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Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

“Better no cowgirls at all than cowgirls compromised.”

Richard Donner’s MAVERICK was obviously the big western type movie of May 20th, 1994. I didn’t see it. I did see the goofy indie cowgirl comedy that flopped and got terrible reviews. Gus Van Sant’s EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES, from the novel by Tom Robbins (who narrates the movie), was considered a huge debacle at the time. I remembered very little except that I kind of liked it. Thirty years later it wasn’t really what I remembered, but I found it actually pretty delightful.

It stars Uma Thurman very close to PULP FICTION, which came out in the Fall. It’s one of her early lead roles, and she actually gets the rare “IN” credit:


As you can see the title fills up the screen, so going by my TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. rule you know this is gonna be a good one.

This was Van Sant’s fourth movie, after MALA NOCHE, DRUGSTORE COWBOY and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. Even with the latter’s modern day Shakespeare quirks, those are pretty raw looking, gritty movies about junkies, thieves and street hustlers. So I think it threw people for a loop when he came out with this campy, colorful cartoon of a movie, a trippy satire based on a counterculture novel by a Seattle area weirdo who says he found his writing style while stoned and writing a review of a The Doors concert for an underground newspaper.

I think stylistically it has plenty in common with his controversial PSYCHO remake, though the tone is completely different. It’s the same costume designer, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor (GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE, AMERICAN HEART), with that same aesthetic of every character seeming to wear the best thing anybody ever found in a thrift store. The production designer was Missy Stewart, a first-timer who had done Tracy Chapman and Deee-Lite videos. I guess that makes sense.

Thurman stars as Sissy Hankshaw, a woman born with enormous thumbs that (obviously) make her a supernaturally good hitchhiker. She stands on the road elegantly waving them around, somewhere between a traffic controller and a dancer, and I don’t think she ever fails to make a vehicle stop. She can even point them at the sky to change the direction of planes and shooting stars. She doesn’t believe in not hitchhiking, so if someone offers her a ride unsolicited she has to wave her thumbs next to the car before getting in.

She doesn’t live anywhere, she just hitchhikes around, sometimes receiving letters at post office boxes she’s set up on various reservations. It’s her idea of freedom, but it’s not just a philosophy – her thumbs literally start to hurt if she goes a day without hitchhiking.

From ’65 to ’70 she was a model for a female hygiene empire run by The Countess (John Hurt, THE BLACK CAULDRON), a self-described “male Russian countess born into a white middle class Baptist family in Mississippi” who “loathes the stink of females” after they “start fooling around with men.”

The Countess summons Sissy to New York City because he wants to set her up with a painter named Julian Gitche (Keanu Reeves on a stretch that went POINT BREAK -> BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY -> MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO -> BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA -> MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -> FREAKED -> this). She meets him in a hotel lobby but as soon as she says “hi” he drops to his knees of an asthma attack, and four hangers-on run to help him – they’re played by Ed Begley Jr. (CAT PEOPLE), Crispin Glover (RUBIN AND ED), Carol Kane (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) and Sean Young (BLADE RUNNER, FIRE BIRDS). She goes home with them and seems interested in sexual experimentation but her thumbs hurt so she runs off, but later masturbates on the side of a road while imagining Julian. The way she rolls off a log when caught is some top notch physical comedy in my opinion.

Next The Countess sends Sissy to his “beauty ranch” out west, “a place where unhappy women, divorcees and widows mostly, can go to lose weight or wrinkles, change their hairstyle and pretty themselves up for the next disappointment.” He’s conceived of a new douche campaign themed around the endangered whooping cranes whose migratory path passes the Rubber Rose Ranch, so she goes there to star in it, dressed in a bird costume for commercial director Udo Kier (SUSPIRIA).

You may remember that PCU also had a whooping crane in it, unveiled as the new school mascot. It’s tempting to say that whooping cranes were in the air that summer, but this comes straight from the book, written almost two decades earlier, so for now I’ll assume it’s just one of those whooping crane related coincidences that happen sometimes. But I’ll keep an eye out in the other movies as we go.

