Nadine

May 25, 2012

Perhaps the gifted writer-director Robert Benton needs a cooling-off period between his big movies. His multi-Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer was followed by the chilly, compact thriller Still of the Night. Then came more big Oscar attention with Places in the Heart.

Now Benton’s playing it small again. Nadine is a stubbornly modest little movie, turning on the merest wisp of a plot and not even stretching out to a full 90 minutes. On its own terms, it’s charming, though frankly I expect more from Benton. This is a little like a major novelist tossing off a novella for his own amusement.

Benton again explores the Texas that has served him so well in the past (in Places and the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde). The time is the 1950s, and the setting is Austin, where Nadine (Kim Basinger, continuing the comic vein of Blind Date) accidentally stumbles over the murder of a greasy photographer (Jerry Stiller).

He’d taken some, uh, “art studies” of her, promising that they would come to the attention of Hugh Hefner. Corpse or not, she wants the pictures back, and she enlists her estranged husband (Jeff Bridges) to help; all of which plops them smack dab in the middle of the land-grabbing scheme of a local crime boss (played by Rip Torn and a 10-gallon hat).

Naturally, it also puts them back in each other’s company, and Benton is sharp when it comes to observing that two people who have been together for a long time have a tendency to keep a flame going for each other. It’s the old situation of ex-lovers who constantly declaim how much they can’t stand each other, while helplessly falling in love again.

Basinger and Bridges are easy to watch, and have considerable fun spewing Benton’s Southern-flavored dialogue. The small scenes are the best: Basinger and Bridges drinking milk on their first night back together; Bridges killing time in his tavern, the Bluebonnet Bar, a deserted and hopeless joint on the edge of town.

It’s a resolutely modest film, and sometimes the framework of the movie barely supports its characters.

I was disappointed. But Basinger and Bridges work up enough charm to justify Torn’s description of them: “Yer livin’ testimony to the fact that it’s better to be lucky than smart.”

First published in the Herald, August 6, 1987

I have a lot of admiration for Benton’s vibe, which is why it is a particular bummer when his movies underwhelm. This film isn’t quite at the “What were you thinking?” level, and maybe it’s aged well. But it is very modest.

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Places in the Heart

February 14, 2012

In 1964, Robert Benton left his position as contributing editor with Esquire magazine when he and his fellow editor finished writing a screenplay. It was the true (sort of) story of outlaws who cut a bloody swath across Texas—named Bonnie and Clyde—and when it was produced a couple of years later, it changed the way movies looked.

While not as revolutionary as, say, 2001, Bonnie and Clyde nevertheless brought a new kind of frankness to the American screen. It embraced controversy in its treatment of sex and violence, and its ambivalent attitude toward its criminal heroes. Its hip manner and stylized look (directed by Arthur Penn) carried the nervy techniques of the then-recent French New Wave of filmmaking (Benton and David Newman got the script to Francois Truffaut as director, although he passed) into mainstream commercial cinema.

Two decades have gone by, and Benton is now a director himself (with two Oscars under his belt, for Kramer vs. Kramer). And he’s back in Texas—in his home town of Waxahachie, in fact—with his new film, Places in the Heart.

What a different Texas this is from Bonnie and Clyde. In that film, the amoral heroes were glamorous. In Places in the Heart, set in 1935, there is no glamour. Just work, and fleeting pleasure, and hard times. Benton’s outlook now is gentler and wiser, but he’s not lost his bite. Some moments in Places in the Heart are shocking enough to make you jump.

It surveys the interconnected lives of a group of people struggling through an autumn season. Sally Field plays a recently widowed woman who tries to plant some cotton on her land to make enough money to pay off her bank loan, so she won’t lose her house.

Assisting her are her two children (Yankton Hatten and Gennie James) and a pair of misfits: a black drifter (Danny Glover) who knows cotton, and a surly blind man (John Malkovich) who rents her extra room.

The other main plot line involves Field’s sister (Lindsay Crouse), whose husband (Ed Harris) is having an affair (with Amy Madigan, who married Harris during the film’s shooting).

Some of the material here is well-worn: the threatened bank foreclosure, the widow on her own, the forces of nature bearing down on the characters. I’m not sure Benton overcomes the fact that rural drama of this kind—especially after last year’s Tender Mercies and Cross Creek—has a certain over-familiar feel.

But, finally, he does things his own way, and a fine way it is. The film is full of beautiful and terrible moments that linger on and cast a spell. A boy with a gun by the railroad tracks; a woman hiding from a tornado in a parked car; a car full of musicians, riding back from a dance, still crooning “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as they drive into the dawn.

The final sequence of Places in the Heart is the most remarkable, most moving bit of film I’ve seen this year. It underlines the extraordinary generosity of spirit that is behind this movie.

Earlier, we’ve heard the blind man listen to a talking book (an album of Trent’s Last Case) that begins with the words, “Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?” Certainly, watching the film, you start feeling that every moment matters in some way. Thus the lives of the characters come to seem precious. This makes the final sequence—in which the lives are tied together—powerful indeed.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

It won Oscars for Sally Field (this was the “You like me” acceptance speech) and Benton’s screenplay. It’s a strong movie with many wonderful moments, if maybe not a great movie—but whew, that final shot lifts it all up. I got to interview Benton a few years later (and then three more times, I think), and of course asked him about it. He says the final shot was technically very difficult to get, and he was ready to give up and divide it into separate shots, but went with one last attempt and got it. Which makes all the difference.