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    Placing Benton's Story

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Moviegoers who took a chance and visited an earlier, harder time in America’s past when Places in the Heart (1984) opened 33 years ago today discovered something unexpectedly meaningful: the connections among family, to the human community outside, and to the places they called home. It’s not that nearly all who experienced writer-director Robert Benton’s autobiographical tale of Depression-era life in his Waxahachie, Texas, birthplace could claim every detail of the everyday struggles and emotions depicted in this delicate but decidedly unsentimental drama. But the precision eloquence of its filmmaker’s written and visual storytelling forged an overarching bond that sidestepped whatever surface familiarities a jaded observer could find with the plot elements of an impoverished widow battling to save the family farm and keep her family together. Consider the actual Benton family lore outlined in this Ellis County Texas History Blog entry here: Benton, already a seasoned observer of Americana through his varied-genres script collaborations on Bonnie and Clyde (1967), There Was a Crooked Man… (1970), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Superman (1978) and his assured direction of his own screenplays for The Late Show (1977) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, for which he earned directing and screenplay Academy Awards®), carefully described in 1984 for The New York Times interviewer Leslie Bennetts how he processed, adjusted and interpreted his early-years Texas memories here:

    He gathered a cast of established and rising talents that played his vividly drawn characters with unerring accuracy: Sally Field as the reticent but ultimately resilient family matriarch Edna Spalding (who would win her second Best Actress Oscar®), Lindsay Crouse as her supportive sister, and Ed Harris as her brother-in-law who shares an illicit extramarital relationship with Amy Madigan as a local, also-married schoolteacher. Also, as two isolated souls who find not only a place to call home but also temporarily become fatherly stand-ins to the two Spalding children, there’s John Malkovich as an embittered boarder blinded from war service and Danny Glover as a vagabond who puts himself in jeopardy when he becomes the widow’s unlikely champion in shoring up her farm’s viability in a town where racism casts a formidable shadow. Call it improvised or extended, but they form a devoted and compelling family. A revisiting of the film by its editor Carol Littleton evoked memories of the heartfelt reaction of her mother Mildred, who lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma, during the Depression, in this February 2015 interview with Peter Tonguette at the Cinemontage Journal of the Motion Picture Editors Guild website: The article concludes with this piercing observation: “The film that spoke to Mildred, for what it said about the past, continues to speak to her daughter [Carol], for what it says about the present. ‘As I came out from work, all these demonstrators – spurred by police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island – were walking down Canal Street, blocking traffic,’ she says. ‘Didn’t we have a civil rights movement? Are we still struggling with this? God, it’s horrible. The notion that we could state the problems of race and poverty in Places in the Heart without one ounce of cynicism is remarkable. There’s a basic humanity that Americans share, and that is so rarely pictured on the screen.’” Places in the Heart (which brought Benton a Best Original Screenplay Oscar®), with a revealing Audio Commentary conversation between Field and Nick Redman, continues making connections between one man’s family remembrances and our collective American story on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.