Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Robert Benton
Starring Sally Field, Lindsey Crouse, John Malkovich, Danny Glover, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan
I wouldn’t call Sally Field an unlikely Oscar winner – I wouldn’t call anybody an unlikely Oscar winner. After all, lot’s of people manage to capture lightening in a bottle, or just happen to be in the right place at the right time, and wind up with an Oscar. It could happen to anybody. It happened to Broderick Crawford, it happened to Roberto Benigni, it happened to Paul Haggis. It’s what happens when a cultural moment coincides with the Oscars, or when some dumb schmuck gets the role tailored perfectly to their skills.
Sally Field, though, might be the most unlikely two-time Oscar winner. I mean, if I were to ask you to name a two-time Oscar winning actor, Field’s would likely be pretty far down the list – she’s just not a person you expect to have two Oscars. After all, she started her career in the silly sitcom, Gidget, followed it up with the equally-silly The Flying Nun, then spent several years trying to break out of that ghetto before finally having her biggest box-office success playing the second-fiddle love-interest to Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit.
Though she had won an Emmy for Sybil, by the time she appeared in Norma Rae she was not exactly known as a dramatic actress. So, winning an Oscar had to be a bit of surprise. Still, it was a cultural moment – the economy was not great, everybody hated President Carter, and there was an energy crisis on, so when a nakedly-pro-union film hit the screen, people were primed for it.
So, Sally Field won an Oscar.
Then, as with all things, the cultural moment passed.
And here’s maybe another reason why some folks win Oscars – the dearth of better nominees in a given year. It’s not that the winner is bad, only won by default because there was nobody better. The perfect example of this is Louise Fletcher winning Best Actress for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, in what is essentially a supporting role. One would have to believe if there were more good leading performances in a given year, Fletcher wouldn’t even be nominated as Best Actress, much less won.
Such is the case for Sally Field and her second Oscar, won for Places in the Heart. Her co-nominees that year were Jessica Lange for Country, Sissy Spacek for The River, Judy Davis for A Passage to India, and Vannessa Redgrave for The Bostonians. Not one of these actresses gave a performance for the ages, but since somebody had to win, it might as well be Sally Field.
So she did.
In a sense, this is an impressive achievement on it’s own – rode a cultural wave to an Oscar for Norma Rae, a film in which she’s very good, and then was the best of a not-great lot and so won a second Oscar for Places in the Heart. Nobody catches lightening in a bottle twice, and yet she did.
This is not to say she shouldn’t have won an Oscar for something. After all, I quite enjoy her in Soapdish, she’s pretty damn good in Absence of Malice, and she sparkles in Hello, My Name is Doris. If she’d won an Oscar for any of those films, I probably wouldn’t complain at all. But such is the reality of the Oscars – too many times the award winner is lauded for the wrong role.
What’s It About?
Dateline 1935, Waxahachie, Texas. In the midst of the great depression, a woman (Field) is suddenly widowed and left to care for her two kids on her own. Despite having no job skills, or education to speak of, she is determined to keep the family together and not lose the farm. Along the way she takes in a blind boarder (Malkovich), and a black migrant worker (Glover), who help her turn the farm into a ‘working’ farm.
The Good and The Not So Good
For a movie that takes place during the depression and involves a woman struggling to keep her house from being taken back by the bank – not to mention the occurrence of one lynching, and another attempted lynching – the film does not wallow in misery. Another director might’ve made this misery porn, and just went hog-wild trying to make everybody feel good by feeling so bad, but director Benton avoids this. Rather, he maintains optimism, even in the face of financial failure, and to some extent the movie played to me very much like an extended outtake from the section of Gone With The Wind, right before the intermission, when Scarlett decides they won’t lose Tara, they’ll try farming cotton, and goddamnit, that’s what they do. Too be fair, Sally Field is no Scarlett O’Hara, though she does do a pretty good approximation of Melanie Hamilton.
That said, the film is not exactly big with it’s emotions. Indeed, there’s hardly a raised voice at all, and at times the film is so restrained it’s clear this was a specific choice by director Robert Benton, not an accident, though the reason for the choice is what interests me. Did he ask the actors play it small because it seemed period appropriate, as in in the 1930s Texas things were quieter and less outré? Or was it that whenever Field raises her voice she does not become authoritative, she becomes shrill and naggish – if we’re honest, she’s especially good at playing wives who give most of their agency to their husbands. Which means if Benton allowed some of the heavy-hitters around her to do their thing – we all know what Glover, Harris and Malkovich are capable of – it would only diminish the hell out of her. So, everybody else is tamped down around her so she can maintain some authority? And while the role requires her to be a bit mousy, you need to be able to have her achieve some sort of power later in the film, and if she’s too-dominated by her co-stars, that transition is not going to be believable.
As an aside, this is a concept people don’t often consider – a good performance is as much about what the specific performer gives as it is about what the people around them give.
All of that said, Field is pretty perfect in the part. It calls for a woman to be a little mousy and incapable, then to blossom through that, and Field plays it believably. When she takes control of her life, in the face of tragedy, it does not look like something that happens because the mechanics of the story require it, it seems genuine. And being convinced of it happens because of Field.
