These films from the past four decades have helped define how outsiders view the Lone Star State.
George Stevens’ Giant may very well be, as its admirers claim, the National Film of Texas. And Lonesome Dove certainly stands as the definitive saga of Texas cattle drivers in the Wild West era.
But what about the image of Texas life and death in more contemporary tales?
LOCAL HERO (1983)
Bill Forsyth’s delightfully melancholy comedy takes a sympathetic, even affectionate view of a stock figure usually treated with scornful satire: the Texas oilman. Burt Lancaster has an almost majestic air as Felix Happer, the flamboyant president of a Houston-based petroleum firm who aims to purchase Ferness, a coastal village in Scotland, for use as a refinery site. Happer dispatches an eager junior executive, MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), to meet the locals and close the deal. Once he arrives, however, MacIntyre finds that while the villagers are perfectly willing to sell out and move on, he’s increasingly reluctant to ever leave such an enchanting place. Filmed on location in Scotland (Forsyth’s native country) and downtown Houston, Local Hero is a modern-day fairy tale that casts a captivating spell on viewers. And in the character of MacIntyre, beautifully played by Riegert, the film also offers one of the few (if not only) charitable depictions of a Texas yuppie in 1980s cinema.
TENDER MERCIES (1983)
Director Bruce Beresford came all the way from Australia to join forces with Horton Foote, the poet laureate of Texas common folk, for this profoundly moving drama. Robert Duvall received a richly deserved Oscar for his soulful performance as Mac Sledge, a down-and-out country singer who finds love and redemption after hitting rock bottom. He wakes up one morning near Waxahachie, in a roadside motel owned and operated by Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widowed mother who, in the true Texas tradition, is the sort of good-hearted woman a hard-livin’ man needs if he ever hopes to clean up his act. Beresford and Foote tell their story with a sharp eye for revealing detail and a warm-hearted empathy for their characters. Their film has the straightforward simplicity of a Willie Nelson ballad that hits close to the bone with its homespun truths.
Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
Tender Mercies was edged out in the 1984 Oscar race for Best Picture by James L. Brooks’ comedy-drama based on a novel by Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry. Shirley MacLaine picked up an Oscar as Best Actress for her unforgettable portrayal of a certain type of brassy, classy Texas matron too often played only for cheap laughs: Aurora Greenway, a vainglorious but vulnerable widow who holds court like a condescending queen in the high-toned Houston neighborhood of River Oaks. Jack Nicholson plays an ex-astronaut who falls in love with Aurora, but the romance remains secondary to Aurora’s often fractious relationship with her equally strong-willed daughter, Emma (Debra Winger). We follow Aurora and Emma through some 30 years of tempestuous love-hate, beginning with Emma’s infancy and ending with a teary bedside vigil. By the end of the film, we feel we have been drawn into the natural rhythms of life itself.
BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)
Filmed in Austin and Hutto, this debut feature by Joel and Ethan Coen is a textbook example of a subgenre best described as honky-tonk film noir. It begins when a discontent wife (Frances McDormand) and a handsome bartender (John Getz) discover they have more in common than a shared dislike for her husband (John Hedaya). This leads to a chain reaction of illicit love, botched murder attempts, fatal mistakes, and corpses that just won’t stay dead. Why did the Coens set their thriller in Texas? Joel explained to me back in the day: “Texas is, A, very famous for its passion murders and, B, potent in terms of the connotations and stereotypes people associate with it. It seemed like it would be fun to spin the characters out of something very specific like that.”
Frances McDormand as Abby in Blood Simple
REALITY BITES (1994)
Call it Generation X: Texas Style, and you won’t be far off the mark. By focusing on four under-employed recent college graduates (Wynona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn) warily maneuvering their way through adulthood in an age of diminished expectations, director/co-star Ben Stiller and screenwriter Helen Childress managed to be at once timely and timeless while charting the various challenges (professional as well as personal) faced then and now by twentysomethings in (and beyond) Texas. Stiller carefully selected a shooting location in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, he said at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, “so you could see the [downtown] skyline, to have it kind of looming there in the background — kind of like real life looming in their lives, and their having to deal with that.”
Consider the quirky true-crime saga of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a genial and mild-mannered fellow in the East Texas town of Carthage. Bernie manages to forge a friendship with antisocial Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, again), a wealthy 81-year-old widow who accepts him as an attentive companion and trusted confidant. How trusted? He has access to her bank account, from which he makes unauthorized withdrawals and donates generously to community projects. The benign embezzlement continues long after Bernie fatally shoots his benefactor (during what he later claims was a bout of temporary insanity) and hides her body in a deep freeze. Incredibly, many of the good folks in Carthage rally to Bernie’s defense, and the prosecutor asks the presiding judge to move the murder trial to San Augustine because he believes (with just cause) there wouldn’t be enough potential jurors in Carthage willing to convict the improbably popular defendant. Only in Texas? Maybe not. But director Richard Linklater’s stranger-than-fiction dramedy is typical of the tall tales — and, yes, crimes of passion — that have come to define the Lone Star State.
Photography (From top): Warner Bros./Photofest, courtesy 20th Century Fox (UK)/Warner Bros.,Universal Pictures, courtesy Paramount Pictures, courtesy Fandango MovieClips
From the July 2019 issue.