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Top Ten

THE LEE JONES JONESERS” JONESIEST TOMMY LEE JONES PERFORMANCES

A Look at Our Top Ten Jonesiest Performances by Actor Tommy Lee Jones

By the Members of the Lee Jones Jonesers

Fall 2014

Tommy Lee Jones has an undeniable mystique about him. Compared to most other actors of his stature, we know very little about the man. He doesn”t live in Los Angeles; he avoids the press as much as is humanly possible for a person in his profession. Like baseball legend Ty Cobb, whom he portrayed brilliantly in the otherwise mediocre biopic Cobb, he”s a bit of a recluse, earning a reputation in the industry for being standoffish, ornery, even callous. Because he found Jim Carrey so annoying, he famously refused to talk to his co-star between takes on the set of Batman Forever. “Tommy Lee Jones is an amazing actor,” Carrey would later admit, “but he scared the hell out of me. He”s a pain in the ass, basically, in the sense that he is not somebody that you want to hang out with too long. He is a complex, troubled individual.” When the movie had completed filming, director Joel Schumacher claimed that Jones was a “bully.” One of the producers of the Men in Black franchise, Laurie McDonald, seemed to validate this claim when she later called Jones “the original cactus.”

Filmmaker Bill Wittliff defends his friend”s prickly personality though: “Yes, Tommy Lee’s personality can be very hard, very rough. He has an intensity that’s all his own. But it’s an intensity that very few actors can come close to matching. You watch other actors on-screen, and you know they are having to invent their intensity. Tommy Lee does not. That’s just who he is. Believe me, you only need to be around him a couple of minutes to realize he’s not acting.”

As the saying goes: the best actors don”t act, but merely exist. The greats needn”t invent intensity or summon up false truths or sentiments. Tommy Lee Jones is one of those great actors who merely exists in front of the camera. Because of his inherent honesty, Tommy Lee Jones and his weathered and world-weary face are almost impossible not to admire. Even the most irascible grumpy old men often betray a secret warmth, their grumpiness revealing them as merely disgruntled optimists. Tommy Lee Jones certainly has a warmth, a sensitivity, a fragility tucked behind his cold, stoney mug; it”s there just beneath the surface of that web of wrinkles on his furrowed brow, carried in the deflated bags underneath his intense eyes, hidden in the pockmarks of his sunken cheeks, always seemingly about to dribble out from the small sliver of his pursed lips.

In all of his roles, from the darkly serious to the joyfully frivolous, Tommy Lee Jones manages to bear his soul by guarding it, revealing true expression through an otherwise expressionless face. As an actor, he proves that there is, in fact, a country for old men–and we, the Lee Jones Jonesers, ask to be granted citizenship in whatever country that may be. Our application for citizenship takes the form of the following list we”ve crafted of the top ten Jonesiest Tommy Lee Jones performances. For this worthless wonderful world…we give you the best of TLJ:

10. Ty Cobb in Ron Shelton”s Cobb

Cobb is not a very good movie. It”s ham-fisted and hammy, plus it mixes two cliché-ridden genres: the “road trip” and “the writer and his story” (wooden voiceover included). And yet when people mention Tommy Lee Jones, I invariably mention Cobb despite my complaints. I could say it’s because at its heart, Cobb is stab at the relentless machine of American mythmaking; or it’s about the invention and dissolution of ego; or it’s a baseball movie, and I love baseball movies. And all of that’s true, but really it’s all about Jones who delivers a totally convincing portrait of a historically histrionic narcissist, a cartoonish-ly violent man who”d likely shoot at you as shake your hand, all with the charm of a curmudgeonly likeable uncle—even though he is racist, sexist, and wants to see you hang. The problem with Cobb is the the rest of the film, the writing, directing, and other performances are equally loud and garish as Jones. All the knobs are turned up. As one character says, Cobb is a “wretched, old prick”; at one point he holds a woman down on a hotel bed, gun to her head, and says, “Bend over, do everything I tell you.” The woman is afraid. Then Cobb stuffs a thousand dollar bill in her hand and says, “You tell every one you meet that Cobb was the best fuck of your life.” Jones’ Ty Cobb is a man not without vulnerability, nuance. He then sits on the edge of the bed, and cries which immediately turns to rage as he slaps at his “limber” dick, followed by an apology to the woman, followed by him throwing a large lamp at her head. It’s a lot, but I believe every bit of it. Cobb is a character worthy of walking into any E.L. Doctorow novel, legendary, larger than life, infectious, entertaining, and sick. Unfortunately, he walked into this film.” – Scott Cheshire, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

