Long before banally molesting Hitchcock’s proto-slasher masterpiece Psycho (1960) by making a soulless shot-for-shot remake in 1998 featuring grade A Hollywood asshole Vince Vaughn masturbating while acting like an autistic peeping Tom, queer auteur Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Elephant) directed a big budget (or at least big budget from him at that time) lesbo-feminist western/road movie hybrid of the ‘quirky’ queer sort that failed miserably both critically and commercially. Based on the 1976 ‘hippie’ novel of the same name written by Tom Robbins (who narrates the film), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) is undoubtedly the most consciously degenerate quasi-western since Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968), as well as the most pervert-plagued road movie since Van Sant’s own previous work My Own Private Idaho (1991), and thus the film is not of total disinterest as a work that is the director’s most ‘Lynchian’ celluloid creation to date. Ostensibly a feminist flick, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues ultimately comes off feeling like a cynical satire of disgruntled bull dykes, pseudo-aristocratic queer queens, and the sad sort of all-too-common moronic white folks who romanticize oriental philosophy and Amerindians. Starring the lanky and long-limbed virtual Nordic alien actress Uma Thurman (Kill Bill, Nymphomaniac)—the daughter of Nena von Schlebrügge, a former fashion model of German aristocratic stock—in a strangely fitting role as a perennial hitchhiker who became a master of her ‘trade’ due to her abnormally long thumbs, Van Sant’s film is also notable due to its eclectic all-star cast, which includes Grace Zabriskie, Crispin Glover, Udo Kier, Rosanne Barr, Sean Young, Lorraine Bracco, alpha-Beat writer William S. Burroughs, and River Phoenix (who the film was dedicated to) in his last film role in a brief uncredited cameo. Van Sant’s interest in adapting the source novel goes all the way back to the 1980s when he was finishing up his first feature Mala Noche and had the opportunity to meet author Tom Robbins at a book-signing where he told the writer that he hoped to adapt his book, even though he was only making about $100.00 a week at the time and surely did not have the money to buy the rights to the work, so one can certainly say Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a true labor of love, if not a rather convoluted and curious one. When once asked about his interest in the source novel, Van Sant stated, “I think my attraction to COWGIRLS is that it’s a kind of New Age novel […] It seemed Robbins was using the form of the romance novel to write a new fiction. He has the lead character going in and out of different sexual situations to create this very grand, GONE WITH THE WIND type of journey.” Although I have not read Robbins’ novel and don’t plan to, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is anything but like Gone with the Wind, as a work centering around a rather naïve protagonist who may be many things, including a bi-curious virgin who is coerced into a variety of sex acts with numerous perverts, but she is as far away from being a conniving aristocratic confederate bitch as female characters come. A rather odd and anti-orgasmic odyssey featuring carpet-munching cowgirls, a gynophobic tranny pseudo-aristocrat, a hyper horny old hermit sage who goes by the name ‘The Chink’ even though he is a Jap, and a distinctly unflattering depiction of loony Women’s liberationists who use their long unwashed and apparently pungent nether-regions as a nasty means to wage war against a tyrannical tranny dictator, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is undoubtedly one of Van Sant’s most underrated works, if not for all the wrong reasons as a film of accidental anti-politically incorrect camp featuring countless memorable scenes and characters that are just too marvelously moronic to be associated with the dry cunt cuntiness of feminist cinema.
