A portrait of our state, in film.
If one wanted to travel to New York through film, there’d be obvious roads to take: The Godfather, for one; Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver; Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes to mind too; and of course every Woody Allen picture ever made. These are films in which the city plays as big a part as the direction, characters, or plot—movies whose strong sense of locale can practically transport you right into the middle of the bustling berg. Texas too has an equally rich history of films in which it serves as subject, and the state’s expanse—Texas is bigger, wider, and more open to the sky—is directly proportionate to the number of tales it embodies, urban and rural, set inland and on the coast, in the rolling hills and desolate desert. We even have our own actors (at least, I like to think of them as belonging to Texas): Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, Frances McDormand, Matthew McConaughey, James Dean, and Paul Newman among countless others. Heck, Kevin Costner appears all over Texcentric film—he’d easily replace Kevin Bacon in our own Texas version of the six-degrees-of-separation game.
So what follows is a primer of sorts—a list to give your Yankee friends, or one we can use to test the Californians as they cross our border by the carload. Watching these films will give you a sense of our beloved state, albeit a pretty romantic one. (For the unromantic vision, tune in to the Mike Judge animated TV series, King of the Hill.) Don’t miss the chance to view them on the big screen (frequently resurfacing at the Paramount in Austin, the Inwood and through the Dallas Film Society in Dallas, the River Oaks in Houston, and the Crossroads in San Antonio), but all are available on video.
BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS
Directed by Colin Higgins; with Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Dom Delouise, Charles Durning, Robert Mandan, and Lois Nettleton. 1982
This musical comedy has been watered down from a local history lesson that made its way to the pages of Playboy magazine and later on to Broadway. The story is based on a legendary Texas brothel called the Chicken Ranch which authorities shut down in the seventies following a fervent campaign rallied against it by an obsessive TV newsman. Here, Dolly = charm + decolletage. And Burt, well, he’s Burt (remember: this is the early eighties). Maybe there’s a little sexual chemistry missing between these two smilers, but believe it or not the acting’s not half bad. It’s actually Charles Durning, in his role as the Governor of Texas, who steals the show with his little song and dance about corruption. We Texans all have our guilty pleasures, consider this bawdy enterprise one of them.
Directed by Joel Coen; with John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams, and Deborah Neumann. 1983
The debut film of the Coen brothers, a noirish mystery in which a Texas Roadhouse owner hires a private dick to off his wife and her lover, is full of stylized, almost self-conscious shots that bring black comedy into the mix. Since this film was made, we’ve seen the Coen brothers revisit these themes again and again, fine tuning their unique style—a propensity for intricate plots and grisly murders—which they took all the way to the Academy awards in 1996 with Fargo. Blood Simple was filmed on location in Austin, Round Rock and Hutto, Texas, so keep your eyes peeled for familiar scenery.
BONNIE AND CLYDE
Directed by Arthur Penn; with Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Evans Evans, and Gene Wilder. 1967
A West Dallas waitress and the petty thief son of a sharecropper are Bonnie and Clyde, Texas’ most famous outlaw team. The movie’s tagline, “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people,” should also include, “and we like them anyway.” Not only did the crime duo that led the infamous true-life Barrow gang become a folk legend due to their media-fueled bank robbing spree during the Depression, but the film has spawned numerous homages over the years from Terrence Malick’s Badlands to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Stylish and more violent than moviegoers at the time were used to, Bonnie and Clyde brought the mythic wild West outlaw into the modern world. The film was uniformly panned on its first release and Warner Bros. was actually thinking of dumping the film to a chain of Texas drive-ins. On its second release it was nominated for ten Oscars and a Golden Globe, and took home Academy awards for Best Supporting Actress (Parsons) and Cinematography. A favorite scene with local relevance is when Bonnie first seizes the opportunity to become a cultural icon: instead of killing Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, she insists the Barrow gang pose for a photo with the stone-faced lawman and send it around to all the newspapers.
Directed by Wes Anderson; with Luke Wilson, Owen C. Wilson, Ned Dowd, Shea Fowler, Haley Miller, Robert Musgrave, Andrew Wilson, and James Caan. 1996
Sort of a family project of the Wilson brothers, Bottle Rocket is a quirky little comedy about a group of disaffected twenty-something pals—Dignan, Anthony, and Bob—who at Dignan’s urging embark on an ill-orchestrated and ill-fated life of crime. But the plot isn’t what makes this film so attractive; it’s the characters and their conversation, a sort of everyday loquaciousness that captures the heart well. Perhaps the brotherly ties are responsible for the natural performances; glimpses of unconditional love show through the ever-present rivalry between the two head-butting principals, who after a run-in with a serious criminal (Caan) discover they really just need each other. Especially nice slices of Texas present themselves when our heroes, on the lam, wind up at a hotel near the Mexico border where Anthony falls in love with an Hispanic chamber maid. And Bottle Rocket makes for a good local story, too: Filmed in and around Austin, director Anderson met the writer and co-star, Owen Wilson, at UT. Texas screenwriter L.M. (Kit) Carson helped them take their original short to Sundance, where the group found backing for this feature project.