9. Alien Jones in Suntory”s Alien Jones Suntory Boss Commercials

“In one of his most hilarious and deep-cutting performances, sometime in the 1990s or 2000s–who really knows?–Tommy Lee Jones starred in a series of commercials he probably hoped, like the many actors who commit to such lucrative deals, would never find their way to American audiences. The ads promote Suntory Boss canned coffee, sold in vending machines on almost every street corner in Japan, many of those plastered with the actor’s face. (Seriously, Tommy Lee Jones’s likeness is as ubiquitous as stop signs in Japan.) However, the miracle of infinite global connectivity now allows anyone with an internet connection to digest one of the most thrilling and confusing roles of Tommy Lee Jones’s career. When watched in sequence, the premise is clear: Extraterrestrials will often come to earth to inhabit the bodies of actors. Obviously, Tommy Lee Jones was their first choice, and Alien Jones was born. Alien Jones makes his way through the Japanese/human experience, with no shortage of hijinks and non-native cultural gaffes. Highlights include Alien Jones weeping and singing with a Japanese pop songstress, Alien Jones leading a group of engineers through a grueling national construction project, and Alien Jones assimilating into society by taking a wife and going through the quotidian motions of middle class Japanese life. I could elaborate on any or all of these, but they are best seen for oneself. For me, Alien Jones is a top performance not only for the self-referential meta-humor of Jones playing off his stony visage and stoic demeanor, but for the sheer volume of these commercials (over 30 by my count), and consequently, what role Jones himself plays in the cultural landscape of Japan and the collective Japanese psyche itself. Perhaps these are just silly vignettes, but the sheer breadth of the Japanese experience demonstrated throughout this oeuvre of adverts makes Tommy Lee Jones more anthropological ambassador than pitchman, illustrative of how some in Japan may think foreign visitors view their beautifully strange island nation. Taken further, maybe the arc of Alien Jones speaks to the Sisyphean beauty of humanity as a whole, as the product’s slogan roughly translates to “For this worthless, wonderful world.” In this deeper scope, Jones–Tommy Lee or Alien–is the perfect wry, contemplative tabula rasa for the human experience.” – Alex Bacha, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

8. Samuel Jones aka Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan in Ron Howard”s The Missing

“In his review of Ron Howard”s The Missing, Roger Ebert admitted incredulity: “Sorry, but I couldn”t believe any part of this movie.” I have no clue whether or not Howard wanted this story to be believed–maybe he did?–but all great stories needn”t be believed to be appreciated. The Missing“s villain is a witch, who seems within the world of the film to actually be able to cast spells on people, so I looked at the film more as a fairytale or, perhaps more appropriately for the Old West, a folktale. The Missing is a folktale about loss: absent fathers, kidnapped women, dead lovers, and all things missed (people, objects, opportunities, memories, etc.). What better setting for a story of things lost than the barren deserts, rugged terrain, and craggy cliffs of the Southwest? And what better face to see in such a setting than that of Tommy Lee Jones, with its own barren deserts, rugged terrain, and craggy cliffs? Tommy Lee Jones as a white man “gone Indian” gives us the breviloquence coupled with weary-eyed squinting-into-the-distance that is the actor”s trademark mode of expression. It”d be cliche, if it wasn”t so damned affective. Whether we believe the character in the context of the story seems beside the point because Jones makes him an embodiment of loss on screen. He is the silence of a life gone by; he is the missing moments we don”t necessarily wish to return (“I never wish,” Jones says), but that we stockpile within us, resignedly. A sunset viewed on a mesa in the desert, even with all of its beauty, all of its vibrant colors, the pink and orange hues turning purple at the horizon, still always manages to evoke a sense of loss and loneliness. In the same way, Tommy Lee Jones” squinty, contemplative sullenness will forever evoke a sense of loss and loneliness in me.” – Taylor Zahn, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

7. Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn in Michael Apted”s Coal Miner”s Daughter

