Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I have been wondering for two days if there is anything nice to say about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and I just keep running into dead ends. I could say that it has a pretty good cast in a film made by a good director (Gus van Sant) from a novel by a respected author (Tom Robbins), but that would not really be a compliment at all, would it? It would just raise the question of "how did all that result in such a complete waste of time and eight million dollars?"

I just don't know the answer to that question.

  • I could point to an egregiously bad performance from Rain Phoenix, who managed to get none of the looks nor any of the talent in her family gene pool. It doesn't seem possible to imagine a movie in which Angie Dickinson, Buck Henry and Udo Kier all appear, yet none is the worst actor in the film. (Although God knows they tried.) You need to imagine it no longer. That seeming impossibility takes shape right here. According to her biographers, Rain Phoenix can sing any kind of music and has even studied opera. Apparently all that musical education left her without the time for acting classes.

  • I could cite the fact that the film is weird and eccentric just for the sake of weirdness and eccentricity. Somebody needs to tell the people who made this film that weirdness and eccentricity are not, in and of themselves, valuable or entertaining. Several actors embarrass themselves in this film. John Hurt wears lipstick and whiteface throughout the film, as a queen whose advertising agency specializes in products deodorizing women. To imagine what he looks like, picture The Joker, then replace all the green with red. Lorraine Bracco plays a whip-cracking lesbian cowgirl who is proud of a foul-smelling crotch. Mr. Myagi plays some kind of a horny mountain-dwelling guru named The Chink. Uma Thurman plays a woman with giant thumbs which look so fake that she simply seems to be wearing gloves. Keanu Reeves plays an asthmatic Native American who seems to be wearing Doc Severinsen's hand-me-downs. Roseanne Barr is on hand as a fortune teller. Several familiar faces appear in crowd shots, yet have no lines (Edward James Olmos, Heather Graham, River Phoenix). I think I can summarize this point by saying that Carol Kane and Crispin Glover are in this film and, compared to the rest of the cast, they provide a fresh breath of rugged down-home normality.

  • As for the dialogue, James Berardinelli summed it up eloquently: "The dialogue, especially the Tom Robbins-supplied voiceovers, is grating. There's too much pretension and posturing here, and a typical conversation consists of characters trying to one-up each other in the number of meaningless profundities they can spew."

  • The book was written in the hippie era, and the ideas were never updated to reflect the advancement of ideas past that point. As a result, the script was referencing some ideas and mocking other ideas that, for the most part, no longer existed when the film was  made, and are even more obsolete today.

Those factors all contributed to the problem, but I don't think those bullet points are ultimately capable of explaining the abysmal depth of the sucking done by this film.

I think that there are just some kinds of writers whose work doesn't translate well to the screen.

The guys whose books do work on screen, like Mario Puzo, fill their pages with juicy sex, gossipy details, lurid violence, and hard-driving plot. One reads their books for their plots and characters. The authors' own voices are virtually absent from their books.

On the other side of the fence, men like Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, Fred Exley, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Thackeray write books where the author's voice is ubiquitous. Reading their books is an encounter with their minds and their techniques, and not really with their plots or characters. On paper, the fact that they embrace the eccentric and cherish the outré seems gentle, charmingly dotty, and life-embracing. Their cynicism toward the bourgeoisie seems insightful. None of that works in the movies. Those authors just seem to come off as weird, naive, catty, unsophisticated, and possibly even mad.

(I am excepting Kubrick's films, of course. He did a great job at catching Thackeray's exact tone in Barry Lyndon, and he did well with the comical elements of Nabokov's Lolita, although not so well with the greater complexities of the story.) 

I have all but abandoned hope that we will ever see a great interpretation of a Vonnegut film. The Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night films, although flawed, seem to be the best we will ever get. After the raw sewage that was Breakfast of Champions, we may not see any filmmaker try Vonnegut again for a long time. After Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a movie so bad it makes Breakfast of Champions seem in comparison to be The Seventh Seal, Tom Robbins may never get another chance at a cinema legacy. That's something of a shame, because his books, including this book, are fun to read, if anyone could figure out how to translate that fun to film. Ol' Gus van Sant sure couldn't solve the equation.


  • Lorraine Bracco shows her pubic hair.
  • Rain Phoenix shows her pubic hair and most of one nipple.
  • Sean Young shows her breasts in a sex scene, but this nudity is visible only in the full screen VHS version.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

The studio knew how bad this film was. Horrified by the screenings, and then by the audience reaction at the Toronto Festival, they asked Van Sant to re-cut it. The release, originally scheduled for 1991, was postponed and delayed several times until 1993, at which time it was snuck into a minimal distribution schedule, where it grossed between one and two million dollars and quickly disappeared.
Tuna's thoughts in yellow:

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) is a failed attempt to bring to the screen a book I personally love. While the main characters are sort of right, and the photography is very nice, the film simply did a miserable job of conveying the substance of the book. The book is all about attitude, and the plot is just a loose framework to hang it on. In workmanlike adaptation fashion, they streamlined the plot, made it a linear narrative, changed it to essentially a love story, and then did a rather straightforward presentation of the plot.

The story concerns Sissy Hankshaw, who was born with grossly oversized thumbs, and so naturally grew up to be the worlds greatest hitchhiker. When she wasn't thumbing, she worked as a model for the countess, who is actually a very gay older man who has become the  Czar of feminine hygiene products. The Countess also owned the Rubber Rose Ranch, a fat farm named after his company's popular douche bag. The ranch also hosted a few whooping cranes and sported a few cattle, which were wrangled by a bunch of cowgirls led by one Bonanza Jellybean. Other key players are the Chink (a Japanese American hermit played by Pat Morita) and Delores Del Ruby, a former circus performer, whose peyote Goddess visions point out the future for the cowgirls.

When the countess sends Sissy to the ranch for a photo shoot, Sissy falls for Jellybean, the cowgirls revolt against the fat farm ladies and the countess, and we meet the whooping cranes who figure prominently in the last act.

Like most people, I often feel that the derivative movies are inferior to a book or stage play I love, but this is different. There is no nice way to say this. In this case, the filmmakers completely failed to adapt the book to the screen. There is some question as to whether or not that is even possible with a Tom Robbins book, but they certainly didn't manage it here.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: no stars. James Berardinelli .5/4, Roger Ebert .5/4.

  • It was nominated for two Razzies

The People Vote ...

  • It was budgeted at $8 million and grossed $1.7 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a D (Tuna) to E (Scoop).  It looks OK and is technically competent, but is otherwise an utter abomination with no redeeming characteristics.

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