Katharine Hepburn in “Rooster Cogburn”
While Henry Hathaway’s “True Grit” was the film which landed a career Oscar for Western stalwart John Wayne it wasn’t coveted by all, so when a repeat outing for Wayne’s barmy Marshall character Rooster Cogburn was announced in 1974, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Naming the sequel after Cogburn himself, and casting Katharine Hepburn as the Christian puritan opposing his every reckless vice, the film recalls the premise of John Huston’s “The African Queen,” in which Hepburn also played an uptight missionary facing off against a whisky-swilling renegade. It didn’t have nearly the same success as “Queen,” instigating mixed notices from critics and only mild awards buzz for the then-68 year-old Hepburn.
The overwhelming hurdle for “Rooster Cogburn” (and indeed Rooster Cogburn himself) is that the film expects us to find worth in spending time with this character, whose alarming ideology reveals a cutthroat attitude towards political justice and becomes the film’s coup-de-grâce towards dismantling pacifism. Wayne’s maverick drunkard offers far less nuance than Humphrey Bogart famously procured but Hepburn is still required to dish out a mix of ethical disdain and mild fascination in response to the incompetence of her co-star, undergoing a journey which sees her actively engage in violence as a necessity despite being firmly opposed to it as a solution.
As Mattie Ross’s noble mettle becomes less and less convincing in “True Grit” (and that goes for either version) so too does Hepburn as Eula Goodnight; self-righteous, funny, and, yes, spirited, in the fiery, en garde manner which only she can really muster, but discouragingly disciplined in the way that she haughtily observes the ruckus around her, rather as if it’s an extension of having to slum it with a film and character below her abilities. Wearily resigned to being the sidekick with the arc, Hepburn offers little in the way of incisive backstory, content to ride alongside Wayne while the makeshift fortifications of her moralistic crusader easily crumble.