“It would’ve been easy for Tommy Lee Jones to ham up his performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter, to portray Doolittle Lynn, country superstar Loretta Lynn’s alcoholic husband, as villainous, the obstacle for her to overcome. After all, Doolittle’s persistent drinking and philandering served as fodder for many of Lynn’s most famous songs. Jones instead fills the character with understated charm, exuberance, and love that counteract those moments of weakness and masculine naiveté. The result is pleasantly conflicting. We shake our heads when Doolittle buys Loretta a pawn shop guitar for their first anniversary instead of the wedding ring she never got, but our hearts melt just a little when he explains that he bought the guitar because he loves the way she sings. And when her career skyrockets, seemingly overnight, Doolittle is there every step of the way. He’s drunk half the time, feels jealous and emasculated the other half, but he’s always by her side. His belief in Loretta never falters, and the grin he flashes her after she plays the Grand Ole Opry for the first time mirrors the one she first saw back home in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, when he was just a scrappy, redheaded country hustler with nothing to offer but an old Army Jeep and the backwoods version of street smarts. Jones is more than capable of over-the-top performances; his dual role as Harvey Dent and Two-Face in Batman Forever is more than enough of an example. He’s at his finest though when playing the rough-around-the-edges everyman. He embodies these types of characters naturally because he innately understands and sympathizes with them, and despite a storied career replete with examples, Doolittle Lynn continues to stand out as one of his most sincere, humorous, and just plain lively portrayals. ” – Matthew Cabe, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

6. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg”s Lincoln

“In Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a crotchety abolitionist whose fiery rebukes towards his opponents made him one of the most controversial congressmen of the Civil War period. Before his speech supporting the Thirteenth Amendment, fellow Republicans urged Stevens not to mention his belief in the “equality of the races” in favor of the more marketable “equality before the law.” If Stevens explicitly declared his support of racial equality, he would have scared away critical conservative votes. Though the audience can sense his disappointment in this compromise, we see a bald, stone-faced harbinger of 1960s-era civil rights nearly one hundred years before its time. Although we’ve seen TLJ play the irascible old man in several other roles, in Lincoln, the audience gets to see something unusual: an irascible old republican on the right side of history. Jones brings a cranky, impassioned volatility to Stevens, who was resolute on deposing slavery as a moral imperative. His face is as sullen and cratered as the blood-soaked fields of Gettysburg, but TLJ still manages to evoke an impatient tenderness that shines almost as bright as his bald, wigless head as he crawls into bed with his African-American mistress. When asked about the floppy, matted wig during an interview, Jones claimed “I liked the fact that there was this element of ridiculousness in these moments that carried so much gravity. That was kind of cool.” Jones” sardonic, pushy, flamboyant persuasiveness offsets the soft-spoken humanity of Daniel Day-Lewis” Lincoln. Though the film isn’t entirely historically accurate, each actor offers a complex character study for complex times.” – Conor Higgins, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

5. Clay Shaw aka Clay Bertrand in Oliver Stone”s JFK

“Watching JFK again for the first time in at least ten years, I was struck by a thought: perhaps Oliver Stone despised the vintage Costner schmaltz as much as I did; perhaps, like me, he was in love with the seething, aberrant heart of the world”s most famous conspiracy: the way the strange sex and shadowy alliances and ill-groomed Cubans congealed into a kind of apocryphal addendum to a tragic page of Americana. In this parallel viewing of the film, Tommy Lee Jones” Clay Shaw supplants Costner”s Jim Garrison as JFK“s hero. But hero feels like the wrong word to use in this instance–rather, let”s say Shaw becomes the fulcrum of our fascination and revulsion. Jones, an actor who generally trafficks in leathery Texan masculinity, stretches his dramatic range to create something altogether convincing in Shaw, a homosexual businessman with deep ties to the intelligence community (and a tragicomic coiffure). Over the course of the film, Jones” Shaw comes to embody a particular element of the American underbelly: the insider whose private appetites ensure he is also a permanent outsider. We never feel sorry for Shaw, not really: too self-possessed to engender pathos, he dazzles and confounds us instead, one of the rich and well-connected historical manques fetishized by DeLillo and Ellroy. Jones finds Shaw equally at home in bombast and subtlety, and there is as much lurid, perfumed menace in his scenes as a gold-painted, nipple-squeezing sexual foil as there is in his screwing a cigarette into its holder–a gesture of perfect scorn and infinite economy. I believe Oliver Stone loved his villain, and the proof, for me, is that long after the credits roll I was thinking of neither Garrison”s moralizing, nor the death of our most charismatic president; rather, it was Shaw”s silken slime that stuck, like a rumor, like a particularly compelling conspiracy, to memory.” – Dustin Illingworth, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

