The first of three films in a three month span that all featured a “Save the Farm” theme. This is the picture that resulted in a thousand Sally Field jokes for her Academy Award acceptance speech and it introduced us to John Malkovich who has been a welcome presence in films now for the last thirty years. This was the only one of the three to get a best picture nomination although the lead actress in all three of the farm movies was nominated for her performance. Politics may have played a part since economic issues concerning the farm industry were widely discussed in the election year, and just a couple of years later, John Mellancamp and Willie Nelson started the “Farm Aid” project.
There are a dozen other supporting players in the film who will also become familiar or were already well known in supporting roles as well. The movie is a loosely structured series of tableau focusing on the lives of two sisters in rural Texas in 1935. The leading characters could all be representations of some of my own family members since my wife’s parents grew up in just such places. Her folks would have been about the age of Sally Fields two children in the movie. Like my belief that “Racing with the Moon” was probably a pretty accurate depiction of my parents as teens, this film feels very true to the depression dominated times in rural America.
Sally Field is Edna Spalding, the wife of the local sheriff and I suspect it is not much of a spoiler to say she will be a widow within five minutes of the movie start. She has only the domestic skills that a woman of the times would be expected to have and she suddenly has to cope with the family fiances while trying to raise her two very young children. They have a forty acre spread but it has not been farmed since the family relied on the father’s job for their sustenance. Also living in the town is Edna’s sister, Margaret Lomax, the local beautician, who works out of her own home. Lindsay Crouse plays Margaret and she was nominated in the supporting category for her work here. She and her husband, a mechanic played by Ed Harris are also struggling the way most people did in the depths of the Depression.
They are both strong women, but Edna has to dig deep to find the will to make it through the immediate travails of widowhood. One of the most vivid memories I had of my 1984 experience with the film was the tender but simultaneously macabre preparation of Edna’s husband on the kitchen table for burial. I can’t imagine it was standard practice by 1984 to handle the deceased this way, but in 1935 in a rural community, this probably was exactly how death was managed. Unfortunately there was another death to manage at the same time. The young drunken man, who seemed to be on friendly terms with the sheriff but accidentally shot him, was black. As you can guess, the killing of the sheriff by a black man in the South lead to repercussions. The body of the young man is dragged in a procession past the home of the widow by a vigilante crowd that seems to want to show that justice was carried out. Later, we see his family having to recover the body for their own service that is shown in contrast to the service for the sheriff. The racial tensions will not end with this incident and the harsh handling of race problems by some of the small town racists will be a thread throughout the film. The value of charity and forgiveness is not far away and at the end of the movie there is a very clear message as to which path is the one we ought to be on.
Margaret has trouble of her own with her husband. He, unknown to her, is having an affair with the a woman who is a close friend of the couple. Ed Harris, fresh from playing John Glenn, the most loyal husband in American movies in the 80s, is the philandering Wayne Lomax. He is still strongly attracted to his wife but has become enamored of the wife of his best friend. Amy Madigan returns to the project here after playing a lesbian soldier in “Streets of Fire” she is the school teacher that is the object of desire for Wayne. Terry O’Quinn plays the cuckold husband.
The film features moments that seem like cliches but are also very real. The sisters console each other on the porch swing, the banker comes by to inform the widow of her perilous economic status, or the grieving Mother has to take over the role as disciplinarian for her son in his fathers absence. I’m not sure if it was the lack of any other entertainment but there were three or four dances, parties, or card games that filled the time of the characters and each of them had moments of cliche as well. That is one of the films weaknesses, it feels so familiar at times that each new scene is not much of a surprise in the stories development. When you throw in a sequence where the town suffers a tornado strike and everyone has to take shelter, it recalls the same moment from the “Wizard of Oz”.
There are a couple of distinctive elements however and they go a long way in making the story much more special. Edna takes on a transient black sharecropper whom she takes pity on when she learns he can help her get the farm in working shape. The banker is not evil, just officious, but he also takes advantage of Edna by manipulating his blind brother-in-law into a spot as a border at her house. Danny Glover is Moze, the black man who is a little smarter than it may be safe to be and Malkovich is the taciturn blind man who wants nothing more than to be left alone. Moze helps Edna in her dealings with the local grain exchange over cotton seeds. The blind Mr. Will inadvertently confronts Mrs. Spalding over an invasion of his room by her children while she is bathing in the kitchen. This was Malkovich’s first theatrical film and he was nominated for supporting actor for his role here. He also appeared another of the Best Picture nominees this year, “The Killing Fields”. Glover is actually re-teamed with Lindsay Crouse in this film. Earlier in the year they appeared together in “Iceman“.
Another cliche moment in the film concerns the struggle to get the cotton crop in quick enough to win the bonus prize for having the first bale. The image of the characters bent over and struggling in the fields is at least as old as “the Good Earth” and there are probably a dozen even earlier films that use it. A couple of things help make it more meaningful. The willingness of the family to work hard along with the contract black picking crew is a solid moment that tries to transcend the racial barriers. When Edna asks if the itinerant workers have had their breakfast yet, it signals that she sees them not just a black labor but as human beings. The close up shots of her hands as she tries to master picking cotton are gruesomely realistic and makes the moment less archetype and much more grounded. When Moze stands outside the window of the exchange, prompting the tough negotiations between Edna and the local cotton gin, he has crossed a line that will ultimately make the hopeful images of collaborative work fade away. Even when the blind but not deaf Mr. Will can identify the hooded Klansmen by their voices, it is clear that the community the family was trying to create cannot sustain itself. The tender moment that young Frank asks his Mother to dance with him will be swallowed up by brutality at their own home.
The film has a pretty strong faith element in it as well. It begins with the conclusion of a church service with hymns echoing over the parishioners as the leave the sanctuary. Over a family meal, a well used prayer is repeated. Viola, the woman who is cheating with Wayne, takes the tornado as a sign from God, that she and her husband would be better off leaving town. The most spiritual moment though is at the end, as my own favorite hymn “In the Garden” is sung by a choir, the sacrament of wafer and bread is passed among the worshipers. The banished Moze, a black face in a sea of white suddenly appears and he takes the offering and participates in the ritual. The film ends with two deceased characters, Edna’s husband and the man who killed him, sharing a blessing and reminding the audience that redemption is for everyone. This is a very sentimental moment and it probably accounts for why this film was elevated over the other two farm movies of the year. The spiritual moment seems to contain a message for us that is hopeful and forgiving for all of the people in the congregation, the sinners as well as the righteous.