Starring: Anjelica Huston, Melanie Griffith, Reba McIntyre, Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman, Jack Palance, Tracey Walter, Sam Elliott
Director: Rod Hardy
Mood: If you’re hungry for a powerful Western story about female friendships and have three hours to spend appreciating Anjelica Huston’s awesomeness.
Buffalo Girls is a great Western miniseries. GREAT. I can’t imagine what kind of person wouldn’t fall head-over-heels for it – except those who have read the book.
When the Lonesome Dove TV miniseries came out, author Larry McMurtry said of the overly romantic perception of his story, “I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large… I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With The Wind of the West.”
If McMurtry thought that Lonesome Dove missed the mark, I can only imagine how he felt about the TV take on Buffalo Girls (the book).
The thing is, it’s still a stunning, epic three-part series that’s not to be missed. There’s serious star power here, the acting is outstanding, and it’s got at least two badass female leads. The story is highly engaging – it’s just not the same story.
The whole point of the book, which is the sad, anticlimactic final days of the West and its legends, was completely written out of the screenplay. So much was changed about Calamity Jane’s arc and her interactions with almost everyone except Dora that it’s like two different stories.
You absolutely need to watch Buffalo Girls. Just save the book for later, so you don’t get too hung up on missing your favourite parts.
Buffalo Girls (the miniseries) is the story of Calamity Jane’s (Anjelica Huston) shy romance with Wild Bill Hickok (Sam Elliott), her secret pregnancy, her brave decision after Bill’s murder to give her baby to a wealthy couple, and the change of heart that takes her all the way to England in pursuit of finding her little girl.
Calamity has a host of colourful friends including gorgeous madam Dora Dufran (Melanie Griffith), fiercely loyal elder No Ears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman), jovial old trapper Bartle Bone (Jack Palance), and his gruff BFF Jim Ragg (Tracey Walter).
After Wild Bill’s murder, Buffalo Bill comes to town and recruits several of these Western icons to join his existing talent, including Annie Oakley (Reba McIntyre), and perform in his Wild West Show for none other than the Queen. Calamity refuses, but when she finds out her daughter is somewhere in England, she’s all hands on deck for an adventure across the pond.
Where Buffalo Girls (the book) was heartbreaking, Buffalo Girls (the miniseries) is highly empowering. Each scene is a fine example of women lifting other women up, and strong female friendships. Although there are plenty of great male characters, it’s definitely driven by the women. Like Frozen but for old Western fans.
I can’t believe I just said that. I’ve been cooped up for way to f*cking long.
But in all seriousness, the miniseries IS a faerie tale take on Calamity Jane’s life. Although that’s got its downside, and it’s missing the diverse perspectives of the other main characters, it gives you plenty of time to appreciate Anjelica Huston.
I was actually worried that I’d hate Huston’s performance, and tarnish the flawless pedestal she forever stands atop in my mind. I loved Robin Weigert’s take on Calamity Jane in Deadwood, and Doris Day’s in Calamity Jane, and disliked basically every other take on her I’ve seen so far. Plus, to me Huston will always be Morticia, and the Grand High Witch. A regal, elegant dark lady – not a filthy, androgynous frontier woman.
But what Huston serves up is equal parts fierce survivor and socially awkward tomboy. She’s frumpy and masculine and it’s perfectly endearing. The way she stutters and mumbles feels so genuine that you want to hug her.
Melanie Griffith is fantastic as Dora. She falls right into the part like one of Dora’s melodramatic flops onto her bed. The only reason I don’t count her as one of the badass female leads is because there’s nothing badass about Dora, at least not in the miniseries. She’s a great balance for Calamity, but she’s mostly just fluffy and moody.
Reba, on the other hand, is unsurprisingly charming and tough as Annie Oakley. I do seriously wish they’d left her character as she was in the book, and not softened her up a bit. But McIntyre is thoroughly enjoyable as the West’s most famous female sharpshooter.
This series features post-Tombstone ‘90s Sam Elliott, so he still looks a little bit Roadhouse and it’s exactly right for the dandy Wild Bill. I would pay to see him play the role in a movie all about Wild Bill right now. I’d pay even more to see a more historically accurate version of his story and his time with Buffalo Bill, played by Keith Carradine. But in all seriousness… Elliott’s moustache here earns tens across the board.
The old guys of Buffalo Girls including Jack Palance, TraceyWalter, and Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman, all deliver strong performances too. My one criticism isn’t of their acting. It’s that we didn’t get nearly enough of them to fall for their stories. Jim Ragg and No Ears were my favourite characters in the book, but you wouldn’t feel that way from the miniseries.
Buffalo Girls excels in its cinematography. Although it has a lighter touch than the more rugged Westerns, the sets and landscapes feel rich and authentic.
The costumes are also a treat. Yes, there were times where I noticed that clothing looked a little too clean. But overall, the whole thing radiates strong Western vibes.
Critics obviously agreed. Buffalo Girls was nominated for at least 16 awards, including 11 Emmy awards, two Golden Globes, and a SAG award. Two of these were for Anjelica Huston, two for Sam Elliott, one for Melanie Griffith, and the rest were all for production or the series overall.
Do I love it? Hell yes. I will watch it again and again. I love Anjelica Huston even more for it.
But do I also wish that someone else would remake it, with a script that stays true to the book? Abso-f*cking-lutely.