4. Kevin Brown aka Agent K in Barry Levinson”s Men in Black Trilogy

“There is something profoundly uncomfortable about Tommy Lee Jones. No matter the quality and earnestness of his performance, he somehow never appears to be truly at ease. Such is the case with his role as Kevin Brown a.k.a. Agent K in the Men in Black trilogy. In a film franchise so silly, so ridiculous, and so filled with Will Smith-isms that it inspired Smith’s good-hearted pop-rap song of the same name, TLJ’s discomfort provides just the right balance. Agent K is a man who has seen it all; too much, in fact. This is a recurring theme in TLJ’s films; his discomfort is not only with the world around him, but with himself and who he is in that world. It is what makes him so iconic in his “serious” roles, and so perfectly fitting in a film like Men in Black. Without that grounding feeling of TLJ’s weariness of the constant alien invasions and a world always on the verge of total destruction, Men in Black would be utterly forgettable. Instead, he provides a certain honesty that is his hallmark–whether he is hawking financial services for Ameriprise Financial or blasting his way out from down the gullet of an interstellar cockroach, Tommy Lee Jones is simply, purely uncomfortable with all of it. And that somehow translates into something truly genuine.” – Rachael Bacha, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

3. Pete Perkins in Tommy Lee Jones” The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

“The American cowboy is the myth upon which American masculinity is built. He is a stoic and a rugged individualist by nature yet also honest and forthright. He faces danger without hesitation because he is good with a rifle and steady on a horse. Tommy Lee Jones’s rancher, Pete Perkins, in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, seemingly embodies all of these characteristics. He certainly has little tolerance for what modern bureaucracy has done to the cowboy and Texas. Melquiades Estrada, the mysterious Mexican vaquero Perkins comes to befriend and greatly respect, symbolizes the lost values of the American West. Although Estrada is an illegal immigrant, it is telling that he doesn’t pick strawberries. He’s a cowboy, like Perkins, and an agent in his own destiny. When a skittish and insecure border patrol agent accidentally shoots and kills Estrada, Perkins takes it upon himself to avenge his friend and honor Estrada’s promise to bury him in his hometown in Mexico. Burials, which marks Jones’s feature length directorial debut, is a distant cousin to Sam Peckinpah’s pulpy Western, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Both films have the hero traveling with a rotting corpse to a far off destination. Indeed, Burials retains some of the dark comedy found in Peckinpah’s film (one scene has Perkins attempting to comb his late friend’s hair only to have it come off in clumps). Guillermo Arriaga’s (21 Grams, Amorres Perros) screenplay, however, eschews Peckinpah’s nihilism as Perkins is quite sincere in his mission to do right by his friend and honor his word, perhaps the most valuable currency in the Old West. In my opinion, Jones does his best work in Burials, as a man on a quest, trying to keep his word, and being forced inevitably to reconcile his image of his deceased friend with the reality. His cowboy is both stoic and larger than life in one moment, and pensive and small in the next. He expresses warmth and camaraderie during the flashbacks with Estrada while commanding Old Testament wrath against the border patrol agent. Madness is never far from mythology. After all, myths serve as convenient narratives for our sense of purpose. That is certainly true of the cowboy myth. Historically speaking, this rootless group of proletarians who briefly roamed the American open range in the late nineteenth century had little effect on actual policy. The American West was built by the very things Perkins disdains: big business and bureaucracy. It’s the values of the Old West that remain in the popular consciousness. Friendship and loyalty are the values that matter most to men like Perkins and Estrada because they help make sense of the anxiety found in the contemporary American West. It is what Perkins certainly chooses to believe in. To dwell on the darkness would do a disservice to his friend’s memory.” – Anthony Volpe, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

2. Chief Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in Andrew Davis” The Fugitive and Stuart Baird”s U.S. Marshals