As narrator Tom Robbins states at the beginning of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues regarding the film’s thumb-endowed protagonist Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman), “The surprise of Sissy Hankshaw is that she did not grow up a neurotic disaster. If you were a small girl in the low-income suburb of Richmond, Virginia as Sissy was and your own daddy makes jokes about you being “all thumbs,” then you toughen up or you shatter.” While a little girl, Sissy’s hysterical mother (Grace Zabriskie) was afraid that her daughter would never be able to find a man due to her long thumbs and her suspicions were right as her daughter remained a virgin well into her adult years, even after becoming a glamorous model for feminine hygiene products. When Sissy was a little girl, her Mother took her to a fortuneteller named ‘Madame Zoe’ (Rosanne Barr) to see if her daughter would ever get married and it was foretold that the thumb-handicapped little lady would see “men and lots and lots of women” in her life. Determined to make the most of her hand-based handicap, Sissy developed a talent for hitchhiking while still just a young girl as a born master for thumbing a ride and considering the first person to pick her up was driving a Pontiac—a car named after the Ottawa war chief of same name—she also developed an unhealthy fetish for American Indians (or what she describes as a “pleasure in Indianhood”). From 1965 until 1970, Sissy had the honor of being the “only young feminine hygiene Dew girl” and even resembled Edie Sedgwick, but ever since her career ended, she has been a homeless hitchhiker who has made hitching a “way of life” and who has crossed the continent 400 times and passed everyone twice. One day, Sissy gets a letter from her benefactor/mentor ‘The Countess’ (played by an exceedingly queenish John Hurt)—an aging transvestite with his own pet Asian houseboy who owns a feminine hygiene empire and loathes the smell of vaginas—asking her to come to NYC as s/he has a male companion s/he wants her to meet. Upon arriving in NYC, the Countess is somewhat annoyed by Sissy’s unbecoming negativity regarding her freakish thumbs and hilariously states, “All of use are freaks in one way or another…try being born a male Russian countess born into a white middleclass Baptist family in Mississippi and you’ll see what I mean.” The Countess also goes on a notably bitchy tirade against vaginal aromas, stating, “I loathe the stink of females…their so sweet the way god made them…then they start fooling around with men and soon their stinking like rotten mushrooms…like an excessively chlorinated swimming pool…like a tuna fish’s retirement party…they all stink, from the Queen England to Bonanza Jellybean, they stink.” After going on a number of rather hysterical and even histrionic rants, the Countess sets Sissy up on a date with a successful “full-blooded Indian” watercolorist named Julian Gitche (Keanu Reeves), but the pansy artist is so overcome with anxiety upon meeting her that he has an asthma attack, thus the Hitchhiker is forced to mingle with her would-be-date’s perverted artist friends. Before she knows it, Sissy is almost forced to engage in a threesome with Julian’s perverted yet pompous pseudo-intellectual friends Howard (Crispin Glover) and Marie Barth (Sean Young), but she manages to escape relatively undefiled.
Since Sissy’s romance with Julian was aborted by unfortunate circumstances, the Countess decides to send his protege to his ‘beauty ranch’, Rubber Rose Ranch, which is named after the aberrosexual aristocrat’s best-selling designer douche bag, for her first modeling gig in years. Before Sissy goes on her journey, the Countess warns her to stay away from lesbian cowgirls that are stirring up a rebellion at the ranch, as well as an elderly Japanese-American philosopher/mountain man with the somewhat misleading name ‘The Chink’ (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita of Karate Kid fame), who is well known for defiling young girls. While masturbating to the thought of asthma-addled artist Julian Gitche while lying on a log outside in public somewhere near Rubber Rose Ranch, Sissy is rudely interrupted by a lady who wears so much makeup that she looks like a drag queen named Miss Adrian (Angie Dickinson), who runs the ranch and warns the hitcher of a “plague of cowgirls” that involves militant dykes having infiltrated every single sector of their beauty program, with corrupt cowgirls Debbie (Victoria Williams), Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix), and Delores Del Ruby (Lorraine Bracco) being the leaders of the sinister Sapphic revolt. Upon arriving at the ranch, Bonanza immediately attempts to ply Sissy with ‘road food in bed’ as the cunnilingus-inclined cowgirl has an obsession with the hitchhiker’s large thumbs, which can assumedly do much damage to a dirty dyke’s meat curtain. The ranch is famous for being the last place in the world to feature a reservation of whooping cranes, so Sassy dresses up like one for a modeling shoot that is being done by an exceedingly effeminate queer kraut director (Udo Kier). Of course, hardcore carpet-muncher Bonanza Jellybean eventually manages to get into Sissy’s panties, thus creating a less than ideal situation for the hitcher due to her loyalty to the Countess and her new found friendship with the drag queen dictator’s eternal enemies, the cowgirls. Indeed, one day the cowgirls decide to lead a revolt against the Countess, who mocks them by snidely stating, “You pathetic little cutesy poos…You actually believe this exhibition of childhood-like melodrama is advancing the cause of freedom.” Proclaiming that the Countess owes them the entire ranch as “token payment for disgusting exploitations,” Bonanza Jellybean leads an attack of odious aroma against the feminist hygiene product queen by having her cowgirls drop their pants and panties and declaring, “not one of these pussies has been washed in weeks” while charging their adversary, who holds his little fairy nose in abject disgust.