She’s warned to stay away from “those nasty, uppity cowgirls” who work on the ranch and the “alleged holy man” who lives in the mountains above, unfortunately nicknamed a slur for Chinese people. Robbins notes as narrator, he’s “apparently Japanese-American” (and he’s played by Academy Award nominee Noriyuki “Pat” Morita [COLLISION COURSE]). Both represent to Sissy a new, even higher level of freedom than hitchhiking. She’s especially captivated by the ringleader of the cowgirls (and hypnotizer of chickens) Bonanza Jellybean (introducing Rain Phoenix). Everybody’s always repeating things that Bonanza said, but Bonanza is always repeating things that Debbie (Victoria Williams – yes, the singer) or Delores Del Ruby (Lorraine Bracco, SWITCH) said. “Debbie says that if women are to take charge again they must do it in a feminine way, they mustn’t resort to aggressive, violent, masculine methods. She says it is up to women to show themselves better than men and set good examples for them, guide them tenderly to the new age.” But Bonanza has “always been a scrapper” so she leans more toward Delores’ point of view.

Delores  is a former circus performer who says she can whip a false eyelash off a monkey, and we see that she can whip a playing card off a snake’s tongue.

She’s waiting for a third peyote vision to tell her her mission.

The ranch is run by girly-girl Miss Adrian (Angie Dickinson, POINT BLANK), who frets that the cowgirls “have gradually infiltrated every sector of our program” and that Debbie “has been coercing the guests into trying something called Kundalini yoga.” They do in fact start a mutiny, take over the ranch and have a long standoff with the police, FBI and army after leading the whooping cranes away with brown rice and peyote buttons. Sissy loves her freedom so she sides with the cowgirls, and also has sex with both Bonanza and the alleged holy man (who will dance to the polka music from the only station his radio will pick up even though he prefers Stevie Wonder or Tony Bennett).

Sissy only becomes disillusioned with her so-called deformity when she slaps The Countess and almost kills him. Sad that “thumbs that had never once been raised in anger… had been reduced to the status of weapons,” she finds her now disgraced pediatrician (Buck Henry) and tells him “I just want to be normal, Doctor. Give me that old fashioned normality.” It’s very upsetting! Luckily he (for reasons I don’t think are explained) only removes one of the thumbs, and it doesn’t seem to have an effect other than a montage where she tries to use the small one for hitchhiking and can’t get any cars to stop for her.

There are other things that are unusual about this movie. The entire soundtrack is done by k.d. lang (composed with Ben Mink). And it’s the only movie I’ve seen so far where Uma Thurman folds a grilled cheese sandwich in half, takes a bite out of the middle, then holds it up and looks through it like it’s a movie camera. There are two directors of photography credited, John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards, who had also both been credited on MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. Edwards had done LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO and Van Sant’s video for “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers; he would later do KIDS, TO DIE FOR, COP LAND, and DIRTY GRANDPA. I’m not sure how these two operated, but my guess is that they took turns who looked through the camera and who looked through the sandwich.

A couple other notes for you. The movie is dedicated “FOR RIVER” on the opening credits (River Phoenix had died the previous Halloween). It was delayed from a ’93 release after it screened at TIFF and Van Sant decided to recut it with less of Keanu’s character Julian (sad) and more of Bonanza (that’s fine). According to Wikipedia and a paywalled New York Times article he also cut “a subplot about the Clock People, who are keepers of the keys to cosmic consciousness and whose presence in the story is signified by the image of the clock on the film’s poster.” Perhaps a wise choice to ditch that – I can’t say. Van Sant is credited as editor along with Curtiss Clayton, who he’d worked with on his last two movies. Clayton had done the “Welcome to the Jungle” video, HALLOWEEN 4, A RAGE IN HARLEM and UNLAWFUL ENTRY, so that guy is legit. He later did BUFFALO ’66 and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD.

Even without all the people I’ve already mentioned there are a crazy amount of cameos and notable appearances in this, from both Hollywood and the literary world. Roseanne Barr plays a psychic in one scene. Sissy’s parents are played by Grace Zabriskie (NORMA RAE, BODY ROCK) and Ken Kesey. Ken Babbs plays her uncle. William S. Burroughs is seen in New York City taking a look around and saying “Ominous” (credited as playing himself). Heather Graham (LICENSE TO DRIVE) is one of the cowgirls, seen quite a bit but I think she only has one minor line. Lin Shaye is in a scene (also in WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE and DUMB AND DUMBER that year). Music video director Chel White plays the brain surgeon who semi-assures Sissy that The Countess probly won’t be a vegetable. The one that amazed me most was uncredited Edward James Olmos playing finger cymbals in a salsa band in one shot. How the—!?

EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES was produced by Fine Line Features, the classier part of New Line, who had a relationship with Van Sant from distributing MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. They’re also the company that did THE PLAYER and distributed NIGHT ON EARTH and LIGHT SLEEPER. This one didn’t do as well for them – it made back less than a quarter of its modest budget in theaters, was widely shat upon, called worst of the year by Janet Maslin, and nominated for Razzies by the assholes who do the Razzies. I’m not surprised they thought Thurman was bad, since she’s obviously beautiful (they fucking hate that) and also all the dialogue is a mouthful and no one is trying to make it sound naturalistic. What I find interesting about her performance though is that the acting she does with her facial expressions does feel very real.  So she finds her own reality for the character.

I don’t remember seeing this movie discussed anywhere any time recently, or seeing it reappraised at any point in its 30 years of existence, which makes sense because as of this writing it’s not available streaming and has not been released on blu-ray. If you want to see it you can still get it on DVD from Warner Archive, at least. And someone maniac would have to convince you that was a wise thing to do.

But you know what, I really think this one’s ripe for rediscovery the moment they release it in hi-def. Put it on the Criterion Channel at least, it will get some new fans. True, there are some things in there that you’d have to overlook. Everybody calling Morita’s character by a racist nickname is the worst one, and there’s some cultural stuff they fortunately don’t do anymore. So some people won’t think it’s cute when a van full of hippies ask Sissy if she’s a pilgrim and she says, “No, I’m more of an Indian.” But in most respects I really think it’s the type of movie younger film buffs see now and get mad when they find out it was hated at the time. I’m very confident its goofy style, its joyful lesbian militants, its heightened acting and dialogue and its stacked cast would all find more appreciation now than they did then.

If it’s just me, that’s fine. As Sissy says, “I’ve always been proud of the way nature singled me out. It’s the people who have been deformed by society I feel sorry for.”

* * *

Summer of ’94 connections:

In addition to the whooping crane, COWGIRLS shares with PCU the use of a live version of the P-Funk All Stars playing “Give Up the Funk.” I almost missed it though, it’s just played briefly while she’s on the road.

It never would’ve occurred to me at the time that this might be the alternative version of FORREST GUMP. It’s a quirky period piece dealing with the aftermath of ‘60s ideals, based on a novel with a naive protagonist traveling around intersecting with different subcultures and what not. But it’s from more of a Merry Prankster type perspective, filtered through Van Sant’s sensibilities, so it’s much gayer, loopier, never gets very serious, and she’s a truly free spirit, she never seems tempted to follow the rules except when she loses faith and gets surgery, which is heartbreaking. At the end she also loses the woman she loves, but she stays dedicated to a freewheeling life.

And shit, this was in the period when Crispin Glover was probly still mad at Robert Zemeckis over BACK TO THE FUTURE 2. So it makes sense he’d be in the anti-Gump, right? Maybe I’ll consider this further when we get to FORREST GUMP later in the summer.

* * *
Note: Disney’s first DTV sequel THE RETURN OF JAFAR was also released on this day. Despite lacking Robin Williams’ participation it was a massive seller, and I remember it seeming okay at the time, so I was excited to revisit. I don’t think I realized back then that it was just the pilot for their shitty TV cartoon of Aladdin, and that’s what it plays like now, at least the 15 minutes or so I made it through before deciding I don’t need to force myself to watch things that are neither good or interesting. Sorry Aladdin, can’t do it.


This entry was posted on Monday, May 20th, 2024 at 7:27 am and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”

  1. I never saw this movie, of if I did I don’t remember it, but I did read the book, as I did with all of Robbins books up to a point. He’s the kind of author that every young writer should read for at least a little while, because he opens up the possibilities of what you can do with the written word. He writes ecstatically and unashamedly about weird subject matter in a style that would have to tone itself down to be considered show-offy. He gets you to loosen up and not worry so much about being a Serious Writer. Stop being afraid of your own goofy power. Just let it rip and see what happens. But you want to ween yourself off that stuff before you get too carried away. Read some Dashiell Hammett to balance yourself out, lest your prose be permanently enpurpled. To this day, those are the two opposing poles my style is constantly wavering between. My brain always wants me to keep it Hammett, but my heart longs to go full Robbins.

  2. I saw this in the theater, and haven’t seen it since, so my memory is real hazy. But… while I didn’t absolute loathe it like some. I can’t say I liked it either.

    At it’s best, it was like seeing some lost Russ Meyer movie he made while in his most Fellini-esqe period (Cherry, Harry & Raquel era). At it’s worst, like an episode of Family Guy (even though it had yet to exist). In that, there was a ‘zany, random shit’ bag, and every couple pages Robbins (or Van Sant. I never read the book, but people tell me it’s pretty faithful) would reach in, grab a zany, random action, plot development, character tick, cameo, etc. and incorporate it. Which is fine, but ultimately, you begin to realize the thing your watching is only going to be about itself, and it just starts to feel like mad libs. Next up:

    Cameo = Harry Dean Stanton
    Zany purpose = Robotic samurai who believes heroine can save tree frogs he’s pledged himself to protect
    Zany tick = Only speaks in words begging with “R”
    Zany flavoring that serves no purpose = Although robotic, his testicles are humanoid, and whistle “Skylark” when the wind blows.

