In the mid-1970's speculation in the trades ran wild that the end of the great American motion picture as an indigenous art form was not far off. Going to the movies was, as one particular eulogist suggested, something we would look back on as a quaint relic from our collective past, like riding in a horse-drawn buggy. Far from fanciful protestations, all current evidence then seemed to suggest as much. The ensconced Hollywood dream factories were mere shadows of their former selves; many taken over by corporate entities, like Kinney mortuary services and Gulf + Western. These holding companies had little, if any, interest in propagating the art. Indeed, acquiring the studios had been a shrewd move into real estate at best. And audiences too had somehow lost their verve for movies anyway; the surviving studios crippled with soaring debt and very anemic returns at the box office. MGM folded, or rather, like Jonah, was swallowed whole by the whale know as Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian, spit out the other end as a ‘hotel company’ with a relatively insignificant stake in making movies. Disney Inc. teetered on the brink with a series of disastrous flops.
Without the stability of a mogul-driven profit center, independent productions struggled to get financing. Less movies were made on more stringent budgets. Bluntly put, by 1980, the movies were not what they had once been – the act of going to see them more depressing still, sitting in dilapidated, half empty movie palaces from a bygone era that faintly creaked and reeked of musty decay and the rancid sourness of day old popcorn. But then something wonderful happened: wonderful and quite unexpected. Politics put a former actor in the White House: Ronald Reagan - a man who understood what the Consent Decrees of the 1950s had done to this once thriving American cultural touchstone. Hollywood responded with a miraculous resurrection; gambling on a diverse creative slate of projects whose popularity at the box office startled even the most diehard industry pundits. Two tried and true main staples from the golden era, absent for much of the 1970s, were immediately reinstated; the costly period drama (Gandhi, Amadeus, A Passage to India) and the woman’s picture.
Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart (1984) is of this latter ilk; rich in its characterizations and emotionally satisfying in its storytelling. Benton, a native of Waxahachie, Texas (where our story is set) and enamored by the region’s rich and often devastating history circa the 1930s, began his career in the unlikeliest of professions as an artistic director/editor for Esquire Magazine; perhaps even more of a revelation when one stops to consider he suffered from severe dyslexia. Undaunted, he befriended David Newman, by Benton’s own account “a wonderful writer”. Together, they would latch on to an idea of doing a ‘French New Wave’ take on public enemies, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. In retrospect, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) seems like the ideal proving ground for Places in the Heart, if not thematically, or even stylistically, than certainly in typifying the essential color, mood and tone of the Great Depression. It also speaks to Benton’s reoccurring affinity for the 1930s and his enduring message about the importance of family, broadly interpreted in Benton’s movies as a group of people, often from disparate backgrounds, brought together under inauspicious circumstances, who discover the strength of their own character and convictions, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Benton has often said that casting is 98% of a picture’s success and in Places in the Heart he is immeasurably blessed by an exquisite roster of talent, front-lined by Sally Field. The star of iconic 60s TV fluff, Gidget and The Flying Nun had, by 1984 graduated to feature films, winning an Oscar for her performance in Norma Rae (1979). Alas, the Oscar curse was upon Fields for a time, her career going into limbo. In some ways, her character in Places in the Heart, the widow, Edna Spalding, struggling to keep body and soul together for her young family, is a companion piece to the aforementioned stubbornly resolved factory worker who fought the system to establish a union with benefits for all. Edna Spalding is the main artery from whence all tributaries in Places in the Heart fan out; the humanization of a curmudgeonly blind man, Mr. Will (played with startling effectiveness by John Malkovich), the subplot of marital infidelity involving Edna’s sister, Margaret (Lindsay Crouse), her randy husband, Wayne Lomax (Ed Harris) and her best friend, Viola Kelsey (Amy Madigan) and finally, the unlikely bond of friendship grown ripe between Edna and her hired man, Moze Hadley (Danny Glover).
While Field’s Oscar-winning performance remains the maypole around which all others effectively do their dance and dumb show, Glover’s, as the put upon vagabond, barely one step up from a kept slave and destined to suffer egregiously at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, is the one most poignantly realized. If Field’s Edna is the glue that stubbornly keeps everyone together, Glover’s introspective and sensitive, Moze is the true ‘heart’ of our story. Quite simply, he tears it to pieces. The triumvirate of Fields, Glover and Malkovich is already compelling enough of a cast to satisfy most any character-driven drama. But Benton has populated even the backdrop with a cavalcade of instantly recognizable faces, or rather, ones who strike an indelible impression almost immediately; looking lived in and somehow of the period, as though miraculously transplanted through a time warp into the present day to star in this film: Lane Smith as the wily banker, Albert Denby, foisting his burdensome brother-in-law, Mr. Will onto the already cash-strapped Edna, reportedly as an act of charity to help her raise the necessary monies to keep her heavily mortgaged home; Bert Remsen as the banjo-playing, Tee Tot Hightower; Ray Baker, as Edna’s soon to be late husband, Royce, and, Jay Patterson as the despicable racist hay and feed merchant, W.E. Simmons.
