Places in the Heart is regarded as the film that won Sally Field her second (and to date last) Academy Award for Best Actress, giving us the most misquoted Oscar speech in history (“You like me…you really like me!”). But, in many regards, it works as part of a dialectic with our culture as Americans during the 1980s. With Ronald Reagan coming towards the end of his first term as President, much like the characters of Robert Benton’s film, America found itself rising out of its own economic depression, following Reagan’s belief in lowering taxes as a means of promoting people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves. Robert Benton’s sentimental examination of a small-town simply going from day to day has its fair share of amazing moments and performances even if everything feels a bit too tidy.
In 1930s Texas, Edna Spalding (Sally Field) must become active in her family when her husband is accidentally killed. With the help of a drifter (Danny Glover), Edna finds new purpose in life alongside new friends and family.
Places in the Heart works effectively at examining both personal and communal identity, and how one shapes and influences the other. Edna’s husband is a policeman accidentally murdered by a drunk young African-American teenager. Edna’s husband, as much as we see of him before his untimely demise, exercises his power responsibly, yet it’s evident this is the 1930s South with all its racial and power dynamics at full force. His death acts as the catalyst, reinvigorating Edna away from the sidelines of her life, but also has a ripple effect; the young boy who killed him is, himself, murdered by the police.
The absence of Edna’s husband illustrates to her what an absent presence she’s been in her own home. She’s never paid a bill or written a check in her life, nor does she know how to discipline her children (ultimately finding it traumatic). Too often stories of women in the 1930s sees them as strictly wives and mothers, but Edna doesn’t even have that. Ordinarily, these moments would play to show women’s marginalization and lack of identity, but Benton’s script and Field’s acting utilize this as a means of revitalizing Edna. Her identity’s always been there, just hidden, and turning her farm into a cotton field gives her an identity outside of being a wife and mother while simultaneously making her a more effective supporter of her children.
Unlike other films depicting the racist South, racism is never front and center, but on the margins. Too often there’s misplaced logic for the characters to be racist, particularly the perceived retribution of killing the boy who killed Edna’s husband. When the Klan makes their first, and only, appearance twenty minutes before the film’s conclusion it plays like a mandatory requirement of the genre, as opposed to being an organic process of events. The fact that they’re easily placated, temporarily, by having their identities revealed, turns the idea of small-town community on its head. It’s hard to keep a secret when everyone knows who you are.
Edna and her family keeps the film grounded. Despite very little bombast happening, Benton and company keep everything fluid and engaging. Every little moment has significance and demands your attention. A tornado ripping through the town is just as suspenseful and bonds you to the family as blind Mr. Will’s (John Malkovich) realization that he’s arguing with Edna while she’s bathing. Never aiming to be the society in microcosm, the family merely reacts to life’s events while always focused forward on their own survival.
No stranger to stories of dysfunctional families, director/screenwriter Robert Benton, created the definitive – for the period – depiction of the 1970s family with Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979. Places in the Heart acts as the bucolic inverse of that film with its return to the land, the unity stemming from the Depression, and a mother’s perseverance (actually based on Benton’s own mother). Sally Field’s second Oscar winning role makes up in heart what it lacks in flair. Her determination is just as potent as it was in Norma Rae (1979), but it’s channeled here through a smaller frame, unionizing her family. Her struggles to prevent her family from being broken up cause her to take an active role in her own household.
The rest of the cast is equally capable, particularly Danny Glover as Moze and Malkovich as Mr. Will. It’s a shame Glover wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, as his role sees him enact a character arc not unlike Les Miserables Jean Valjean. A drifter who forces his kindness on Edna before robbing her of her silver, Moze is given a chance to make himself useful and find his own family. Despite the racist leanings of the town, he’s able to change the mind of Edna’s son, sowing the seeds for a more tolerant future. The addition of the Klan at the end to threaten Moze, as mentioned previously, feels more like a requirement of the location and period. An unnecessary reminder of the city’s racist teachings. All of this is accomplished better through the white men’s distaste that Moze knows about their ways of overcharging for cotton.
Similarly, John Malkovich is wonderful as Will, the blind boarder Edna’s compelled to take in. Too often disabled characters are perceived as bitter, damaged souls, and while Will starts out that way, he eventually learns the need for other people in his life. His brief moments with Edna’s daughter, Possum (Gennie James) are darling. Possum’s growing devotion to Will blossoms subtly, with even Will being surprised when Possum comes to take his hand.
Edna, Moze, and Will create a triumvirate of marginalized people, both then and now. Their unifying allows them a touch of control in their own lives, despite a society that continually tries to corral them, cheat them, or kill them in various capacities. The rest of the cast, including Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan flesh out the family unit. Crouse, in particular, has a fantastic dynamic opposite Field. Their sisterly bond is the best I’ve seen depicted on-screen.
It’s great that Twilight Time was able to bring Places in the Heart to Blu-ray. Watching this for the first time was a delight, and while it probably isn’t best remembered out of the swath of films released in the 1980s, it’s a strong return to the pastoral, as well as a strong tale of ambition and determination during a time period that would come to revere those traits.