Whatever happened to the original Mattie Ross?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When she starred opposite John Wayne in the 1969 western True Grit, Kim Darby could easily have been forgiven for believing the role would be the start of a long and glittering career. In truth, though, defying predictions that a star was born, she has made no films of note since.

This must be all the more galling given all the tributes garlanding Hailee Steinfeld, who has already been nominated as Best Supporting Actress in this year's Oscars for her updated take on Darby's role as Mattie Ross, a young woman bent on revenge, in the 2010 remake.

Among limited successes after her appearance in the celebrated western, one of Darby's most visible entries into the screen canon was opposite William Shatner's Captain James T Kirk as the alien Miri in a 1969 episode of Star Trek.

Before she landed the coveted role of Mattie Ross, opposite Wayne's Rooster Cogburn, she earned her spurs in television shows that also included Mr Novak, Dr Kildare, The Eleventh Hour and The Fugitive.

Her first appearance was as a dancer in the 1963 film Bye Bye Birdie and she featured in a 1967 episode of the popular TV series Gunsmoke.

But after the stellar success of her performance opposite Wayne – the Duke – Darby was rushed into a series of ill-judged roles in forgettable films, before she turned to teaching as her movie career cooled.

Few will remember the 1985 teen romcom Better Off Dead..., or the 1995 slasher Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Even fewer know that at the time of her big break, at 21, she had just given birth to a daughter and was mired in an angry and messy divorce. Now 63, living in California and teaching acting at UCLA, she has tied the knot five times.

Last week in a television interview she recalled fondly her time working with John Wayne: "He was very professional; he would get there before any crew member, before anybody was there, and would be dressed and ready. You'd drive up and see him out on a meadow."

When shots were being fired on screen, there were times she was not acting, she said, adding: "I was really flinching because those were full loads, they were very loud and were pretty close to me."

She added that True Grit co-star Robert Duvall baulked at the old-school, hands-on style of director Henry Hathaway, recounting an argument that flared between the two as Hathaway offered advice on how to swivel during an action scene.

"Robert got very angry and said: 'What are you, the Martha Graham of directing?'. So it was very tense at that moment and the Duke broke that up."

When Darby first met Wayne on the set of True Grit, the veteran actor already had 40 years of film-making under his belt. In the original film, she played the thrifty, churchgoing, 14-year-old Mattie, who exploits Wayne's drunken, one-eyed, hard-nosed marshal's desperation for money as she chivvies him into helping avenge her father's death.

Wayne won an Oscar for his performance and the film grossed $14.25m (at least £100m today) in the US – some consolation, perhaps, for Darby as she reads the glowing plaudits for the new True Grit.

The new version, written and directed by the Coen brothers and starring Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, has been nominated for nine other Academy Awards in addition to the one for Steinfeld's performance.