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Oh, Billy. Billy? Billy Jack, When Are You Coming Back?

when rocks sprout, I hope

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 18, 2013.

Entertainment has lost some big names and big talents of late. The biggest was Peter O'Toole, who was nominated eight times and received a Lifetime achievement Oscar, but he should have won several. He could do anything, really well, but My Favorite Year, Lawrence of Arabia, The Ruling Class might give you an indication of what great acting talent actually is. I'm quite certain we live in the actual golden age of movies and movie acting, as opposed to stage, but O'Toole could take the stage or set and dominate the screen today. He had presence and gravitas, was sharp and talented.

The young may only know him as the restaurant critic in Ratatouille, a lesson in voice acting. Also? Very funny, moving even. It's a cartoon about a rat becoming a chef.

It is not right to speak ill of the deceased, I know, but also departing this veil of late was a man who had no discernible acting talent at all yet was once an idol of the Boomer Generation and part of their children's. As O'Toole said in Anton Ego's review, negative criticism is fun to write and to read, but often not as important as the glurge they savage. True, often enough. But this is about Tom Laughlin. You know, don't you? Billy Jack? There's nothing fun about this. The guy was a vainglorious tool who is the political right's visual of Treasonous Hollywood. Imagine the talent difference between, say, O'Toole and Keanu Reeves. That distance between, extending downward from Reeves twice as far brings us to Billy Jack and Tom Laughlin. I apologize to Mr. Reeves, actually.

Billy Jack was Laughlin's character in several movies, starting with The Born Losers. He is what Ward Churchill and so many wanted to be themselves. A native American avenger and near Super Hero. He's responsible for a lot of misinformation and contrived myth we still deal with.

Jack was an Indian or part Indian, and he was a Vietnam Vet, and he was a martial artist who talked a lot about peace and love yet always found time to beat the living or dead crap out of those who opposed him. These are some of the worst movies made by anyone, at any time, and they are so embarrassing you don't even see them on basic cable channels anymore. They are unwatchable, and not just because the audience is clearly more sophisticated today, but because of the intensity of burning ignorance contained in these scripts. Laughlin's wife Delores co-starred in many of them, and she is one of the few who do not stomp all over the leading man on the screen. She is, if anything, an even worse actor. These are Ed Wood level scripts written by Laughlin, only without the witty repartee and moving characterizations in Plan Nine From Outer Space. The best parts of the movies are the fight scenes absent the fact they were bad then and real bad by today's standards.

Laughlin had something. It just wasn't apparent on the screen. He was at least tangentially involved with Brando, Jack Lemmon, Candice Bergen, Robert Wise, and other big wigs in the Hollywood fast lane of the late 60's and early 70's, although Robert Altman, who directed Born Losers, early on concluded Laughlin was a pain. Laughlin had also written that film, as he did all of his movies. Typed, rather. It is hard to recall a single cliche of Hippy Happiness and the view from Haight Ashbury that isn't delivered dead pan as if original, relevant, true, and deep. Yet, none of those words describes anything within six time zones of Tom Laughlin.

Also, the ethics and morality of the protagonist were an issue. A young and utterly confused Roger Ebert in a review wrote "Billy Jack seems to be saying that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice. Is democracy totally obsolete, then? Is our only hope that the good fascists defeat the bad fascists?" Spoiler alert: I don't think the issue occurred to Laughlin, who had found his bliss and said "The youth of this country have only two heroes, Ralph Nader and Billy Jack." To my horror and embarrassment, for a few years that may have been true. These movies today could be approvingly shown at Michigan Militia family night.

In his defense, and impressively, Laughlin put up his own money for the movies to retain control, and went broke a few times. He wrote books, gave lectures in psychology, tried to append himself to causes that might grant him a come back. But he was no more a psychologist than he was an actor.

We Boomers are dying out, and good, but Laughlin needs a kick out the door. First World ignorance is no salve for First World traumas, especially installed by violence.