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The Year of Tommy Lee Jones


By Ariel Foxman

Tommy Lee Jones/Heaven and Earth

Benefit: Harvard Film Archive

December 10

September, 1965. Harvard Yard, Harvard University.

The Class of '69 is moving into its respective dorms. In the corridors of Mower, two young men are introduced for the first time. "Tommy Lee Jones, meet your new roommate Albert Gore."

On that day, the halls of Harvard witness yet another significant event in its more than 300 year-old history. A future international celebrity/actor meets a future Vice-President of the United States. The potential and promise in that room could have fueled rockets.

For Tommy Lee Jones, it was the first day of an illustrious college career as renaissance man on campus. Jack of all trades and master of ...all. He played for the Crimson all four years. He acted on campus in "the best [theater] he could." He became a member of The Signet Society, Harvard-Radcliffe's society's of arts and letters. (He has yet to return his initiation rose as he remains unpublished.) He "never paid any attention to the clubs [final or The Hasty Pudding]" and declined when offered membership. Active as he was, he wrote an honors English thesis on Flannery O'Connor and was graduated cum laude.

When discussing his undergraduate years, the former Dunster House resident is reserved and modest. Despite the fact that most faculty members were aware of his awe-some talent (his performance in Coriolanus is considered "legendary"), Jones insists that he was just another student doing his own thing he best he could. When asked if he and his roommate seemed destined for grandeur, ones replied, "We always seemed destined for in hourly exam."

Jones is still very much tied to the apron trings of Alma Mater. Involved with many projects and goings-on at the university, he was invested time and energy into The Harvard Film Archive (HFA) and, if his "volatile schedule" allows, he will be a participant in Arts First, an annual celebration of the arts at Harvard-Radcliffe. For those of you who question the staying power of post-graduation college friendships, fear not. Jones and the Vice President are "still friends."

December 10, 1993. Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University.

Tommy Lee Jones is the guest of honor at a special advance screening of Oliver Stone's Vietnam docudrama "Heaven and Earth" in which he co-stars. Proceeds are to benefit the HFA and the Print Acquisition Fund. Asked to describe how it feels to be returning as a famous alumnus, Jones simply asks, "How far away from the tree can the apple fall?"

Committed to turning the HFA into the biggest film assemblage at any university in the country, Jones is raising funds to purchase a particular film collection. He feels that it is "very, very important" to have such a resource available to students. "Like language labs, the HFA must be available in a similar manner," says Jones.

After making some complusory opening remarks and introducing the film, Jones leaves the theater allowing the audience to soak up what is being billed as the final installment in Stone's Vietnam trilogy ("Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July"). Based on the autobiographical memoirs of Le Ly Haslip, the movie chronicles the harrowing odyssey of a Vietnamese woman as she trades her war-torn homeland for an alien America. Jones, who plays Sgt. Steve Butler, Le Ly's jaded and abusive G.I. husband, says the film is "not about war, but more about the soul." The movie, which is written and directed by Stone, also stars Joan Chen ("The Last Emperor"), academy-award winner Dr. Haing S. Ngor ("The Killing Fields") and Debbie Reynolds.

At the film's conclusion, Jones engaged the audience in a brief question and answer period. An uptight Jones was curt in his responses. "Were you in the military or the war and if not what did you draw on to prepare for your role?" asked an eager viewer. "No, I was not," growled Jones, "But who wasn't affected by the war. Next question." "Which is your favorite role?" queried a student. Jones snapped back, "I don't play favorites. Next question." "What drew you to this role?" was the follow up. "Oliver [Stone] asked me to, and I needed the work." It seemed as if responding was becoming a chore for Jones as his tone conveyed condescension and frustration. But at the champagne reception that followed, he was gracious and patient as he autographed programs for, took photographs with, spoke to and even hugged the crowd of adoring, over-indulgent fans.

December 11, 1993. Bennett Street Cafe, The Charles Hotel.

Tommy Lee Jones has agreed to meet for a one-on-one interview over brunch. Wearing dark black sunglasses throughout, Jones, with concealed pupils, looks more like a character from the Lil' Orphan Annie comic strip than one of his menacing and intimidating characters. A native Texan, Jones charms with his Southwestern courtesies and genuinely ingratiating accent. He is impeccably dressed and groomed; his hair is cut close and his skin is aglow. Sitting at the table eating his Eggs Benedict and drinking his milk, Mr. Jones looks like the sensitive man of the 90s.

