end of the film, his gut beginning to protrude and his subdued manner suggesting an avuncular Rip Torn. He has a wonderful telephone scene in which he intercepts a call from one of Loretta's importunate fans: His initial irritation softens into compassion as he realizes how much this contact means to the intruder and how little it really costs him to be magnanimous about the intrusion.
Sissy Spacek appears to be an ideal choice for Loretta, and it's impossible to find fault with her acting or singing. The role itself seems neglected: You expect Loretta to be the center of interest, but she doesn't maintain parity with Mooney. It seems unlikely that this imbalance was either intended or perceived. Perhaps the film-makers identified with Mooney more than they realized.
When the end credits appear, we hear Spacek singing several numbers that weren't performed in the course of the movie, including a few that remind you of how funny Loretta's lyrics often are, and how deeply rooted in her identity as a wife and mother. In retrospect, it appears that the scenario should have paused in its steady tread to concentrate more on the ways Loretta matured as housewife, mother and impromptu vocalist. These matters are touched upon, but once-over-lightly doesn't seem adequate.
Compared with Spacek, Beverly D'Angelo seems to get a better opportunity to shine in the supporting role of the last Patsy Cline, the reigning queen of country & western vocalists at the time Loretta emerged from obscurity, and she responds with a dazzling impersonation. A pair of noted musicians, Levon Helm of The Band and folk singer Phyllis Boyens, submerge their identitites so completely in the roles of Loretta's father and mother that you'd swear they were local people Apted simply discovered on location.
Reviewing Apted's last feature, the insubstantial but elegantly visualized "Agatha," Pauline Kael described it as "the rare movie that is too fluid." It appears that she isolated a perplexing trademark of his sytle. "Coal Miner's Daughter" doesn't lack a gritty, authentic human substance, and it doesn't impose lush imagery -- but it's also fluid in a peculiarly frustrating respect.
While the procession of sequences remains vivid and absorbing, one often feels that climactic episodes have been muffled or shortchanged. Over-doing the underemphasis isn't as damaging as its opposite, but Apted appears to carry equanimity to extremes. There's a lot to like in "Coal Miner's Daughter," but the movie has a peculiar way of drifting away from you. The abrupt, anticlimactic fadeout is anticipated by vague, irresolute tendencies throughout the picture.
Ridiculous as they were, the circumstances surrounding Bette Midler's demise in "The Rose" had more impact than those surrounding Spacek's nervous breakdown and subsequent recovery in "Coal Miner's Daughter." It was side-splitting oomph, but oomph all the same. Apted seems to disdain oomph altogether, treating an authentic chance at climactic pathos as if it were no different than any other sequence.
Nonetheless, Apted's restraint is laudable. As every confirmed movie-goer knows, there is a sense in which junky fabrications is more entertaining than honest representation -- but the latter will always command more respect.