That all said, we come now to my complaints about the film, and let’s start with the usual: it’s too long. That’s strange to say about a film that’s only 110 minutes long, but it honestly wouldn’t hurt to lose ten or so minutes, and the parts to lose are pretty obvious because they’re so glaringly inessential. After all, while the movie is about Field and her struggles, there is a subplot involving Field’s sister, played by Lindsey Crouse, and her husband’s affair with a local teacher (Ed Harris is the husband, Amy Madigan the teacher). Other than adding color to the film, and maybe giving a little bit of the sense of the time and place, there is nothing about the subplot that adds to the main story and kind of feels tacked on and extraneous. It literally runs parallel to Field’s story, without really overlapping at all. And because the film is Field’s story, to have it spend time on another story that doesn’t overlap it, or add to it, wastes time.
Further, in a movie working towards a level of naturalism in terms of acting and story, the film relies a little too much on coincidence to send it forward. For instance, on the morning a banker comes out to talk to Field about having to sell the home – because she can’t possibly afford it – a migrant worker (Glover) comes by and suggests she could grow cotton on the extra land she has around the house. What does she end up doing? Growing cotton and saving the house.
Then, when Field goes to the bank to talk to the banker – he’s a prick, by the way, but that’s probably more a function of the time in the movie, than anything else – she realizes because cotton prices have fallen, she’s going to come up short on the house payment. Fortunately, hanging on the wall right beside the banker’s desk is a photo of the winner of some cotton harvesting contest – were those a thing? – that gives out $100 to the winner. Which is almost exactly what her shortfall on the house payment is. Well, whaddya know? She determines to enter and win that contest.
The biggest issue with the film, though, is that after spending all the time showing us a woman overcoming her own inabilities to save the farm, the film is determined that story isn’t enough and so has to lay down a statement about racism at the end. In another film, where it was building to such a thing, the statement being made would be right on point. It would feel earned. But given the story here is about a woman saving the farm, with the help of her friends, the sudden imposition of the KKK into the mix at the end felt like a scene stumbling in from a different movie. It’s not terrible, and on its own terms the scene is pretty magnificent, especially in its resolution. That said, in this movie, it just feels slightly off.
This Is Not My First Rodeo
You might not realize it, but the man who wrote and directed Places In The Heart – winning an Oscar for his screenplay – was already an Oscar winner, having won as the writer and director of Kramer vs. Kramer. Moreover, he’s been nominated three other times as a writer – twice on films he directed, the other time as a writer on Bonnie and Clyde. For a man with three Oscars and a pretty varied career as far as the types of films he makes, it’s curious how he’s never really mentioned as an auteur of any sort, and is essentially overlooked as one of the great literary men of the cinema, or one of the great writer/directors.
Part of that is surely the realization that, unlike auteurs of the past, Benton is not a visual stylist. Nor do his films crackle with a sense of energy. In a word, if the continuum of directing styles is bland on the one end, and dynamic on the other, Benton shades closer to the bland end, which is likely why his direction is overlooked. The reality is being a matter-of-fact director just doesn’t appeal to cinephiles in the same way.
As a writer/director, I presume he falls to the wayside simply by having no distinct style. For instance, Billy Wilder’s scripts are pretty easily identifiable as his. If Benton has a style, it certainly is more about being languid and unassuming, which really isn’t much of a style that turns people on.
Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before?
The plot to this movie kicks off with the death of Fields husband, the local Sherriff, who is shot when a young black man gets drunk and starts shooting off a gun for fun. One of those shots hits the Sherriff and kills him. To be clear, his death is an accident – the shooting is negligent, but not intentional. Still, the young black man winds up lynched for his troubles, which I suppose was a thing that happened in 1930s Texas.
Anyway, the man playing the young black man is De’voreaux White, better known to most film fans for his role as Argyle, the limo driver, in Die Hard.
Everything We Touch Turns To Gold
Places in the Heart was filmed in Waxahachie, Texas, a small town that actually has a surprisingly-strong connection to the film industry. It was the filming location for Tender Mercies (1983), Places In The Heart (1984) and A Trip To Bountiful (1985).
What do those three films have in common, beyond they were all filmed in the same place? Each had their star win the Oscar for Best Actor or Actress in Back-to-Back-to-Back years. That is Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies, Field for Places in the Heart, and Geraldine Page for A Trip To Bountiful.
Yes, against all odds, there was a time in 1980s where if you wanted to win an Oscar, it didn’t hurt to pay a visit to Waxahachie.
Better Than Best
Places in the Heart is certainly not a terrible film. It was nice. It was fine. It’s the kind of movie you could watch with your grandparents and neither of you would have a terrible time with it. But while I know the old axiom about cream always rising to the top, I don’t know what it’s called when something rises toward the top but doesn’t quite get there? Whatever that is, it’s Places in the Heart. Which is the long way around of saying, no, it’s not better than best. Which is actually an easy position to take, given the Best Picture winner for 1984 was Amadeus, which was my #11 Best Picture winner of all time, and surely is the Best Picture of 1984.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 For our purposes I’m not counting Paul Haggis as two-time winner, given both his Oscars came in the same year, while Field’s Oscars were in different years.
 Obviously, not everybody was primed for it, given Field was not nominated for a BAFTA for the role. Which should lead one to believe that not all cultural moments are universal.
 One has to wonder what the hell happened in 1984 that led to three actresses being nominated for movies about saving the family farm – The River, Country and Places in the Heart.
 Not true – if she won for Soapdish, over Jodie Foster for The Silence of the Lambs, I’d probably tear my hair out. But she’s easily good enough in the other two films to have won the Oscar in 1981 over Katharine Hepburn and in 2016 over Emma Stone. That is, if they’d bother nominating her for them.
 To be fair, the tax money to save Tara really came from a soldier she shot in the face, not the cotton, but let’s not get lost in the details.