Do not be fooled. Tommy Lee Jones is a no-nonsense, macho actor who takes his work very seriously, refuses to bullshit and is not afraid to speak his mind. Measuring his words and punctuating them with long pauses, Jones speaks like a telegram. His monotoned voice and alarming brevity find a paradoxical balance between supercilious, down home rudeness and overly reverent attentiveness.

In discussing his craft, Jones is particularly matter-of-fact. Though he thinks "Heaven and Earth" could be 15 minutes shorter, he is quick to state that it's really none of my goddamn business. That's not what I'm paid for." When asked how he prepared for his role, Jones says as if it were obvious, "As well as I could." Only after a long, uncomfortable pause does he add, "Read all the books. Talk to all the people. Think all the thoughts. Rerun the memories."

The only topic on which he does seem to open up is that of the controversy and criticism which surround Oliver Stone and his movies. When asked if he anticipates a critical attack on Stone and "Heaven and Earth", Jones chuckles, "Don't you?" Insistent that he "knows nothing of [movie marketing] vogues, trends or fads," Jones claims that he and Stone, "try to make movies that will walk on their own legs, stand and fall on their own merits." Does he think Americans are ready to see another film dealing with the Vietnam War? "Those issues are pretty much obviated" considering his and Stone's goals.

He seems bitter when discussing the media and its treatment of movies. "Good motion picture criticism is hard to find. Those who are ready, willing and able to exploit the cinema are easy to find. All the easy stories are going to be written for two reasons. One, they're easy. Two, there's money in it."

Critics claim that Oliver Stone felt pressure to tell a tale from a female perspective (his work, "The Doors," "Wall Street" has focused on men). Those criticisms, says Jones, "are double cheap shots." He continues, "It's easy and profitable to fire off a little article, write it in about two hours, build it around a theme of Oliver's neglect of women and convince an editor and the readership that you're actually thinking."

His obvious disdain for entertainment journalism, in conjunction with his tirelessly busy schedule, has Jones "reading less newspapers and paying less attention to them." It may also be the reason why he rarely gives a warm and chatty type of interview. His cursory style and somewhat austere personality caused The New York Times to write that he "snarls his way to the pinnacle [of his career]" and Time to characterize him as "extraornery [sic]."

In adition to the past year's being The Year of the Woman, it has also been The Year of Tommy Lee Jones. With his lead roles in the blockbusters "Under Siege" and "The Fugitive," Jones has busted out of character actor obscurity and into the forefront of popular culture.

Having acted professionally for over 25 years, it seems odd that Jones has only recently been discovered by the movie-going audience at large. Shortly after graduation from Harvard, Jones made his Braodway debut in John Osborne's "A Patriot for Me." He later shared the Broadway stage with the likes of Carol Channing, Sid Caesar and Zero Mostel. He was awarded a best Actor Emmy award for his portrayal of Gary Gilmore in "The Executioner's Song" and was nominated for another Emmy for his performance in the mini-series "Lonesome Dove." In addition to his movie role in Oliver Stone's "JFK," for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor by the Academy, Jones has starred in "The coal Miner's Daughter," "The Package" and the Harvard-Radcliffe favorite, "Love Story."

Considering how bright Jones' future is, perhaps wearing sunglasses indoors is the appropriate thing for him to do. After all, he did receive a phone call from a Ms. Campion during the interview. Could this be the same Ms. Campion who is garnering critical acclaim for directing this season's art-house blockbuster and Cannes' Palme d'Or winner "The Piano?" Regardless, Jones will star in the soon-to-be-released, now-being-edited "Natural Born Killers," also directed and written by Oliver Stone. The film is a satire about "a young pair of serial killers struggling to get a start in life." Later projects include starring in the film adaptation of the John Grisham bestseller The Client and directing the movie version of Elmer Kelton's novel The Good Old Boys, a turn of the century tale set in West Texas. Jones seems very enthused about having also won the movie role of baseball legend Tyrus Raymond Cobb. Ironically, with so much ahead of him, Jones claims to be "short-sighted" when planning his career.

Tommy Lee Jones is a Harvard grad who's done good, real good. He has taken the University's trademark stereotype of the cocky, self-assured and exceptionally talented individual and parlayed it into phenomenal success.

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