The other two performances that make the film click as it should belong to Yankton Hatton and Gennie James, cast as the Spalding children, Frank and Possum respectively. Children in movies are a mixed blessing and frequently a curse; the byproduct of stage mothers who have managed to strip away all sense of naturalized childhood, replaced by a well-rehearsed pantomime that is never quite as genuine or believable on the screen. Not so with Hatton and James; two precocious and wide-eyed innocents about to have their hearts broken. The middle act of Place in the Heart is spirited away by a horrific twister; symbolically, the watershed moment meant to crystalize the future prospects for virtually all Benton’s ensemble. In retrospect, the storm is also, perhaps, a parable for God’s wrath, come to inflict a reckoning on the impure and the faithless. Thematically, religion is a prominent player in Places in the Heart, particularly its’ final moment; Benton’s dreamy-eyed fantasia featuring the entire cast; friends and enemies, wives and mistresses, the living and the dead observed taking Holy Communion together in church.
At intervals, this finale has been interpreted as either cheaply sentimental or artificially tacked on to help paint Benton out of his narrative corner. Indeed, the scenes preceding this penultimate moment of optimism are less cathartically satisfying; Moze, spared a lynching by the Klan, thanks to Mr. Will’s quick shot accuracy and voice recognition of the men involved; Edna’s tepid acceptance of Moze’s decision to move on; Viola and her husband, Buddy’s (Terry O’Quinn) hasty departure from town to escape the scandal of her extra-marital affair with Wayne; Margaret’s reluctant acquiescence to allow Wayne back into her bed. Benton has dotted all his ‘i’s’ and crossed all his ‘T’s’, even the loosest of his narrative threads adequately bundled together and cleverly masked by his understated, matter-of-fact directing style. But on closer inspection, his third act loses focus and steam immediately following the tornado’s aftermath. What helps keep the story afloat are the performances, never once falsely achieved and quite often elevating the material to an unexpected mantle of quality.
In many ways, Places in the Heart lingers in its affinity for low-budget 70’s cinema, the Waxahachie locations shot plainly by cinematographer, Néstor Almendros and starkly reminiscent of the dust bowl tough times that nearly crippled a nation. The main titles are set against establishing shots of locations we will eventually visit in more detail later on, set to a choral refrain of Blessed Assurance accompanied by a lonely piano. Immediately, Benton has established both place and time. We’re in the Bible belt, surrounded by God-fearing rural folk. However, this is hardly an idyllic portrait of bucolic Americana. We are introduced to the Spalding clan: Edna (Sally Fields) preparing dinner for the family as her children, Frank (Yankton Hatton) and Possum (Gennie James) look on. Husband, Royce (Ray Baker) is town sheriff and late to arrive. Evidently, he takes his duties as a lawman very seriously. At home, Royce is a firm, but understanding father and loving husband, whose meagre salary ensures the family’s basic survival needs are met. As the Spaldings prepare to break bread they are interrupted by Deputy Jack Driscoll (Jerry Haynes) who informs the sheriff of an drunken black youth, firing his pistol at empty bottles down by the rail yards.
Arriving on the scene, Royce calls out to the young man, Wylie (De'voreaux White). The two regard one another in a friendly – even warm-hearted manner, clearly illustrating neither bears the other any malice. However, even as Wylie admits he is drunk and agrees to surrender peaceably, he takes dead aim at another bottle, stumbles, and fires blindly, inadvertently gunning Royce down. Jack and other members from the force bring Royce’s body back to the Spalding home. Edna is aided in the preparation of her husband’s remains by devoted sister, Margaret (Lindsay Crouse). Outside, a group of white farmers drive up, having lynched Wylie and dragged his badly beaten remains behind their caravan for miles. Margaret orders the men away and Wylie’s body is later strung up a tree, left for his family to discover and mourn.
After Royce’s wake, Edna confides in Margaret she has no means of supporting the family. Worse, bank manager, Albert Denby (Lane Smith) informs Edna that unless she takes in a boarder there will be no money to see the family through the next payment on her farm. Reluctantly, Edna agrees have Albert’s blind brother-in-law, Mr. Will (John Malkovich) come to live in her home. At the same time, a vagabond, Moze Hadley (Danny Glover) offers to do odd jobs for food and a place to stay. To sweeten the deal Moze suggests to Edna she might plant forty acres of cotton he could grow and harvest for her. Edna refuses to even entertain the offer, although she does agree to feed Moze some breakfast. While her back is turned, Moze steals some of Edna’s silverware.
