The Ballad of Little Jo

It could have been a gimmick flick: The Crying Game on horseback Orlando out West. But writer-director Maggie Greenwald extrapolates boldly on the real story of a frontier woman who lived in disguise as a man; she creates a gender-bending western of incendiary passion and wit. Suzy Amis is the essence of true grit as Josephine Monaghan, whose wealthy father disowns her when she has a bastard child. Heading west during a gold rush, she scars her face and passes as a man. Her decision is a practical one --- it's the only way she won't be treated as a slave or a whore.

As Little Jo, she is hardly a convincing cowboy. But the clothes, the attitude and a Colt 38 are enough to fool the citizens of Ruby City. Mary (Heather Graham) even sees Jo as a potential husband. Things get trickier when Jo's miner friend, Percy (Ian McKellen), invites her to a brothel and cuts up a whore because ''she wouldn't put it in her mouth.''

Jo is convinced that she needs male identity but not male company. She takes a job as a sheepherder, which gives her isolation and the chance to save money to buy land Years later, Jo's Chinese hired hand, Tinman (a fine David Chung), discovers her identity and awakens her latent eroticism until the outside world intrudes. Greenwald takes an invigorating feminist slant on the Old West that is sure to provoke argument More power to her.

From The Archives Issue 663: August 19, 1993