Places in the Heart (1984): Benton’s Sentimental Period Piece, Starring Sally Field

Robert Benton’s schmaltzy period melodrama, Places in the Heart, was the most commercially popular of the three farm movies Hollywood made in 1984, grossing over $16 million. The other two were “Country” and “The River,” each making about $4 million at the box-office.

The first to be released, “Places in the Heart” signaled a prestige production, due to the talent in front and behind the cameras. Both director Robert Benton and star Sally Field were previous Oscar winners; he for helming “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” and she for “Norma Rae,” two films made in 1979.

Our grade: B- (** out of *****)

But the film’s greater appeal could be attributed to its theme, approach, and the fact that it was safely set in the past, during the Depression. The film’s stylistics also indicated that Benton meant it as an evocation of myth, a personal film memory, rather a realistic social-problem film, unlike “Country,” which was done in the mode of a “living newspaper” and hard-edged journalism.

Sally Field won a second Best Actress Oscar, as Edna Spaulding, a young Texan housewife, whose husband-sheriff is killed in an accident. After 15 years of marriage, she suddenly finds herself with no talent or skills for anything except cooking and taking care of her children. But with tremendous will power, steadfastness, and hard work she faces successfully a series of hardships, a foreclosing bank, a greedy cotton dealer, and even a tornado.

A very similar type of mother was portrayed by Jessica Lange in “Country,” inspired by farmers’ plight in Iowa, and Sissy Spacek in “The River,” both of whom were nominated. These three movies, labeled as “Hollywood’s farm trilogy,” also challenged the traditional screen images of men, depicting them as less committed to the cause of keeping the land, weaker, and more emotional than their female counterparts.

Sentimental at its core, “Places in the Heart” was an ode to humanity and celebration of togetherness. In the course of the story, a new, rather idealistic community emerges, one headed by a widow and consisting of society’s weakest members: Edna’s children, a black hobo (Danny Glover), and a blind man (John Malkovich).  Benton treats the men’s outsider’s status (a black and a blind) in a sacred, borderline corny manner.

Unfortunately, Benton uses the meticulous craftsmanship to cover up for the shortcomings in the writing, which is courteous and benevolent to a fault.  The movie is smooth but shallow, and most of the characters are one-dimensional.  This is especially the case of the children, who are all standard-issue movie kids, good-natured, obedient, and so on.

Places in the Heart” was less politically overt and less ideologically critical than the other two farm movies. “Country,” for instance, showed that hard work is not enough to save the land from foreclosure. Made with utmost restraint, the film also denies Jessica Lange the customary close-ups, a star’s reverential treatment. Even so, the creators were nervous about the film’s criticism of the Reagan policies in an election year: “Country” opened in early October, one month prior to the Elections. The producers allegedly refused benefit showings for social causes to avoid further politicization of the film, insisting the villain was not “the Reagan Administration, but monolithic bureaucracy and government apathy.”

The narrative center of the movie is too sanctimonious and rather dull as drama. We are led to believe that except for bankers, economic misery and hard times bring out the best in every member; Edna’s children “volunteer” to be whipped when doing wrong. Fortunately, the story’s background is more colorful. Among the secondary characters are Edna’s sister (Lindsay Crouse) and her brother-in-law (Ed Harris), who’s having an adulterous affair. And Benton throws in a couple of scenes, in which the “nasty outside world” impinges on the characters, in the form of the menacing Ku Klux Klan.