In a conversation at the Hamptons International Film Festival a friend posited that Sam Shepard is unique among movie stars in his ability to embody both the poetically suffering sensitive lover and the iconic manly cowboy, all at once. I countered that there is at least one other example — Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain”. My friend agreed, but after thinking about it a bit more, I’m not so sure I was right.
Ledger manages the stretch between lover and cowboy by being winningly boyish, which is something a bit different. His character is really the man-child still in the process of discovering his true nature.
In contrast, Shepard as easily conveys the figure of the fully formed cowboy as Sam Elliott himself — handsomely craggy, quietly authoritative, a man of action in that calmly Zen way of the true loner hero. At the same time, he does indeed embody the sensitive suffering lover, every bit as soulful as Adrien Brody in “The Pianist”, to choose an iconic example. All this while being a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright!
There are many movie stars who are great at being one or the other of these things, while being merely acceptable at the other. Richard Gere makes a great sensitive lover, but as a cowboy he’s not quite there. And one could argue that Harrison Ford has transitioned gracefully from young lover to old cowboy, but he was never perfectly both at the same time.
Which leaves me wondering: Was my friend correct? Is there really only one living movie star who has simultaneously embodied both of these divergent ideals?