Directed by Arthur Penn; with Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickenson, Robert Duvall, E.G. Marshall, James Fox, and Jocelyn Brando. 1966
Based on the novel by Horton Foote (whose works are the basis for many Texcentric films), perhaps a more apt title for The Chase would be “Follow the Revelers.” Though the plot centers around the prison break and impending return of convict Bubba Reeves (Redford) to a small Texas town ruled by wealthy oilman Val Rogers (Marshall) and his appointed yet principled sheriff (Brando), there’s not so much chasing going on as there is partying. The story starts on the afternoon of Rogers’ birthday party—a fancy affair whose elite guest list hints at the real turmoil plaguing the town’s inhabitants: generations of grudges, racial and sexual tension, and the pressures of a steadfast social hierarchy. But the uninvited host their own raucous get-together (so do the town teens busy twisting across the street), and as news of Bubba’s escape spreads, so does the paranoia that he might have a score or two to settle. Sometime before the sun comes up all three of these fiestas have converged on the edge of town and there’s nary a sober soul in the crowd. Aside from capturing the transition from the conservative 50s to the wild, free-lovin’ 60s—which, in Texas, was even wilder when mixed with the gobs of oil money floating around—The Chase has a lot of comic moments for a serious drama. During one scene where the sheriff is out looking for Bubba and trying to keep the fired-up townfolk from exploding, one of his critics utters a sarcastic “Well now, Sheriff, it’s nice to know that you’re out here on patrol.” Brando replies: “No, no, I’m not on patrol. Just lookin’ for an ice cream cone, that’s all.”
DANCER, TEXAS POP. 81
Directed by Tim McCanlies; with Brekin Meyer, Peter Facinelli, Eddie Mills, Ethan Randall, Ashley Johnson, Patricia Wettig, and Eddie Jones. 1998
Four high school buddies with a childhood pact to move to L.A. after graduation explore individual ties to their hometown and to each other before they are scheduled to leave. There’s Keller, the would-be city slicker and main champion of the “solemn vow”; Terrell Lee, reluctantly in line to run the family oil business; John, son of a rancher; and Squirrel, a white trash misfit. Together these boys make up 4/5ths of the graduating class, and their departure is met with disapproval—after all, the population count on the Dancer town sign will have to be repainted. Just like the landscape, the film is a little flat, but it does provide a look at contemporary life out among the sprawling blue sky and the distant mesas. Filmed in Ft. Davis and Alpine, Dancer, Texas shows us a modern-day oil business and a working ranch, the secrets of a dry county, tells us what one might study at Sul Ross University, and confirms the fact that not all folks are looking for things they don’t have. Dancer, Texas might be a better film if something actually happened, but then again, it is about life in West Texas.
DAYS OF HEAVEN
Directed by Terrence Malick; with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert Wilke, and Stuart Margolin. 1978
Since celebrated director Terrence Malick’s entire career consists of only three Hollywood films, we’re lucky he’s a Texan and that the West serves as the subject in two of his works. Days of Heaven, the story of an immigrant family from Chicago who come to Texas as migrant workers is a beautifully shot, poetic movie filled with yellow light and fields of sensually swaying wheat. Richard Gere is the young man on the road with his sister (Manz) and his lover (Adams), disguised as his other sister, who have come South seeking better living conditions. After one West Texas harvest, the lone (and lonely) farmer (Shepard) with the mansion on the hill asks the trio to stay, mainly so he can marry the woman whom he believes is the older sister. In what has become Malick’s trademark, the film is short on dialogue in favor of narrative voice-over, delivered this time in the somewhat misplaced urban accent of the tough little girl who leads us through this artsy, ill-fated love triangle with commentary wise beyond her years.
DAZED AND CONFUSED
Directed by Richard Linklater; with Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Shawn Andrews, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Wiley Wiggins, Parker Posey, and Matthew McConaughey. 1993
Another last day of school movie—this time it’s high school, 1976—Dazed and Confused offers an unpretentious day-in-the-life glimpse of suburban Texas teenagers during that much-revisited decade of hip huggers and bell bottoms. The film is low key and funny without wallowing too much in nostalgia. Like Linklater’s earlier film, Slacker, characterization prevails; it doesn’t have much of a narrative structure and this is one of its simple successes. Though the period fashions and the carefully-chosen soundtrack are familiar on a national level, the local flavor is far from buried. The importance of high school football and the vicious initiation rights suffered by freshmen could be a lesson in regional culture. UT film alumnus Matthew McConaughey makes only his second appearance on celluloid here as Wooderson, the twenty-year-old high school hanger-on ubiquitous to every hometown.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds; with Judd Nelson, Sam Robards, Kevin Costner, Chuck Bush, Brian Cesak, Marvin J. McIntyre, and Suzy Amis. 1985
Yes, there have been better road movies, and better buddy films, yet Fandango, like the dance (and the caper) for which it is named, has a modicum of soul; it’s even downright likable. It’s summer 1971 on the University of Texas campus as Kevin Costner and his fraternity brothers are graduating, some facing draft notices and one about to get married. Filled with the energy of youth and the anxiety of impending adulthood, the five friends road trip to Marfa (there’s a scene shot in front of what’s left of the mansion from Giant) manufacturing adventure and some complicated emotions along the way. “What could anyone possibly like about this state?” asks a worrisome Judd Nelson as his fancy light-blue vintage car gets worse for wear on the dusty western highways. “I like the way it’s shaped,” is the response he gets from the back seat. There’s plenty of Texas scenery to take in between stops at the Sonic and long-neck Shiner beers.
