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Wild Oates

Ned Beatty and Warren Oates, resplendent stars in a Kentucky-Hollywood zodiac that stretches from Tod Browning to Johnny Depp, were sitting by a pool in Houston when Beatty asked Oates, “How would you describe your politics?”

Oates screwed up his face and replied, “You know, I’m a by-god constitutional anarchist.”

Of course. What else could he be? Warren Oates never could disappoint.

That conversation is recounted in Susan Compo’s new biography Warren Oates: A Wild Life, which gave me a happy excuse to watch Oates again in the Westerns and road movies that put to such affecting use what John Doe of the great Los Angeles punk band X called Oates’s “glare … the look of a shell-shocked soldier, broken lover or desert rat.”

A drunken romantic, a self-described “total hick with a mountain accent,” Warren Oates, a native of Depoy, Kentucky, was descended from a Revolutionary War major who fought under Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox. Oates praised Depoy as “a splendid place” with “real community spirit.” He was proud to be a Kentuckian and he would frequently criticize Hollywood’s anti-Southern bigotry.

He worked in TV Westerns and as a key member of the Sam Peckinpah ensemble in such films as “Ride the High Country,” “Major Dundee,” and “The Wild Bunch,” whose theme—“When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished”—Oates could haul.

Then came a string of extraordinary performances in seldom seen films in which Oates was often heartbreaking and never cheaply so. He was the mute trainer of gamecocks in Monte Hellman’s singular “Cockfighter” (1974) and, as the nomadic fabulist GTO, the only sign of life in Hellman’s flat “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971).

“If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit,” GTO says by way of proposal to the hippie drifter known only as The Girl just before she hops on a stranger’s motorcycle and takes off. Warren Oates had roots and he had the wanderlust, and that tension is palpable in many of his characters, footloose men of the border states or the South who have lost home and can’t quite seem to find it again.

His best part was in Peter Fonda’s dreamlike “The Hired Hand” (1971), beautifully filmed by Vilmos Zsigmond, a lovely meditation on friendship and responsibility, one of the least-known great movies of that richest of all cinematic eras, the early 1970s. Like Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, Oates’s films in these years were consistently interesting—soulful, often literate contrasts to the brain sludge for cretins that fills theaters today.

His response to the priggish carping at “The Wild Bunch” gives a taste of Oates the Goldwater voter from Depoy: “It shocked the hell out of a lot of moralistic weirdo pinko liberals.” Yet he sympathized with the uncredentialed critics, saying that “some of the protest by Mexican-American groups is justified. … I feel it is the fault of the semi-intellectual community that writes about or makes films about Mexico, or hillbillies, or any specific group of people that does not belong to their semi-intellectual community. The clichéd Mexican or the clichéd southerner or the clichéd anyone is not a full man.”

Oates was a prodigious consumer of booze, drugs, and available women. He was also, by all accounts, a helluva nice guy without a hint of movie-star hauteur. He displayed special kindness to waitresses, rural people, and those lacking a sophisticated veneer. Filming “Tom Sawyer” (1973) in Arrow Rock, Missouri, “Oates characteristically befriended the locals, inviting many of them to share a Coke or two.” Shooting John Milius’s “Dillinger” (1973), “Warren was very generous with the [Oklahoma extras],” said his knockout costar Michelle Phillips. “He was a kind of hillbilly; the people were a little like that too, and they loved him.”

Susan Compo does justice to Oates, whom she obviously adores, and she has a style safely removed from that Forest Lawn of prose known as the celebrity biography. (Of the loosely screwed Laurie Bird, who played The Girl in “Two-Lane Blacktop,” Compo writes, “what did not kill her made her stranger.”)

Oates was no saint, and the movie that was supposed to make him a star, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974), was a splendid mess that marked the beginning of the end of Sam Peckinpah. But Warren Oates onscreen is enough to make you think that as bad and pernicious as the movies can be, once in a while, in the hands of an Oates, a Fonda, a Peckinpah, they really get this country right.  

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