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Charlize Theron in Seth MacFarlane's Western: Is the Genre Really Making a Comeback?

By Christian Blauvelt, Hollywood.com Staff

How do you follow up your improbably successful hit about a foul-mouthed teddy bear? Make a movie in the genre that, of late, has been improbably successful: the Western. Yep, Family Guy mastermind, upcoming Oscar host, and Ted director Seth MacFarlane is next helming a Western comedy in the mode of Blazing Saddles called A Million Ways to Die in the West. And Hollywood.com has confirmed that its comedic pedigree just got a major boost, in that Charlize Theron is in final talks to star. She'll play an outlaw's wife who teaches an easily spooked farmer (MacFarlane) to shoot in order to win back his wife, who left him after a gunfight.

The Western lay fallow in Hollywood for so long that fans of sagebrush and saguaros have been particularly excited by the blockbuster success of a couple recent oaters: 2010's Coen Brothers remake of True Grit, which grossed $171 million domestically (off a $38 million budget!), and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, which has scored $147 million since it's Dec. 25 release. That's a lot of money for your saddlebag. Not to mention that Disney looked to the Old West when they pinned their hopes on what could be their next big franchise-starter, The Lone Ranger (out July 3). Still two hit Westerns, and one hoped-for hit that's far from a sure thing, aren't enough for us to declare that Hollywood cinema's greatest, and most uniquely American, genre is ready for a full-fledged revival.

And make no mistake, the Western is Hollywood's greatest genre. It's the summing up of American mythmaking, a dusty canvas on which filmmakers have interrogated the ideals and values, compromises and crimes that make up the American character and have defined this country's history. Far from being some retrograde idealization of a violent, even genocidal time, the best Westerns like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, Ride Lonesome, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Unforgiven don't seek to escape into the past but use history to explain the present. They also just tell damn good stories. So are cowboys and outlaws really set for a comeback? Well, excuse the pun, but we'll have to hold our horses. Here are four reasons why the recent crop of Western hits may not signal a lasting revival.

1. The Lone Ranger

Yes, Disney has invested a lot of faith in this project. A reported $250 million worth of faith. That's a production budget that's going to be extremely difficult to recoup. It has likable stars — Armie Hammer as the titular masked avenger and Johnny Depp as his Native American sidekick Tonto — and a classic premise time-tested on radio and TV. But Disney recently spent $200+ million on another film with a classic premise, John Carter, a bomb so big the company ended up cleaning house at its movie division. Not to mention that Lone Ranger director Gore Verbinski's last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies were pretty much the definition of bloated, CGI-larded excess. If The Lone Ranger fails — reports of shooting delays aren't promising — it'll stop the Western's revival right in its tracks. And even if it's a hit, what success it achieves will be difficult to duplicate. It's not like there are many other instantly recognizable Western franchises like Lone Ranger just waiting to be resurrected. You also have to recognize that the best Westerns of recent years have come from directors with a vision. And we all know...

2. ...Directors With a Vision Can Be Hard To Come By.

True Grit had the Coens. Django Unchained had Tarantino. But for every hit like either of those, there are multiple non-auteur duds like Appaloosa, The Missing, or The Alamo. The Coens and Tarantino already have fans who will come out to see anything they do. And no wonder. Because they're able to tap into the inherent flexibility of the genre and make it completely their own, not just homages or nostalgia trips. How many other directors are there waiting to contribute something really new and valuable to the Western? Maybe MacFarlane can be that director if he can actually make a comedy that deconstructs the Western without merely replicating what Blazing Saddles did 40 years ago.

NEXT: Like with today's movie musicals, concept is everything when it comes to making successful Westerns.[PAGEBREAK]

3. Concept

If Lone Ranger is a success, and it very well could be, it might be because much of today's audience is already familiar with the story. Not that they know anything about the old Lone Ranger radio and TV shows, mind you. But because its concept, the sole survivor of a gunned-down posse of Texas Rangers is restored to health by a friendly Native American then dons a mask to avenge his fallen companions, is pretty much the essence of the vengeful, messianic superhero that's come to define contemporary pop culture. There really isn't that much of a difference between the Lone Ranger and Batman. And audiences are smart of enough to recognize that, meaning that the same people who love the big screen's caped crusaders could go for it.

To be really successful in today's Hollywood a genre film like a Western needs to have an instantly graspable concept. True Grit was a revenge flick, and a remake of a film at least some part of the audience already knew about. Django Unchained projects very contemporary views about racism and the horrors of slavery onto the Western. It's like what Alan Menken told Hollywood.com recently for an essay about the difficulty audiences today have suspending disbelief for musicals: ""Years ago, Howard Ashman [Menken's lyricist on Little Shop of Horrors] believed you should be able to say about a musical that 'This is the blank musical.' Little Shop is 'the monster musical.' Dreamgirls is the 'Motown girl-group musical.' People like the form to be ruffled up and reinvented. To be something familiar, but with a twist."" Really, there are only so many concepts like that to be used. Which is perhaps why, though the Hollywood musical got revived with the one-two punch of 2001's Moulin Rouge! and 2002's Chicago, musicals have only been released intermittently since. It'll probably be the same for the Western, even if The Lone Ranger is a big hit: one major Western every couple of years and maybe even more infrequently.

4. It's an expensive genre

Unless it's High Noon or the first act of Johnny Guitar, most good Western need to be shot outside and on location. That can be expensive. Not to mention that it's harder and harder to find places to shoot that can stand in convincingly for the Old West. It's just easier to go with CGI.

I hope I'm wrong about all this. The popularity of the Western has proven to be oddly cyclical over the years. Popular in the silent era, it became a disreputable genre with the coming of sound and only got catapulted back to A-List filmmaking with John Ford's Stagecoach in 1939. Then by the '60s, it had died out again, only to be revived by Italian producers and directors. If we're lucky, we're on the cusp of another great era for the Western. But I'll only believe it when it actually happens.

Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt

[Photo Credits: WENN, The Weinstein Co.]

More:

Seth MacFarlane Follows 'Ted' with 'Blazing Saddles'-style Western Comedy

In Honor of 'Django Unchained': The 20 Greatest Spaghetti Westerns Ever Made

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