Sometimes a Great Movie: Paul Newman, Ken Kesey and the Filming of the Great Oregon Novel (Nestucca Spit Press, 158 pages, $30) is a failure. Harsh words, but its author might agree. Matt Love, a native of Oregon City, set out to authenticate what he calls “the greatest drinking story in Oregon history.” In 1970, while shooting the film version of the Ken Kesey logger novel Sometimes a Great Notion in Newport, Paul Newman allegedly ambled into a bar in nearby Toledo brandishing a chainsaw. He proceeded to cut the legs off the bar’s pool table, then turned around and walked straight back out the door, without uttering a word.
Here’s the thing about great bar stories: They’re best left unverified. Attempting to parse truth from local lore was Love’s first mistake. No surprise, he comes up with nothing—only a dead-end email exchange and the soused remembrances of a few grizzled, old drunks.
That put Love in an awkward position, writing about the adaptation of one of his literary idol’s most admired works into a film he doesn’t particularly care for. As the book’s title suggests, to Love, the movie is only intermittently great. That is probably overstating his opinion: He mostly just enjoys the logging shots. He might be selling the movie a bit short, though. It features very good performances from Newman, Michael Sarrazin and Henry Fonda, plus one of the most gripping protracted-drowning scenes in cinema. If the film fails to translate Kesey’s hallucinatory tone, that’s probably because, partway into filming, Newman replaced original director Richard Colla, who was fired essentially for being too visionary. Love couldn’t persuade Colla to speak with him, a regret he mentions repeatedly.
With no confirmed
celebrity billiard-table destruction, no bitter former director, and a
dispassion for his own subject, Love struggles to fill even the book’s
meager 158 pages. It’s padded with pictures, many of which are blurry
photos of the cast standing around. A section in the middle is taken up
by first-person accounts from extras, some conveying charming nostalgia
but most boiling down to, “These Hollywood folks got on mightily well
with the small-town locals. And man, could Newman put away cans of
Olympia.” In a footnote toward the end, Love claims the real reason he
wrote this book was to persuade people to read the Kesey novel. So why
didn’t he just write about the damn book?
GO: Matt Love will read from Sometimes a Great Movie on Friday, May 25, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St. 7:30 pm. Free.