Doc and Dustin
The other day, at a random impulse, I picked up the 1992 World Book Encyclopedia and flipped open to the "H's". I found a nice article, complete with picture, of Dustin Hoffman. Completely absent, however, was any entry on Doc Holliday. This, to me, says a lot about our society.
As big a fan as I am of popular culture, I confess to being a little disturbed when we hail actors as being worthy of greater mention than some of the most iconic figures of American history. There is simply no way that Dustin Hoffman, as fine an actor as he is, is anywhere near as cool as Doc Holliday. If you know a person by the praise given him or her by his or her peers, then consider this. Dustin's fellow actors hail him as the one of the finest performers of his generation, a "Jewish Deniro." Doc's fellow gun man, Wyatt Earp, called him "the most skillful gambler, and the nerviest, fastest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever saw." Case Closed. After all, how can you beat a southern gentleman DENTIST who suddenly decides he'd rather spend his days in knife fights and gun battles? (Although on second thought, I can imagine some dentists to whom that might appeal.)
Here's further evidence for your consideration: Dustin married respectable ladies named Anne and Lisa; Doc traveled with a loose woman known as "Big Nose" Kate. In I Heart Huckabees, Dustin played a man named Bernard. Doc Holliday killed people for having names like that.
In one of my earlier posts on The Da Vinci Code, I lamented the problem of people learning their history from fictional novels and films. Of course, fiction can be an accurate portrayer of historical events; however, the problem lies with people simply accepting what they are presented with at face value because they have no historical knowledge from which to assess it. They take it all in and it becomes a part of their historical framework without them knowing what is true and what is not. This results in people thinking that Mary Magdalene was actually at the Last Supper or that one of the highlights of WWII was when our boys saved Private Ryan.
Nevertheless, fiction can be a catalyst for historical investigation. In the 1990's, Hollywood produced two movies featuring Doc Holliday as a character, neither of which starred Dustin Hoffman. In the first, Tombstone, Doc was played to perfection by Val Kilmer in one of the shining moments of his career. In the second, Wyatt Earp, which came out shortly after, Dennis Quaid strapped on Doc's six-shooter. Although I love Kilmer's portrayal more, Dennis did a better job, I think, of capturing the physical look of Holliday, although it's close call (That's Doc first followed by Kilmer on the left and Quaid on the right).
After seeing these two fictionalized accounts of very real historical events, I was intrigued by the story and so checked out of the library a variety of books on Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp to learn what was fact and what was fiction in these films. Watching the two movies in close succession and comparing their differing portrayals of the same event can be very illuminating. For instance, they take very different approaches to the shootout at the OK Corral. In a sense, both capture different aspects of the event as eyewitnesses from the time gave several competing descriptions of what really happened. Although Tombstone is definitely the more Hollywoodized version, while Wyatt Earp presents the story in a seemingly more historical fashion, there were interesting moments where Tombstone was more historically accurate than the other.
Most intriguing is their portrayals of Doc Holliday. In Tombstone, Doc is played by Kilmer as a fun-loving, if fatalistic, killer, while Quaid's version is more morose. The wit remains, but it is more biting and dark. The tuberculosis, which gave Holliday his fatalistic outlook, is certainly present in Tombstone, although often under the surface, while in Quaid's portrayal it is never far from one's mind. He lost much weight for the role so that he looks like a dead man walking.
The two movies have very different sensibilities to them. They both present many of the same historical events, but Tombstone aims for a standard Hollywood blockbuster. The goal is to capture the attention of the audience and bring them along on a thrilling ride. It succeeds admirably. Wyatt Earp, by contrast, is a three-hour epic that attempts to address the topic of mythmaking. There is a scene at the end of the film where Wyatt Earp as an old man is approached by a kid who asks him about one of the famous events of his career. It is clear from the way he asks that the real event has already become colored over with the tint of legend. In short Wyatt Earp wants to show us how the man became the myth.
And that is what movies are all about. They perpetuate myth -- an important enterprise that is not to be sneezed at, but it also makes the viewer's task of distinguishing truth from legend more of a challenge. But what a fun challenge it can be.