That evening Jack returns with Moze in custody and Edna’s silverware in hand. However, when confronted with Moze’s thievery, Edna lies to Jack, telling him she gave Moze the cutlery to take to Margaret. After Jack leaves, Edna tells Moze that if he ever steals from her again she will surely kill him herself. But just now, her mind is focused on the prospect of raising cotton. Moze tries to back out of the deal, but Edna’s mind is made up. She goes to the bank and asks Mr. Denby to show her how to fill out a check. At the cotton gin, W.E. Simmons (Jay Patterson) attempts to sell Edna an inferior seed for top dollar. To Simmons everlasting chagrin, Moze intercedes and Edna pretends to inquire whether ‘a mistake’ has been made, forcing Simmons to give her the correct grade. Afterward, Simmons makes a veiled threat to Moze to mind his own business. But for now the focus is on the monumental amount of work necessary to farm the cotton and preserve her way of life.
In another part of town, Margaret’s unemployed husband, Wayne Lomax (Ed Harris) is having an affair with school teacher, Viola Kelsey (Amy Madigan), the wife of his best friend, Buddy (Terry O’Quinn). Harris, whose early acting career specialized in this sort of monumentally unsympathetic cad, performs a clever balancing act herein. He’s an unrepentant philanderer, hopping from a rendezvous with Viola inside an abandoned cotton mill to a routine seduction of his wife as she prepares for a local social gathering. Inadvertently, Margaret ignites Viola’s jealousy by confiding the reason for their being late. Meanwhile, at the Spalding home, Frank and Possum sneak into Mr. Will’s room to listen to records on his Victrola. However, when Frank accidentally scratches one of the discs with the heavy needle, Mr. Will burst in on Edna in the kitchen to demand she discipline her children. Unbeknownst to Mr. Will he has intruded on Edna’s bath. When Mr. Will attempts to emphasize his frustrations by slamming his fist against the kitchen table he instead strikes the surface of the water in Edna’s tub, immediately realizing the embarrassing informality of his intrusion.
The next afternoon Frank is found out by Viola for smoking cigarettes behind the school. She takes Frank home to be disciplined. Although Frank accepts his punishment of receiving the strap, Edna struggles to maintain her composure as she whips her child with one of Royce’s leather belts. The disciplining of Frank is one of Benton’s tour de forces; setting up the scene without any hysteria as Edna naively questions Frank about what his ‘pa’ would do in her place. Told by Frank that ‘ten good licks’ should prove the point, Benton immediately cuts away to an insert just beyond the kitchen door; Possum listening intensely and flinching with every crack of the belt, comforted by Moze and Mr. Will until Frank suddenly emerges with tears gently nestled in his eyes. While Moze takes Possum outside, allowing Frank his moment to compose himself, Mr. Will enters the kitchen to find Edna equally as shaken. “I’m not ever going to do that again!” she tells him.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Will and Moze become good friends. Reluctantly, Moze confides in Mr. Will he does not believe they will be able to get the cotton crop in on time. Nevertheless, the work begins. On a gray afternoon, as Moze and Edna are about to hoe the fields out back of the homestead, a typical summer storm turns into a vicious twister that decimates the town. In the resulting carnage, Frank runs away from school and barely makes it back to the farm in time to hide in the cellar with the rest of his family. Trapped in the backroom of the school, Viola and her terrified students also survive the deluge. But the moment is a turning point for Viola, who suddenly realizes she cannot go on deceiving her husband and Margaret any longer. Viola begs Buddy to take her away from Waxahachie. Assuming the shell shock is from the storm, Buddy reluctantly agrees to the move. However, at their farewell get together with Margaret and Wayne, Viola suddenly pulls away from Wayne after he offers to cut the deck of cards in her hand. This subtle insinuation is picked up on by Margaret. Later she confronts Wayne. He confesses to the affair and Margaret orders him out of the house.
Meanwhile, current cotton prices plummet, placing Edna’s entire venture in jeopardy. Edna goes to Mr. Denby to beg for clemency. But as Denby asks the bank president for a deferment on the loan, Edna takes notice of a series of photographs hanging on his wall, depicting the annual Ellis County cash prize of $100 for the first bale of cotton brought into the gin. Returning home with renewed determination, Edna tells Moze and Mr. Will of her latest plan to save the family. But Moze becomes cynical. In one of the best played and most fondly recalled moments from the film, Edna listens intently to his admonishment before breaking her silence in a display of sheer and impassioned frustration, “Now you listen to me! If they take this place, you’re going back to beggin’ for every meal and Mr. Will they’re goin’ to put you in a state home and I’m going to lose what’s left of my family. I’m not going to let that happen. I don’t care if it kills me. I don’t care if it kills you. And if the two of you do then you can go straight to hell!”