    At it just goes on and on like that. With no piece of zaniness really effecting the next, story-wise. Mid-way through, I was zany-ed out…

  3. This sounds like either the best or worst movie ever, and you’ve made me extremely curious.

    “And it’s the only movie I’ve seen so far where Uma Thurman folds a grilled cheese sandwich in half, takes a bite out of the middle, then holds it up and looks through it like it’s a movie camera.”

    Key words being “so far.” Surely this must’ve reoccurred in another movie. Somehow it sounds like the Uma Thurmaniest thing that could possibly happen.

    Jojo, you’re not helping your case, because SKYLARK SCROTE SAMURAI sounds great.

  4. I feel like this was another movie that went over better in Europe or at least in Germany. Can’t tell for sure though, but in my memory this was often named as THE van Sant movie and never in the context of a bad movie or something.

    I never saw it and honestly I had no idea what it was about, but judging by that review it would’ve been a movie that I would’ve loved as a teenager.

  5. I too did not see this movie. I read the book maybe five years ago, and while I really enjoyed it, I remember thinking, “Wait, they made this into a movie?” It seemed like the kind of thing that, if they recreated the tone, nobody would ever like it (which seems like that’s what happened). There was that really weird period in the eighties and nineties when producers thought there was a ton of crossover between moviegoers and the weirdos who read stuff like this.

  6. FYI, I just found the movie on YouTube if anyone is interested. Have not checked to see if it was dubbed in Swahili.

  7. Reading that plot recap was an experience of never having any fucking clue what the next sentence would hold. Holy shit this sounds insane.

  8. I haven’t done much with my life but I did see this, Bad Girls, and Maverick in the theater, back to back, on the same day. It was a great day at the movies. Cowgirls, both the book and the movie, felt so transgressive to fifteen year old me and I was just so in love with movies. Summer of 1994 was a big one for me and Imloving this series Vern.

  9. Plastiquehomme

    May 20th, 2024 at 5:55 pm

    I remember as someone who discovered Tom Robbins at University in the late 90s, feeling disappointed that this was the one that got filmed, and not my personal favourite Jitterbug Perfume. Never got round to watching this due to the critical beating it took, but maybe I should give it a go.

  10. Jojo, you’re not helping your case, because SKYLARK SCROTE SAMURAI sounds great.

    I mean, I believe there is an audience for “Family Guy person makes a Russ Meyer movie”, it’s just not me.

    (Full disclosure: I really thought I just pulled “Skylark” out of my ass. But — right after I posted — I realized Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil opens with a version of Skylark, sung by… KD Lang. It’s all connected. I feel that this movie would appreciate that)

  11. I can’t remember much about this, other than both me and my girlfriend felt that, after DRUGSTORE COWBOY and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, this wasn’t the Van Zant we wanted. Little did we know that he would get worse. It’s time for a re-watch, I think. Did someone say Youtube?

  12. Dreadguacamole

    May 22nd, 2024 at 2:48 am

    That someone would off-handedly compare this movie to “Russ Meyer at his most Fellini-esque period” is one of the many reasons why I love this site and its community. That’s really vivid.

    I never got to see this, but the poster hit me like a nostalgia truck. It was papered over all the local video rental stores (because, I’m guessing, Uma Thurman) the year or so before Blockbuster would arrive in Argentina and start driving most of them out of business.

  13. Thanks for the Youtube tip, GR. Not only is ECGTB on there. In English. But I found THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE as well.

  14. Franchise Fred

    May 28th, 2024 at 7:17 pm

    Finally watched this on YouTube and I liked it! It was cute. I can’t imagine anyone hating it so much they’d bash it as any more than a weird movie that’s not for everyone.

    The thumbs were a little more rubbery than I expected but Uma was great waving them at cars.

    Anyone, great to discover a new to me movie from my favorite movie year of my lifetime!

  15. I’m with Franchise Fred, watched it earlier today and I liked how it constantly throws new weird ideas at the viewer as well as combines absurd humour with in depth discussion of complex philosophical issues. I appreciate art like this, that isn’t afraid of being colourful and weird and doesn’t give a shit if it looks “serious” or “respectable” to other people.

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