“In one of the greatest scenes in The Fugitive, escaped convict Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) stands over Chief Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) in a tunnel pointing the marshal”s own gun at him. “I didn”t kill my wife,” Kimble says insistently. And we know he didn”t kill her: “It was the one-armed man,” as the oft-quoted line that never actually appears in the film goes. But Gerard responds somewhat perplexed: “I don”t care.” And that”s just it: he doesn”t care. It”s not that Gerard wants an innocent man to go to jail, it”s just that he wants to do his job. His worldview is simple: he has been tasked with capturing an escaped convict, so that”s exactly what he is going to do. Who cares if the convict is innocent or guilty? It”s not his job to determine that. There”s a hardness to Tommy Lee Jones that comes across perfectly in his portrayal of Gerard. After one of the other marshals, Newman, is taken hostage, rather than bargaining with the hostage-taker, Gerard takes a chance and shoots him. Newman is saved, but may have permanent hearing loss, complaining to Gerard, “You coulda missed, you coulda killed me.” He argues that Gerard should have bargained with the now-dead hostage-taker. Gerard”s response: “I…don”t…bargain.” Whether or not “the big dog is always right,” he certainly is set in his ways. But as in most Jones performances, the character”s tough exterior, as rugged and stony as the actor”s stern face, is undermined by little hints of a hidden warmth. “I thought you didn”t care?” Kimble asks at the end of the film, after Gerard takes off Kimble”s handcuffs and places an icepack on the convict”s bruised and battered hands. “I don”t,” Gerard says, chuckling. “Don”t tell anybody, okay?”" - Kelsey Malone, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

1. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the Coen Brothers” No Country for Old Men

“There is perhaps no more iconic Tommy Lee Jones performance than his role as Ed Tom Bell, the laconic, world-weary sheriff in the Coen Brothers” magnum opus No Country for Old Men. While conversing with his Uncle Ellis in one of the more thematically heavy scenes in the film, Bell admits, “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way.” Then, after a pause wide enough to drive a truck through, he reveals: “He didn”t.” Bell feels a void at the center of his world, one he thought might inevitably find something to fill it, but there”s nothing there. All he sees is the evil all around him, sensing the chaos swelling, growing beyond his comprehension. He admits to feeling “overmatched.” He doesn”t want to “push [his] chips forward and go out and meet something [he] doesn”t understand.” It”s a classic trope: the old man confused by an ever-changing world, fearful it may be degenerating beyond repair. “You can”t help but compare yourself against the oldtimers,” Bell explains in his opening narration. “Can”t help but wonder how they would have operated these times.” Bell seems nostalgic for a bygone era–when meaning could be found, when certainty was possible, when justice reigned supreme–but as Uncle Ellis reminds him, “Whatcha got ain”t nothin new.” There never was meaning, certainty, justice; chaos reigns, as it always has. The “dismal tide” has continually lapped at our shores. It”s a bleak worldview, one that probably makes us viewers wince, scrunching up our faces until they look as wrinkled as Tommy Lee Jones”. Yes, not only does his worn and weather-beaten face mirror the desolate, desert landscape that is the movie”s setting–with its peaks and valleys, cracks and crevices, wrinkles and pockmarks–but his face becomes our face. He serves as our entrance into this absurd world: our proxy, our everyman, our Sisyphus. And he shows us that maybe it”s less important to imagine Sisyphus happy, and more important to imagine him laughing: “Well, it”s alright. I laugh myself sometimes. Ain”t a whole lot else you can do.” In addition to the weary-eyed intensity and the gloomy grace, that is what to me defines a Jonesian Tommy Lee Jones role: the act of looking into the darkness and laughing. It may not be the laugh of giddy joy, but it is still a laugh: a dark, deep laugh, one that sounds almost like a sigh.” - Tyler Malone, Lifetime Jones Enthusiast

The members of the Lee Jones Jonesers are a group of film fans who love all that is Tommy Lee Jones. The group consists of Tyler Malone, Scott Cheshire, Dustin Illingworth, Anthony Volpe, Alex Bacha, Shea Formaneck, Kelsey Malone, Rachael Bacha, Caitlin Cutt, Conor Higgins, Taylor Zahn, Matthew Cabe, Jeff Malone, and Liz Malone.

LINKS:

Tommy Lee Jones on IMDb

Written and Compiled by the Members of the Lee Jones Jonesers

Photography Courtesy of Miramax Films

Design by Francesca Rimi

Captions:

Film Still from No Country for Old Men, Photography Courtesy of Miramax Films

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