20 Apr

Alas, poor Levon Helm has passed away from throat cancer at the age of 71. Besides securing his place in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame as the drummer and sometime singer of The Band during the 1960s and 1970s, in addition to various solo projects, Helm carved out a credible career as an actor with a string of movie credits (not counting Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary,  The Last Waltz), beginning with his near-miraculous performance as country music queen Loretta Lynn’s dad, Ted Webb, in  1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Sissy Spacek.

Levon Helm (1940 - 2012) as Ted Webb, the coal miner in Coal Miner's Daughter.

Helm’s Webb is a taciturn proud man who works hard, way down deep in the mines of “Butcher Holler,” Kentucky in order to support his large family. Though perhaps too quick to judge, and, of course, stubborn as hell, this man only wants to do right by his family. He loves his children, especially his equally willful daughter Loretta, and takes seriously his role as a provider and guardian of her soul.  Even so, years of working amid all that coal has aged him prematurely and probably hardened him more than he might realize. Helm manages to convey all of this in a performance that is the model of quiet economy. I saw Coal Miner’s Daughter right after it was released early in 1980, and I was blown away by Helm’s performance. Apparently, as an oft repeated story goes, Lynn herself even fainted when she first saw Helm in full makeup for the role.

Of course, I guess most of us knew early on that Spacek’s singular portrayal as music legend Lynn would garner the actress, at the very least, an Oscar nomination the following year. I mean, come on, she ages from a lovesick teenager to an adult married woman with a mountain of hair and grown children of her own, a business woman as well as an artist who works hard for her money while trying to please her fans, her rascally husband, and her whole family alike, even as all of it pushes her to the brink of collapse. Plus, Spacek just nailed, as few actors in music biopics have, her real-life character’s distinct vocal delivery: heartfelt, sincere, and with just the right amount of twang to make audiences do double takes.  No mere impersonation, this. That Spacek and Lynn bonded so publicly only makes the latter’s Oscar success so much the sweeter as Lynn was at the ceremony that night, cheering on her new friend from Texas.

At the same time,  I fully expected Helm to be nominated as one of the year’s best supporting actors, but that didn’t happen. I can’t complain too badly since most of the lineup was on-point. I don’t think any of us would want to take the then twenty-year old Timothy Hutton’s Oscar away from him for his emotionally nuanced turn as the troubled-teenage son, a victim of survivor’s guilt, in Best Picture winner Ordinary People, though an argument can also be made that Hutton’s role was too large and flashy to be considered supporting.  The other nominees that year included Judd Hirsch (Hutton’s therapist, whose brashness provides a startling contrast to the frosty reserve of Hutton’s mother and father, played by Best Actress nominee Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, respectively), Jason Robards (an effective, extended cameo as a decrepit Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard), Joe Pesci (Raging Bull), and another young actor, Michael O’Keefe (as Robert Duvall’s conflicted son in The Great Santini). Truthfully, I don’t know whose nomination I would take away and give to Helm, but I know to this day I have a hard time believing he was shy enough votes to warrant a nomination, especially since Coal Miner’s Daughter was such a huge hit and earned a total of seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Helm didn’t even sneak in as a Globe nominee. Oh sure, it is what it is, but it stinks. It stunk then; it stinks now. It will still stink tonight when I pull out my DVD of Coal Miner’s Daughter and watch it again for old time’s sake. (I also can’t believe that Beverly D’Angelo likewise failed to snare a nod for her scene stealing bit as Lynn’s feisty musical mentor, the late great Patsy Cline, but that’s a blog entry for another time.)

Almost no one remembers, I’m sure, that Helm’s former bandmate Robby Robertson also made his debut as a movie actor in 1980’s Carny, which was released around the same time as Coal Miner’s Daughter, so Oscar nomination or not, Helm’s performance still remains part of an American classic. Some of his most noteworthy credits include The Right Stuff (1983), Smooth Talk (1985) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) in addition to the TV series Midnight Caller, as well as the acclaimed TV movie The Dollmaker (1984), which earned Jane Fonda an Emmy award. Helm’s sole recognition for his work in films was as part of the cast of The Three Burials…(headed by Cannes winner Tommy Lee Jones), per the Western Heritage Awards.

Of course, Helm was first and foremost a musician, and his music is featured in a variety of movies. He can even be heard on the Coal Miner’s Daughter soundtrack. Interestingly, the same year that Helm was part of The Right Stuff, The Band’s “The Weight” (with Helm singing lead vocals and the familiar “Take a load off, Annie/Fanny” chorus) was effectively used as part of a memorable sequence in The Big Chill. Of course, that soundtrack is now regarded as an essential element of The Big Chill‘s overall success. Furthermore, not only did The Right Stuff and The Big Chill come out at around the same time, they were also both nominated for Best Picture of 1983.  Yep, between his music and his second career as an actor, Helm found himself affiliated with three Best Picture nominees in four years. Not a bad day’s work for a singing drummer. R.I.P.

Thanks for your consideration…


5 Responses to “Levon”

  1. Karen L. Click 20 April 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Thanks for this article about Levon. I didn’t even make the connection on him to “Coal Miner’s Daughter” until you [blogged]. (I’m [too] young to know him from The Band.) “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is one of my all time favorite movies — it was one of the first I saw on the big screen. For me, the invention of VHS was solely so that I could watch “Coal Miner’s Day” whenever I wanted, which amounted to just about every day (parts, at least). 🙂 “I believe married life is making you fat, girl” RIP, Levon.

    • Karen L. Click 20 April 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      ….sorry for all tye typoes. I blame it all on wordpress. Ha!

    • listen2uraunt 20 April 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      Thanks, Karen. I appreciate learning about the importance of Coal Miner’s Daughter in your own life. Also, I’m notorious for my own typos. I just fixed another huge one in the article, myself. Oopsie. Let’s hope no one notices.

  2. Virginia Wherry-Beeman 21 April 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    taciturn – that’s it!

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