Lefty Brown, Sidekick:  fool, “good and faithful servant”, “unlucky winner” ?

By Mary Cochrane-McIvor

What is a sidekick? And what is Bill Pullman who starred as the original,iconic cowboy hero, the 'Virginian' doing playing a sidekick in a western, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”?

In classic western movies like “Rio Bravo” and “Red River”, the sidekick is comic relief, complete with a high-pitched voice, bad hat and foolish manner. He is the perfect foil for the strong, silent cowboy hero. A sidekick is defined as a person closely associated with another as a subordinate or partner. (Merriam-Webster)

When Bill Pullman and I spoke on the phone recently, I reminded him that the more obvious role for him in “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” would have been Edward Johnson (Peter Fonda), cowboy, rancher, Marshall, western legend, and Lefty's best friend and partner for 40 years. Pullman reminded me that it's “difficult to be the straight man . . .you can get a lot more humor with a character like Lefty than you could with Edward Johnson. There's a lot more front to Lefty than a straight man . . a lot more on the plate.” During the shoot, Pullman says there was a “heightened interest in Lefty” since the sidekick is not usually the hero of the picture.

As Lefty Brown, Bill Pullman has that high-pitched voice, a really bad hat, and a foolish manner, leaving room for plenty of comic relief. After Marshall Johnson, recently elected U.S. Senator from Montana, dispenses some immediate rough justice to a murderer, Lefty quips: “That's a helluva way to begin your career, Mr. Senator.” Comic relief, but Lefty has the freedom of the clown. Apparent foolish humor allows him to say things to his best friend and partner that others dare not. Lefty enjoys an enviable freedom to call things as he sees them when talking to the hero. So, perhaps acting as or being seen as the fool, has its benefits for heros and sidekicks.

Edward Johnson says “A more loyal man than Lefty Brown never walked this Earth.” Powerful words. Johnson intends to to leave Lefty in charge of his ranch when he and his wife go to Washington, D.C.. This plan is met with disdain by Edward's wife, Laura (Kathy Baker).

When Edward is suddenly, brutally murdered, it is a horrific shock to Lefty. As he buries a rifle given to him by Edward moments before the murder, he swears to find Edward's killers or die trying and sets off alone, with a fierce resolve to track them down and bring them to justice.

Lefty treasures a photo of Edward, himself, and the other 2 men who rode with them. When the two, Tom Harrah, (Tommy Flanagan) now a U.S. Marshall, and Jimmy Bierce, (Jim Caveziel)now Governor of Montana, call to pay their respects to Laura after Edward's murder, both are disdainful and dismissive of Lefty's ability to track and capture Edward's killers.

Lefty forges ahead in his pursuit of the murderers, revealing skills as a gifted tracker, who Pullman says
“does something . . . extraordinary and is able to catch up to the murderers following the trail at night”.
In his pursuit, Lefty captures a U.S.Marshall, assembles a posse that captures the killers, acquires a sidekick of his own, (Diego Josef), escapes captors twice, and faithfully watches over and cares for his injured sidekick—all the while never wavering in his commitment to find and bring to justice Edward's killers.  Some fool of a sidekick . . .

So, Lefty has been dismissed by Laura Johnson, Tom Harrah and Jimmy Bierce as an inept fool, but Bill Pullman cautions: “ You hope the audience is hearing certain things said about a character but then watching actions that may reveal a contradiction.”

And that standard sidekick high-pitched voice? As Lefty becomes more self-directed and later deserted and betrayed by those he considered friends, he speaks at a much lower pitch.

“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” has been described as a coming of age story for a 63 year old man. 'Coming of age' is defined as the attainment of prominence, respectability, recognition or maturity.

Pullman describes Lefty as an “unlucky winner”, albeit one in a comfortable, enviable position. Lefty
starts as the best friend and partner of the hero. Lefty is “content” to be the sidekick, according to Pullman. Lefty's luck ends with his partner's brutal murder which sets off a spiral of chaos, confusion and betrayal that tears apart the men who rode with Edward Johnson and leaves Lefty accused of
murder, and further estranged from Laura Johnson.

But Lefty fights on. Pullman sees Lefty as having “a kind of vulnerability that really comes from loyalty, not vengeance”. In fact, Pullman sees the film as being more about the loss of love and friendship that Edward's murder causes effecting Laura and the men who rode with Edward. This is an especially cruel blow to Lefty.

Pullman sees Lefty as someone for whom “circumstances have changed . . radically and he's adapted somewhat . . . but his (Lefty's) principles are all the same: loyalty, honesty, directness, respect for people until proven otherwise”. Lefty remains loyal and committed to his mission and in an ending Pullman describes as “bittersweet” where Lefty finds himself “on his own and fully accepting of it for the first time”.

As Lefty, Bill Pullman gives a spectacular, rich, nuanced, engaging performance with plenty of opportunities to use his masterful characterization and acting gifts to bring Lefty Brown to life.
Don't miss it.

“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” has been a huge success in audience surveys with mature women,
not usually devoted fans of westerns. Whatever your demographic, this beautifully told, compelling story about loss, love, friendship and a man finding out who he really is, this picture is one to be treasured.

And Lefty. Is he a fool, the “good and faithful servant”, “an unlucky winner” ?  See for yourself.

All quotes Bill Pullman.

© 2017 Mary Cochrane McIvor. All rights reserved.