River, The (1984): Rural Family Drama, Starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek in Oscar-Nominated Turn

Mark Rydell’s follow up to his 1981 Oscar-winning On Golden Pond was the socially-conscious family problem-drama, “The River.”

Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek play Tom and Mae Garvey, struggling Tennessee farmers facing foreclosure.  Their farm sits next to a river that both nourishes their land and constantly threatens to overflow its banks and destroy their crops. The Garveys sell some of their equipment for low prices at an auction, at which some of their neighbors are forced to give up everything they own.

The stoic Tom takes a job as a scab at a mill where the union workers are striking. Meanwhile, Mae has a platonic flirtation with local bank manager Joe (Scott Glenn), who saves her life when she’s trapped under a heavy piece of farm equipment.

Tom’s homecoming is disrupted by floods, but the raging waters allow him to become a hero to his family again.

It’s probably a coincidence that “The River” was the third in a cycle of dramas depicting the plight of American farmers released that same year.   The other two were Places in the Heart,” starring Sally Field and “Country,” featuring Jessica Lange.

Real Impact

The three Oscar-nominated actresses were invited to testify before a congressional committee hearing on the plight of American farmers.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Actress: Sissy Spacek

Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmund

Sound: Nick Alphin

Original Score: John Williams

Oscar Awards:

Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing: Kay Rose

Oscar Context: 

Sally Field won her second best Actress Oscar for “Places in the Heart.” The other nominees were:  Judy Davis for “A Passage to India,” Jessica Lange for “Country,” Vanessa Redgrave for “The Bostonians.”

Chris Menges won the Cinematography Oscar for “The Killing Fields.”  Maurice Jarre won the Score award for “A Passage to India,” and “Amadeus” received the Sound Oscar.