David Lynch and Mary Sweeney’s The Straight Story marks its 20th anniversary this October. Guest writer, Emma Busch, took a trip to Alvin Straight’s town: Laurens, Iowa, saw THE lawnmower and interviewed locals who knew the family and/or were in town at the time of filming. This article focuses on the man, Alvin Straight, and his coming to terms with the loss of youth.
Many responses to David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) sit somewhere on the spectrum of confused by its lack of “disturbing” content and “twisted sexual desire or violence,” while others were breathlessly swept away by its “Midwestern values” and “poignant message that family matters.”
Film critic Roger Ebert, who was no fan of Lynch by any stretch of the imagination, positively compares Mary Sweeney and John Roach’s script to Hemingway. He also reserves a lot of his praise for Richard Farnsworth’s portrayal of Alvin Straight, the 73-year-old man whose 240-mile trek on a lawnmower from Laurens, Iowa to see his ailing brother in Blue River, Wisconsin the film is based on. Ebert is particularly struck by how Farnsworth’s lines “come out like the bricks of a wall built to last” despite his character’s “lack of sophistication,” but he doesn’t engage with the major presence of disability in the film. While Ebert was the most prominent critic to review The Straight Story, this is part of a larger trend in responses to the film where the most critics were willing to say is that Straight’s eyes were “too bad” to drive.
Having eyes too bad to drive in a real-life context means that Alvin Straight was legally blind. He also walked with two canes due to the severity of his arthritis. A year after his first lawnmower journey, Straight attempted another trip to Sun Valley, Idaho in an attempt to “get [his] arthritis cooled down” so he could walk again. Farnsworth encountered a similar loss of mobility during his lifetime due to the effects of metastatic prostate cancer and was able to relate to Alvin because of it.
This is what makes his performance exceptional among the dozens of actors who may or may not play disabled characters in an attempt to win an Academy Award, the most recent examples being Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014) and Sally Hawkins’s mute character Elina Esposito in The Shape of Water (2017). Additionally, although Alvin has a core friend group in the movie, it is likely that Straight’s mobility loss had an impact on his level of engagement with his community. Lifelong Laurens resident Patty Boughey says Alvin was not well-known in the town and spent most of his time sitting on his porch with his adult children. Connie Dallenbach, who volunteers at the Pocahontas County Historical Society, says Straight was “not a friendly person” and only lived in town a few years before his death in 1996. Alvin Straight lived and died an enigma in his community, but his on-screen counterpart can be interpreted as a symbol of uncomplicated Midwestern virtue most people can rally around without thinking too hard about the realities of aging and disability central to the character’s life and the choices he makes throughout the film.
Characters with disabilities typically serve specific roles in pop culture that range from objects of pity to grotesque monsters or villains or to individuals with powers that “compensate” for their disability. According to scholars Sharon L. Synder and David T. Mitchell, these roles can be broken into three “body genres” (comedy, horror, and melodrama) that use elements like the character’s bodily display, emotional appeal, and disability source in order to create formulas that push certain narratives about disability.
To the film’s credit, Alvin’s narrative does not fit neatly in any of the formulas Synder and Mitchell discuss. The Straight Story has elements of comedy and melodrama but is fundamentally a road film, placing it outside of the foundational body genres. Additionally, the film challenges viewers to confront their assumptions about the elderly by refusing to frame Alvin as a helpless man past his prime. As scholar Sally Chivers points out, everyone Straight encounters “want[s] to feed him, shelter him, and drive him the rest of the way,” because it’s assumed he wants assistance and is either “too proud to accept or too senile to understand” what he needs. After the brakes on his lawnmower fail in Clermont and he nearly crashes, Alvin is surrounded by a group of primarily middle-aged people who pepper him with questions about what he’s doing and why. When asked if he’s scared of being alone, he briefly looks down at the ground before lifting his head up with a slight smile to reply, “Well ma’am, I found in the trenches of World War II, why should I be scared of an Iowa cornfield?” an echo of a real quote Straight gave in an Associated Press article about his trip that ran in a number of Midwestern newspapers in 1994; “What would I be scared of? Hell, I went through combat in World War II. They ain’t going to show me a . . . thing I ain’t seen before. I’ve got two good canes.” The film avoids using colorful language because it’s a Disney property, but the general sentiment remains the same.
Straight is rather polite about refusing help and prefers to gently push back against strangers’ assumptions about him, but here it seems he’s mildly irritated by the question and the viewer should be, too. Despite scenes like this, however, there is still an underlying current of shame regarding the central character’s age and disability. Whenever the topic of Alvin’s age or his body comes up, it’s usually so he can bemoan the loss of his youth and mobility or to deny that such losses have taken place at all. In some ways, it seems as if the film believes it necessary to compensate for Alvin’s disability by characterizing him as some variation of the lone cowboy archetype.
