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Telluride: Hilary Swank Enters the Oscar Race With the Western Classic ‘The Homesman’

Tommy Lee Jones’ second feature as director showcases two Oscar-winning actors in top form

Hilary Swank proved for the second time in her career that she can go up against one of the grand old masters of the screen and more than hold her own in The Homesman, a period piece from Roadside Attractions and Saban Films that debuted Aug. 31 in Telluride.

The last time she did this, it was opposite Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, and the movie won both of them Oscars (Swank for lead actress, Eastwood for picture and director). This time it’s opposite Tommy Lee Jones, who — like Eastwood — directed while also co-starring. The stars had some surprising support onscreen with James Spader and Meryl Streep appearing in cameos.

Homesman is probably too low-key to have Baby’s punch (either critically or commercially), but it drew positive word from Swank fans, some of whom waited in line starting at 6 a.m. just for the chance to see her.

The movie is based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, which was suggested as a possible project for Jones by Sam Shepard, who had tried unsuccessfully to obtain the rights. (Paul Newman also spent many years attempting to bring the story to the screen.)

In the film, Swank plays a spinsterish woman living on the frontier in 1855, who enlists an aging ne’er-do-well to accompany her across the Nebraska Territory as she tries to find a haven for three women who, simply put, have lost their minds.

It’s a premise with echoes of other movies that have become classics, combining a lovable old rogue with a single woman who is his antithesis — from The African Queen to True Grit. While nobody would suggest this movie is likely to become a classic like the aforementioned Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne pictures, a packed house indicated this quiet, understated movie could have a receptive audience when it opens Nov. 14.

The film was helped by having Swank present to introduce it, following a tribute to her career, which has already seen two Oscar-winning roles (the first was in Boys Don’t Cry). Swank charmed her fans, coming across as funny, warm and down-to-earth, and making it clear the one thing she wants — and too rarely finds — is roles for women as strong as herself.

She said she has already begun producing and is seriously considering directing at some point in the near future.

Jones’ work as director (this film follows 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) showed him in stellar form as far as his cast was concerned, though several audience members said they found the film somewhat undramatic to be a front-running Oscar contender, aside from the two main performances.