These days, there are several ways to look at Tommy Lee Jones, but only one is essential. Certainly on this day, with a scene to be shot in the muraled and gilded dining room of Memphis’ historic Peabody hotel, it is enough for the assembled fans and film crew to see him in character, costumed down to his buffed fingernails as a self-important prosecutor in the film version of John Grisham’s best-seller The Client. The onlookers might also note that Jones is an actor who has accrued his share of fame, thanks to unforgettable roles in The Executioner’s Song, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lonesome Dove, and JFK. With Jones’s most recent, electrifying performance in The Fugitive—a film whose domestic grosses projected to reach a very impressive $200 million—it is also possible to see him as a man experiencing a particular rite of passage.
All the signs are there. Flashy upcoming roles: a vengeful prison warden in Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers and a heartbroken GI in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth. Blessings from the media: the New York Times ( TOMMY LEE JONES SNARLS HIS WAY TO THE PINNACLE), the Los Angeles Times ( HOT ON THE TRAIL WITH MR. JONES), and Time ( HOT DAMN, HE’S GOOD). The usual plaudits from formidable movie directors: Stone calls his work in Heaven and Earth “a shattering performance”; Andrew Davis, who directed Jones in The Fugitive, christened him the Southwestern Bogart. People and the tabloids are sniffing around his private life (“His dad was a drunk who made his childhood hell,” declares the National Enquirer). No less a personage than Rosanne Arnold has the hots for Jones; she recently told a reporter that she likes “a guy who looks like he’s been messed up and pushed around.” And so it goes, as the popular culture makes its effort to claim him, as his fabled ragged edges are smoothed, as everyone grows accustomed to viewing him in the most coveted of American roles—that of major motion picture star.
But to see Jones in this way is to miss the point, to miss a truth that is about as well hidden as the pocked and rutted sun-stained skin that easily defeats his pancake makeup today. The truth is that in spite of a long and arduous journey from poverty to privilege to this level of success, in spite of playing such characters as homicidal killers, haunted lawmen, and heartsick husbands—all in a way that gives them