Billy Bob Thornton rolls out new film

Billy Bob Thornton knows that his latest movie, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” probably faces long odds in today’s movie marketplace.

It’s character-driven. It’s aimed at an older demographic. It’s set during the Vietnam War. It’s a serious drama leavened with streaks of dark humor.

And, worst of all, there’s not a single superhero or big-budget special effect to be seen.

Nonetheless, the Oscar-winning Thornton likes the film that he co-wrote, directed and stars in and is willing to give Southern Nevadans a chance to like it, too, when he screens “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” during AARP’s Life@50+ event at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The screening is part of AARP’s Movies for Grownups Film Festival. Thornton and co-star Katherine LaNasa will answer audience questions after the screening, which will be at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the convention center.

“Jayne Mansfield’s Car” — in the film, the title alludes to a traveling exhibition featuring the car in which the ’50s/’60s sexpot lost her life — revolves around an Alabama family wrestling with conflicting attitudes toward war and cultural differences in 1969.

Thornton wrote, directed and starred in “Sling Blade,” the 1996 film that won him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and an Oscar nomination for best actor.

His eclectic roster of screen credits includes “One False Move (which he co-wrote), “Primary Colors,” “Armageddon,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Monster’s Ball” and “Bad Santa.”

Thornton also received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for “A Simple Plan” and his directing credits include “Daddy and Them” (which he wrote) and “All the Pretty Horses.”

During a recent phone interview, the affable Thornton — who’s happy to break away from watching a ballgame on TV to chat — concedes that some viewers might find the tone of “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” a bit tricky at first.

“As with most things I do — things that I have anything to do with writing, anyway — it’s a drama with dark humor,” he says.

Particularly in recent films, “dramas are over earnest usually, and comedies tend to be just comedies, with no heart,” Thornton says. “Real life is both, and that’s what I try to do. I always try to put both in there, and sometimes I’ll mix it up.”

In addition, the film features a few moments of “heightened reality,” Thornton says, “and we have some slow motion in the movie just to sort of indicate what someone’s vision of something is.

“But, really, it’s just a movie with underlying heavy themes and yet done in a darkly humorous way.”

In the film, Robert Duvall plays a family’s emotionally distant father who has a dicey relationship with his sons: a former soldier who has become a drug-abusing, war-protesting hippie (Kevin Bacon), a Naval aviator struggling unsuccessfully to win his father’s approval (Thornton) and a youngest son (Robert Patrick) who is frustrated about his own military service.

The Vietnam War provides a backdrop for the story. Thornton says that while “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is not an anti-war movie, it does explore attitudes — including generational attitudes — toward war.

Often, he says, “we don’t really pass real lessons along to the next generation. We pass on personal opinions, maybe, but we don’t generally pass on an objective view of things.”

The film’s characters reflect, to some degree, Thornton’s own experiences: Thornton, 57, grew up in Arkansas amid the political and cultural backdrop of the Vietnam War.

“My father was very conservative and my mother was very liberal,” he says. “So I grew up with both.”

Thornton’s father, a high school basketball coach, died when Thornton was a teenager. As a youth (and as reflected in Bacon’s character), Thornton adopted a sort of hippie lifestyle.

“I was into rock ’n’ roll and all kinds of things,” he says. “I had long hair in ninth grade.”

But Thornton later would learn that values and attitudes — which someone holds and how they come to hold them — are complicated things.

“I’ve seen a lot of very, very liberal people who grew up in the Vietnam era who have changed and become very conservative,” Thornton says, as well as left-leaning people who became as extremist as those on the far right.

Thornton says his distaste with either end of that spectrum is “more about extremism than anything else.”

Thornton laughs. “I call myself a radical moderate,” he says. “I’ve got this very intense view of the middle.”

Ultimately, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is, Thornton says, “about how tragedy manifests itself in families and how each generation views tragedy and war and other things. So it’s not really an anti-war movie, but it shows how each generation looks at it and how it manifests itself in their lives.”

The film already has played several film festivals and is scheduled for release in September. What has been critics’ weirdest reaction so far?

“A lot of people don’t think we had hippies (in the South),” Thornton says, laughing. “They thought they were only in New York or something. But we had a strong drug culture and rock ’n’ roll culture in the South, and sometimes people don’t see that.”

Another storyline revolves around the culture clash of the American family and the British family of the story’s wife and mother, who several years earlier left her family here and married an English widower.

“I’ve always been interested in culture clashes,” Thornton says, because “if you boil it down to its sort of least common denominator, whatever problem it is, then it’s no longer a culture clash because we’re all kind of the same at the end of the day. A family in Russia or the U.S. or Argentina, we’re all dealing with the same things.”

As with the other films Thornton has directed, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” features an impressive cast. Thornton says he wrote many of the film’s characters “with people in mind.”
Duvall, for example, “has been my mentor for a long time, probably 20 years or more,” Thornton says. “So I wrote that part with Duvall in mind.”

Thornton directed Patrick in “All the Pretty Horses,” while Bacon “is an old friend. So that was an easy call. I called all those guys and said: ‘Hey, I’m directing a movie. You guys want to do it?’ I sent them a script and they said, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ ”

John Hurt is another old friend of 25 years, Thornton says with a laugh. “I said, ‘John, I finally wrote a British part and we could finally work together.’ ”

Although the film came together as Thornton had envisioned, he understands that the economics of moviemaking today don’t exactly favor such a small-budget, character-driven film.

“You know, the state of the movie business these days is very different,” he says. “If this movie came out in 2001, I think it would have been a huge success. I don’t know what that will be now, because most movies for adults, they throw them out there and they just kind of disappear.”

But, whatever happens, Thornton’s voice signals his enthusiasm about “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.”

In the end, he says, it’s enough “if I can sit back and watch the movie and know we made the movie we wanted to make.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ or 702-383-0280.

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