Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.
For the past few months, I’ve been sitting with a single Best Picture nominee in the 1980s that I hadn’t watched. That movie was Places in the Heart, which I’ve had recorded on the DVR for a month or two. Today I finally decided to sit down and watch it, if only to have completed a particular decade of a particular award. It would feel something like an accomplishment if nothing else. Admittedly, the title didn’t fill me with a great deal of hope. I was expecting something along the lines of Crimes of the Heart, which I found dreadful.
It turns out that the worst part of Places in the Heart is the wretched title, which seems to have very little to do with the story that we’re given. The film takes place in Waxahachie, TX right in the heart of the Great Depression. People are out of work, losing their farms and houses, and the town is filled with drifters desperate for a day’s work or a meal. The Spaldings are relatively prosperous. Their house sits on 30 acres of good land and Royce Spalding (Ray Baker) is the sheriff. One night as the family sits down to dinner, Royce is called out on a drunk-and-disorderly and discovers a young black man named Wylie (De’voreaux White) firing off a pistol. An errant shot takes the sheriff in the chest, which leads the townspeople to retaliate with a lynching.
This leaves Royce’s wife Edna (Sally Field, who won an Oscar for this performance—this was her “You like me!” speech) and their two children, Frank (Yankton Hatten) and “Possum” (Gennie James) in a serious predicament. No Royce means no income, and the Spaldings still owe the bank for their farmland. Edna isn’t sure what she is going to do, but she doesn’t want to sell the farm back to the bank and Albert Denby (Lane Smith). Shortly after her husband dies, Edna is visited by Moses (Danny Glover), a drifter who is looking for work. She feeds him and he suggests that planting cotton could get the farm up and running and make a decent profit. Edna is deaf to the idea, and Moses runs off with her silver. He’s shortly brought back, and Edna has a change of heart. She tells the officer that Moses is her hired man, and takes him own to help her plant cotton and save the house and farm.
There are two other events that bear dealing with to understand the scope of the movie. The first deals with a love quadrangle that seems to play out on the side of the main story. Edna’s sister Margaret Lomax (a nominated Lindsay Crouse) is married to Wayne Lomax (Ed Harris with hair!). Wayne is two-timing Margaret with Viola Kelsey (Harris’s real-life wife Amy Madigan), the local school teacher, who is married to Buddy Kelsey (Terry O’Quinn). This affair and the effects of it on Edna’s extended family play in the margins of the film and seem to be here more for context of the town and the people in it.
Additionally, either out of conscience, spite, or in hopes to get the farmland, Denby drops off his brother-in-law Will (John Malkovich, also nominated) to live with the Spaldings. Will was blinded in World War I, and works at caning chairs to make his living. Denby suggests that Will can pay rent as a boarder, which will help the Spaldings possibly keep the land, or may just be enough to keep the bank off their backs a little bit longer.
Things come to a head when a tornado damages the town and the farm and the bottom drops out on the cotton market. Even with a full crop, Edna won’t make enough to pay the bank to keep the farm going until she learns that there is a $100 cash prize for bringing in the first crop of the season. With that, even with the depressed price of cotton, she might just be able to make it. Of course, there’s an additional problem: she’s being coached by a black man, and the white farmers in the area don’t take kindly to that, especially the ones prone to wearing sheets and white hoods.
So, there’s a lot going on. I fully expected that this was going to end up maudlin and sappy, filled with traumatic moments and feel-goods. The truth is that it’s not that at all. Oh, there are ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies as one would expect in a film like this, but it’s really well done. All of the performances are good ones, and both Danny Glover and Ed Harris could have potentially been argued for supporting role nominations. That being the case, Malkovich outshines both of them as Will, who starts out as pathetic and pitiable and ends the film as admirable.
That said, this really is Sally Field’s movie. Edna Spalding is easy to root for not because she’s played by Sally Field but because there is a real strength to the character. Edna isn’t looking for charity, but honesty and decency. She’s looking for a fair deal for the work that she’s doing and simply wants to make it on her own terms. There’s something deep in her driving her forward, and while this is never fully expressed in dialogue, it is completely realized in the performance.
The ending is interesting as well. I won’t spoil it, but there is a “message” ending in the last couple of minutes. I haven’t decided if I buy it or not. It may come across as honest and forthright and may also come across as a bit fake. I haven’t made up my mind on this yet, but even if I do end up calling it cheap, the first 105 or so minutes of the film are good enough to cover for it.
Just come up with a better name for it!
Why to watch Places in the Heart: A nice study of racism and other –isms during the Great Depression.
Why not to watch: The title sucks and doesn’t fit the film.