Totally torn between her longstanding relationship with the Countess and new friends among the cowgirls, Sissy leaves the ranch during the frantic feminist coup d'état and heads to the mountains where she meets the less than charming Chink, who deflowers her that night. Apparently, the Chink has sexually ravaged a number of the cowgirls and respects them, but complains regarding their dubious methods of female liberation, “I love those cowgirls…but…I just can’t be a party to their utopian dreaming.” Ultimately, the cowgirls take the Countess’ whooping cranes hostage and get the rare birds high on peyote to ostensibly 'literate' their minds. Meanwhile, Sissy gets in an argument with the Countess over the cowgirls involvement in the bird kidnapping that results in the hitchhiker slapping her benefactor so hard she knocks his dentures out. After learning that her thumbs might have caused the Countess brain damage, Sissy decides to have one of her thumbs amputated, with her childhood doctor Dr. Dreyfus (Buck Henry)—an exceedingly eccentric man who constantly quotes painters like Paul Gauguin and who has retired after being sued for medical malpractice after botching a nose job performed on a little boy—being the fellow who ‘de-thumbs’ her. Needless to say, Sissy’s hitchhiking talents are severely weakened after her thumb is surgically amputated, but she still manages to hitch a ride back to Rubber Rose Ranch to reunite with the cowgirls, who are now in a standoff with Federal agents over the kidnapped whooping cranes. After the group’s spiritual leader, Delores Del Ruby, has an epiphany after taking too much peyote, the girls agree to give the whooping cranes back and surrender, but when Bonanza Jellybean attempts to make peace with the government agents by dropping her guns, she is shot and a full-blown gun battle breaks out. In the end, Bonanza Jellybean succumbs to her wounds, the peyote-addled whooping cranes finally withdraw from drugs and fly away, the Countess hands over the deeds for the ranch to the cowgirls who rename it ‘El Rancho Jellybean’ (with Sissy becoming its main overseer), and the hermit chink, who was injured in the shootout and subsequently started a ménage à trios with Sissy and Delores, heads to California.
Despite being easily his biggest failure as a filmmaker, Gus Van Sant actually regards Even Cowgirls Get the Blues as his favorite cinematic creation, stating of the film, “Sometimes you like the more enfeebled child best. It’s the most loved child.” Van Sant also revealed that he could care less about how the critics and the general public responded to the film, remarking, “I can’t explain why it didn’t work. We all thought it was off-kilter enough to be interesting, and I can’t explain the reaction. But you can waste a lot of time trying to figure it out, and in the end, they either get our material, or they don’t. I make these films for myself, anyway.” Undoubtedly, out of all the comments I have read Van Sant make about the film, the most interesting one is in regard to the director's personal speculation as to why the work was hated by critics, which is as follows: “Actually, I think a lot of critics didn’t like the previous films, but they felt obligated to give them a good review. . . .COWGIRLS offered critics the opportunity to give me the bad review they wanted to give before.” Indeed, with this quote Van Sant more or less admitted that the only reason his films were ever critically revered in the first place is because he was the first big mainstream ‘openly gay’ filmmaker and the critics merely lauded his work as a means to push their authoritarian neo-bolshevik LGBT agenda. Of course, in its depiction of effete homos as mean-spirited misogynists who exploit women due to their self-consciousness regarding their vaginal odors, portrayal of lesbians as peyote-addled and rather grotesque criminals who endanger the lives of both people and endangered species to further their dubious political cause, and inclusion of a old white-girl-defiling Japanese man named ‘The Chink’ that is certainly more odious than the Chinaman of D.W. Griffith’s ‘Yellow Peril’ era work Broken Blossoms (1919), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is not exactly the sort of film that would have benefited the gay agenda, even if it is an innately queer-spirited work full of campy cocksucker clichés that would even make John Waters chuckle with depraved joy. Next to his putrid piece of mainstream gay agitprop Milk (2008), which makes a martyr out of a Hebraic homo who was a known pederast and absurdly depicts Harvey Milk’s killer Dan White as a closet-homosexual even though it’s a totally libelous fabrication based on not a single inkling of fact, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues seems like an unsung masterpiece created by a still-then-subversive filmmaker who had yet to sell his soul to the gatekeepers of poof political correctness in Hollywood. While not exactly a masterpiece or anything resembling one, Van Sant's film certainly deserves a cult following of sorts as arguably the director’s most humorous film to date as a loony lesbo equivalent to My Own Private Idaho. For those that ever wondered what Tony Soprano's psychiatrist's beaver looks like, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues might also be worth your time.