In the face of such blind determination, Moze hires extra pickers from a rabble of starving black shanty town folk so Edna can meet the deadline. Wayne and Margaret join Edna in the fields too, as do Possum and Frank, enduring excruciatingly long hours in the blistering heat and sun. The grueling days end by lantern light, with Edna and Moze the first to arrive at the gin the next morning and collect their prize money. That evening, as Edna breathes a sigh of relief and elects for the first time to attend a social dance in town since the death of her husband, the Ku Klux Klan descend upon the farm, beating Moze into submission before Mr. Will arrives with Royce’s pistol in hand. Firing off a few warning shots, Mr. Will is subdued by the Klansmen, but not before he clearly identifies virtually all the bed-sheeted men by the sound of their voice. Suddenly apprehensive at the thought of having to kill two men – one, a white blind man – in order to maintain their silence, the Klansmen instead release Moze to Mr. Will’s care. But Simmons – the head of the Klan – whispers a warning in Moze’s ear, vowing to return and settle his score at some later time and place.
When Edna arrives home, Mr. Will informs her of the conflict. She rushes to the hut in back of the barn where Moze has been living, discovering he is already packed and ready to leave. Edna tells Moze that ‘black or white’ he has been the finest farm hand she has ever known, instilling a sense of bittersweet pride and gratitude. The next day, Viola and Buddy leave town. Wayne and Margaret attend church, as do Edna and her children. Our story concludes with a slow sweep of the crowd taking Holy Communion. As the plate of bread and wine is passed around, Margaret takes Wayne’s hand, clearly signaling her decision to give him another chance. As the wine is passed around, we see several of the town folk who were killed in the tornado miraculously present and accounted for; the camera panning to reveal the even more uncanny sight of Moze, then Edna, and finally Royce and Wylie among the parishioners. Endless reflections aside, Benton’s denouement is both unsettling and bittersweet, suggesting many who profess to love one another on Sunday also belong to the Klan. By contrast, Edna has done everything out of love – for her husband, her children and her new extended family. As such, she has this ‘place in her heart’, never to be tainted with the passage of the years.
Places in the Heart is so obviously Robert Benton's valentine to Waxahachie Texas, enriched by memories from his own childhood and a retrospective affinity for this place he once yearned to escape, but has since recognized as integral to the fiber of his being. On the whole, the movie is robustly satisfying; a nourishing reflection of an imperfect past, affectionately extolled by Benton's own enviable brand of screen intimacy. This understated direction makes up for the few narrative pitfalls in his screenplay. The finale remains queerly uplifting, though hardly optimistic as it seems to suggest Edna Spalding’s impenetrable – nee, crippling – need to cling to the past. Benton resolves his story, not with a flourish of hopefulness, but with an almost mystical approach to Christianity where the indefinable find form, the hopeless gather their strength and where even a murderer and his victim may share in the understanding each is singularly beloved in God's eyes. Hollywood doesn't make movies like Places in the Heart any more, perhaps because such projects require two essentials in very short supply these days: a genuine appreciation for the struggles of humanity and actors able to translate such material beyond mere superficial styling for 'playing the part.'
Sony Home Entertainment new 1080p Blu-ray via their long-standing association with Twilight Time is a revelation; superbly rendered with a subtly nuanced palette of colors, married to pluperfect contrast levels and a light smattering of grain looking very indigenous to its source. In short, this is another reference quality disc from Sony and its VP Grover Crisp - Néstor Almendros’ cinematography looking utterly magnificent for the first time since the film’s theatrical release. Flesh tones are simply gorgeous, the pasty flat ‘beige’ look of the DVD replaced by a robust spectrum of ‘vintage’ and very appealing hues. Fine detail in hair, fabric, and backgrounds pops with a clarity I cannot ever recall seeing before. This is what hi-def mastering is all about: quality plus with virtually no untoward digital manipulations (edge enhancement, pixelization, etc. et al).
Honestly, I cannot recommend this movie or this Blu-ray enough. It should be on everyone’s ‘must have’ list. The audio remains in 1.0 mono, bumped to a lossless DTS and ironically quite satisfactory for this presentation. We get two new extras from TT: first, their usual commitment to providing us with an isolated score. Aside: Places in the Heart has very little music in it, so this isn’t all that big a bonus as one might expect. But the newly recorded audio commentary featuring Sally Fields sharing her thoughts on the movie with TT’s own Nick Redman is decidedly well worth the price of admission. Bottom line: Places in the Heart gets my highest recommendation. They don’t make movies like this anymore. I’m not even certain they know how to try.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)