Thursday, November 5, 2009

1984 - Places in the Heart

Celebrity sighting #34: Whilst performing my ushering duties, Isabella Rossellini entered the theatre to be seated in the second row, which unfortunately meant I could only see the back of her fairly distant head owing to the fact that I was positioned in the back row. My colleagues assured me over the walkie that it was indeed the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, so I took their word for it.

(For the record, the number 34 is entirely fabricated. I am not, in fact, keeping a tally of my star-struckedness.)

Moving on...

The epic movie marathon that was the 1956 Best Picture race is now over and I must admit that, when I sat down to watch the next film for Matt vs. the Academy, it was nice to know that I wouldn't be spending over three hours in front of the television screen. The first of 1984's nominees was...

Places in the Heart
Robert Benton
Robert Benton
Sally Field, Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, John Malkovich, Danny Glover
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay

In Waxahachie, Texas, during the Great Depression, Edna Spalding is attempting to recover from the devastating loss of her husband. In order to keep her two children housed and fed, she desperately needs to earn some cash. Since she is unable to afford the mortgage repayments, the bank manager urges her to sell the house. But Edna has a better idea. On the advice of a friendly unemployed black man named Moses, she plants cotton on her farm. The bank manager is unconvinced of this solution, so he persuades her to take on his blind brother-in-law as a tenant to help with the repayments. Battling a tornado, a slump in the cotton market and all sorts of prejudices - racism, sexism and blindism - this unlikely group must work together to bring in the crop.

Places in the Heart begins with a very slow pace. It's the deep South. It's the Depression. Understandably, things are slow. Even the accidental death of Edna's husband only heightens the film's energy briefly. However, the characters are so intriguing that it's enjoyable to spend time with this unlikely collection of acquaintances. I was definitely hooked by the story's powerful intensity. The tornado sequence, in particular, was genuinely heart-stopping, as was the tension created when Mr. Will, the blind man, attempts to rescue Moses from a Ku Klux Klan gang.

Speaking of the blind man, perhaps I've been spoiled by Al Pacino, but John Malkovich's eyes were not quite convincingly sightless. Maybe that's being picky, though. Sally Field (pictured) is affecting in the role that won her a second Oscar, prompting her famous acceptance speech, "You like me!" Also noteworthy is Danny Glover as Moses. Plus, for Lost fans, Terry O'Quinn, a.k.a. John Locke, appears in a supporting role.

As if the themes of death, the Depression and racism were not serious enough, writer-director Robert Benton also includes a major subplot involving the infidelity of Edna's brother-in-law. Heavy. It all works perfectly, though, without slipping into melodrama. One of the most moving scenes in the entire film is the very final shot. I'm not entirely sure I understood the exact meaning behind it, but it was powerful, nonetheless. That's precisely what I love about the art of film. It can make you feel all sorts of unexpected things without having the foggiest clue as to why you're feeling them.

1 comment:

  1. Writer/Director Robert Benton draws from his recollections of growing up in Waxahachie Texas during the Great Depression. Perhaps because it is filtered through memory, the movie has a softer view than say The Grapes of Wrath did. It has sentiment, but is not sentimental, and is laid out with strong convictions.

    I like his nod to Les Miserables in the scene where Moses gets caught after stealing the silver and is spared jail due to the compassion of the owner. In this case, Sally Field has a motive for her forgiveness.

    John Malkovich may have let his eyes wander a bit, but he also had more physical activity than Al Pacino did, and he carried that off well. I also liked his scene when he angrily storms into bathroom, when he realizes that Sally Field is naked in the bathtub. He shows just a hint of embarrassment as he excuses himself.

    Sometimes I wonder how a screenwriter decides what story-lines to create. I found the subplot involving the marital affairs very well acted and a needed diversion from the main "save the farm" story, but frankly, it wasn't all that interesting. The other subplot, racism was almost peripherally dealt with. Perhaps, Benton felt it was too big an issue to cover in more depth and would take away from the primary theme. The final hopeful sequence of the movie certainly was chancy, but it worked for me.

    As happens from time to time, some years have multiple movies on the same theme. In 1984, it was the year of the farm. "Country" and "The River" were contemporary stories and "Places in the Heart" was the period piece. All were good, but I preferred "Places in the Heart," and felt it earned a well deserved Best Picture Nomination.