Murphy’s Romance (1986): Martin Ritt’s Film Starring James Garner in his First and Only Oscar Nominated Role

Martin Ritt reteams for the second time with Sally Field (who won an Oscar for their first film together, “Norma Rae”) in Murphy’s Romance, a mildly engaging TV-like tale, well acted by the two leads, especially James Garner, who received his first and only Best Actor nomination for his part.

Field plays the Emma Moriarty, a newly divorced woman who moves with her young son to a small Arizona town, hoping to begin a new life by establishing a horse farm.

The romantic interest is offered by the town’s pharmacist Murphy Jones (James Garner), who happens to be the place’s most eligible bachelor. Initially, the two develop a platonic friendship, while Murphy keeps distance. There are obstacles: Emma’s ex-husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), who claims he had changed his previous irresponsible ways, moves back in with her, hoping for a new chapter.

At a party at Emma’s ranch, Murphy and Bobby get into a verbal row, but nothing is settled until Wanda (Anna Levine) shows up with two babies in tow, claiming that Bobby is the father.

Once rid of her former hubby, Emma is open to new relationships and she surprises herself by falling in love with the older man.

Ultimately, “Murphy’s Romance” is too soft and too gentle to qualify as an engaging romantic comedy. It’s a movie in which most of the characters are too good and too civilized to generate any dramatic interest in them.

Sally Field: Lack of Erotic Charge

The age difference between Garner and Field (a whole generation) would not have mattered much if there had been real chemistry between them.  In most scenes, however, they generate the impression of being father-daughter, or uncle-niece, due to the lack of erotic tension.  This has been a recurrent problem is the screen career of Field, who has never possessed sex appeal (even when she was in her 20s).

Oscar Context:
The film was nominated for two Oscars:

Best Actor for James Garner

Best Cinematography by William A. Fraker.

The winner of the Best Actor Oscar was William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman. David Watkin received the Cinematography Oscar for Out of Africa, which swept most of the awards that year, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Running time: 108 Minutes.
Directed By: Martin Ritt