In his memoir “Room to Dream,” Lynch says he viewed Alvin Straight as an older version of James Dean and “a rebel who did things his own way.” Whether Lynch was thinking of Dean’s on-screen persona or the actor’s personal life is unclear, but let’s say it’s the former for ease of discussion. Given that the young actor’s most famous roles were troubled teens, loners, and ranch hands, it’s interesting to see these character archetypes culminate in Alvin Straight, who prefers to live life according to his own wishes and wears a ten-gallon hat, leather cowboy boots, blue jeans and plaid throughout the film, the tried-and-true visual shorthand for “rebel” in cowboy-adjacent characters of all ages. However, there is a difference between the young, able-bodied rebels James Dean played and the disabled 73-year-old rebel we see in Lynch’s film. Dean’s rebels were at odds with society, but Alvin’s rebellious nature seems to creep out in moments where his disability takes center stage.
One of these moments of rebellion takes place during and after a doctor’s appointment. At the beginning of the film, two of Alvin’s friends find him lying on the kitchen floor and unable to get up. This incident prompts a doctor’s visit, during which the camera pans over various medical instruments and supplies and cuts back to a wincing and visibly distraught Alvin. During the appointment, Alvin refuses an operation on his hips, a walker, and a request to run tests to figure out the root cause of his decreasing vision. The doctor also says Alvin will face “serious consequences” if he doesn’t make a variety of lifestyle changes. After the appointment, we watch Alvin light up a cigar as his daughter Rose asks what the doctor said. Alvin replies that he was told that he’s “going to live to be a hundred.” It’s a lie, but you can’t tell if Alvin says this for Rose’s sake or his own. Ultimately I’m not interested in arguing that Alvin should follow his doctor’s orders because of the fraught nature of the relationship between the disabled community and health care providers, but if Alvin is supposed to be a rebel, what is he rebelling against here? And why? If it’s his own body, this could imply that disability as the enemy of our own bodies as viewers, which the film seems to presume are younger and without disability.
Later on in the film, Alvin is more openly self-disparaging about his disability. On the road, he encounters a swarm of bicyclists participating in The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) and decides to spend the night camping with them. Alvin and a group of young men are chatting around a small fire when one of the bicyclists asks if there’s anything good about growing old. Alvin, staring directly into the flames the whole time, answers “Well, I can’t imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time, but still, at my age, I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff and let the small stuff fall away.”
Another man in the group playing catch with some offscreen entity asks what the worst part of growing old is, never turning to address Alvin directly as he questions him. Alvin replies that “worst part of growing old is rememberin’ when you was young.” The man stops his game and turns to look at Alvin for the first time during this scene as the other men look away. The camera cuts to a medium close up of Alvin looking back with a sad smile on his face for a beat before returning his gaze to the fire. There’s a deep sadness in this scene that comes from Alvin’s dissatisfaction with his own body and what seems to be the other men’s sudden realization that they too will grow old one day and may lose the level of mobility that enables them to participate in an event like RAGBRAI, but the moment passes as the scene fades from an image of Alvin staring into the fire to Alvin back on the road again. While moments like this in The Straight Story might invite the audience to ask questions about their own mortality and the sturdiness of their bodies, they are fleeting and ultimately give way to scenic shots of Iowa or Alvin continuing on his route.
Scholar Sally Chivers writes about the movie as part of a trend she refers to as the “silvering screen,” a period of time in the late 1990s and early 2000s where Hollywood began to create more “light-hearted and light-witted images of aging” like Grumpy Old Men (1993), Great Expectations (1998), About Schmidt (2002), and The Bucket List (2007) where the “threat of the declining body plays a key role” as it does in The Straight Story. Chivers also explains that viewers are meant to find comfort in the fact that they are not the old or disabled like the characters they see on-screen, which explains why most of the major takeaways from the film are how wholesome and family-oriented it is or how well Richard Farnsworth played his role.
While most of us would never ride a lawnmower 240 miles, people like Alvin Straight are fairly common and I grew up around a number of them in a small town in Minnesota. Like the real Alvin, they are not loved or hated, only the subject of gossip and pity. Most are not considered actual members of the community for one reason or another and will almost certainly never be the subject of a David Lynch movie. The Straight Story transforms a socially isolated man like Alvin Straight into a loveable protagonist whose desire to make things right with his brother is genuinely touching, but misses an opportunity to engage with disability more thoughtfully. Audience members may like and root for Alvin, but most are ultimately relieved they are nothing like him and hopefully never will be.
- Chris Rodley, Strange. “The man seems so normal,” The Independent, 26 Oct. 1999
- G.T. Melhus, “Straight’ comes from the heart,” The Des Moines Register, 22 Oct. 1999, p. 8M.
- Roger Ebert, “The Straight Story,” RogerEbert.com, 15 Oct.199
- Associated Press, “One ‘mow’ time: Lawnmower traveler plans longer trek; Wisconsin trip brings movie ad deals,” Leader-Telegram, 7 June 1995, p.3A
- Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell, “Body Genres: An Anatomy of Disability in Film.” The Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film, edited by Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2010, p. 179–205. JSTOR.
- Sally Chivers,“Conclusion: Final Films, The Silvering Screen Comes of Age.” The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema, University of Toronto Press, Toronto; 2011, p. 139–148. JSTOR.
- David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream, (New York, Random House, 2018), p. 403.
- Sally Chivers, “Same Difference?: Gerontology and Disability Studies Join Hands.” The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema, University of Toronto Press, 2011, pp. 3–37. JSTOR.