If you’re familiar with Billy Bob Thornton’s music, acting, directing, and writing, chances are you know that he’s also famous for raising eyebrows when it comes to his personal life. When talking to him about his latest film as director, writer, and actor, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, my eyebrows were raised not out of shock, but at how much his personal history shapes his work. Taking place in 1969 Alabama, the film evokes a strong sense of time and place that feels like a well-loved, yellowed photograph that sat in Thornton’s memory box. Turns out, when I heard his Fave Favorite Films, I realized that might not be far from the truth.
High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952; 96% Tomatometer)
It has every human emotion and condition in it, cowardice and bravery, fear, love, hate, desperation. It’s a movie about how at the end of the day, who will be there for you. I just love that. It’s also done in real time, and the acting style was different in those days, but when you’re watching those movies in that period you have to accept that and get the core of it. It’s a terrific movie.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (Alan Rafkin, 1966; 67% Tomatometer)
I love that movie, when I was a kid I went to the movie theater and saw it 14 times the first weekend. You could see it over and over, they wouldn’t kick you out of the theater back then, so I would just stay there everyday and watch it. To this day, I still love that movie. I think it was brilliant. Sometimes with things like that, you attach a certain period of your life to it, and I saw this when I was a kid. If I’d been 40 years old in 1966, maybe I would have felt differently.
Have you revisited it?
Oh yeah, I own it. I watch it all the time.
Once again, another movie that I don’t think people could watch these days because they have to sit too long and listen to people talk. This is a brilliant movie, and Paul Newman, out of everything he ever did, this was his greatest performance. When he got the Academy Award for The Color of Money, I think it was a make-up job [by the Academy]. Jack Warden was terrific in it, as well as James Mason. I hated [James Mason] in that movie more than any character I’ve ever hated as the defense attorney for the Catholic Church. He was really mean–cold, really. All the actors are terrific, too.
It’s probably as relevant today as it was at the time–maybe more so–about how anybody who’s got an opinion can become a big deal, and how dangerous that can be to them and the public. Made by a great filmmaker [Elia] Kazan, Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal were terrific in it. That last scene when he’s standing on the balcony with his applause machine yelling Patricia Neal’s name, oh man. It’s a very hard-hitting movie; I never got over it.
I can’t help but love Giant. A lot of people don’t take Giant seriously. A lot of people like Rebel WIthout a Cause when you’re talking about a movie with James Dean and it’s okay, but I thought James Dean was practically Soupy Sales in that movie. Very over the top. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor were great in this movie. It’s a classic sweeping story, it’s got a Gone with the Wind kind of vibe, and once again, the little guy who strikes oil becomes this power mad lunatic. Then the whole way they dealt with racism and how it was at the time in Texas, with the Latino wife of Dennis Hopper and that whole thing. Great story and well acted and looked like a movie, you know?
I want to go back and watch it now that you’ve mentioned it. Similar to your movie, as you watch it, you can almost feel your temperature rising, like you can feel the summer on it.
Absolutely. Giant is what I told all of the guys to watch before we did the movie. I told my production designer, wardrobe, everybody, just watch Giant, and we’re doing that only smaller. I tend to like movies that represent their time well. I’m not stuck in the old days, but I sure do love it. I’ve worked with some young filmmakers recently, so I’m not one of these guys who’s been around awhile who doesn’t like these young whippersnappers. There are some really great young filmmakers out there. But what I find is to them, me or guys of my generation–and older–are the guys that they look up to. The movies that they tell me they love are movies of anywhere from the 30s to the 70s, mainly. So they’re not just going back six years like a lot of people do now, they know their history, which is a terrific thing. I’m very encouraged by young filmmakers right now.
That gives me a lot of hope, that people understand there were movies before the year 2000. This movie recreates that time period that was relatively close to Giant really well.
That’s something we paid close attention to. We wanted to make sure it looked like a movie in ’69, and if you notice the hippies aren’t duded up like they’re in San Francisco, they’re just cats who wore jeans and no shirts, and hang around and smoke dope on the floor. I was one of those guys in the south at that time and a lot of people I know, they say things like, “Did you really have hippies in the south in the 60s?” Of course we did. I had a very famous actress ask me one time if I was from Arkansas. This was years and years ago, right around the time of Slingblade. She said “What do you people do down there?” It was pretty creepy. And I said “Well, we just lay around the porch and pick dog ticks off of us.” She didn’t even crack a smile. I did, though.
I wonder if she’ll see this and learn that people do other things in Arkansas besides pick deer ticks off each other.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car is currently in select theaters and is available On Demand.