FLESH AND BONE
Directed by Steven Kloves; with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, James Caan, and Gwenyth Paltrow. 1993
Filmed all over Central and West Texas, Flesh and Bone is a stormy film that follows Arlis Sweeney (Quaid), a loner with a vending machine business and a terrible secret from his past, as he makes the statewide deliveries that have become his way of forgetting about the childhood spent with his evil father (Caan). But his ritual is soon interrupted when he meets love interest Kay (Ryan), and discovers their paths have crossed before. The opening scene of this film is one of the most chilling I’ve seen, and there’s nice writing all around. As a man with such a tragic past, it would have been nice to see a little more of what makes our quirky protagonist tick, but he manages the role of a Texas archetype—the cowboy riding and hiding his pain—just fine. Texas flavor is strong in bar scenes filled with domino playing, Hill Country shots of horseback riding and swimming, beautiful big-sky landscapes, and a romantic two-step in an empty honky-tonk with Willie on the vintage juke. Don’t expect a happy ending, but our hero does drive off into the sunset.
THE FRENCH LINE
Directed by Lloyd Bacon; with Jane Russell, Gilbert Rodand, Arthur Hunnicutt, Mary McCarty, Craig Stevens, and Steven Geray. 1953
Don’t know why I’m including this one on my list except it’s a personal favorite; Jane Russell is big, busty, and sassy in her role as a rich Texan who disguises her fortune and sets sail for Paris to find a man more interested in her person. (It seems RKO Pictures wanted the same for Russell’s fans, the film was originally made in 3-D.) Too bad the whole romantic mess takes place on a cruise to France, but the musical numbers are giant and flashy, the costumes are Lone Star-studded, and the parley is as kitsch as the gift shop at the Alamo. Texas is way big enough to maintain its personality on the high seas.
Directed by George Stevens; with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Mercedes McCambridge, Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Chill Wills, Sal Mineo, and Rod Taylor. 1956
If Hud is as wild as Texas, then Giant is as long as Texas (or at least about the time it takes to drive from Austin to Houston). But just because it clocks in at a little over three hours (not including the intermission) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go down that road. Giant takes us to that famous mansion—façade partly still standing—on the flat lands of Marfa, where cattle rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) rules the Reata estate. Bick, who travels back east to buy a horse, returns home with a fancy black stallion and a filly on his arm—new bride Elizabeth Taylor. Of course wily ranch hand Jett Rink—James Dean’s last role before his death—quickly develops a crush on her too, and the competition between rich man, poor man is turned up another notch. Even if the words “epic saga” make you fidget, this one is a must-see. Taylor gives one of her best performances ever; the entire plot hinges on her assimilation into the barren, patriarchal West Texas way of life, which she progressively makes, with spunk and smarts. Two generations are chronicled in the story (taken from Edna Ferber’s novel), and along with their growth as a family comes a documented move in the Texas economy from agriculture to oil, and for the times, a pretty advanced statement on racism. The characters don’t age very gracefully due to an overuse of talcum powder, so it’s a damn good thing the movie does.
Directed by Martin Ritt; with Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, and Brandon de Wilde. 1963
Serious, dusty, wild—just like Texas itself. Based on the Larry McMurtry novel Horseman Pass By, this film takes us to the stark, black-and-white landscape of a West Texas ranch whose cattle may be infected with hoof and mouth disease. Melvyn Douglas plays stodgy patriarch Homer Bannon, an ethical yet rigid old-timer entrenched in the past; while Newman is the ruggedly-handsome Hud, the old man’s no-good, tom cattin’, whiskey drinkin’ heir who makes the case for selling off the herd before the government comes in with a death sentence. Hud’s nephew Lon (de Wilde) is the philosophical fledgling between them—still possessing a childlike goodheartedness, but also nurturing a taste for Hud’s rakish ways. Patricia Neal won an Oscar for her role as Alma, the rough-handed housekeeper who is both attracted to and repulsed by Hud’s insensitivity. The film’s bleak Texas setting (cinematographer James Wong Howe also won an Academy award for his work) brilliantly offsets the rich characterization in the writing, and though the film comes off as a bit moralizing, the desperate tensions and passions of a family driven to change evoke the maverick Texas spirit, marking this one a classic.
Directed by Oliver Stone; with Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Sally Kirkland, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Vincent D’Onofrio, Brian Doyle Murray, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Tomas Milian, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, and Donald Sutherland. 1991
This hotly-debated film captures Dallas’ infamous moment in national political history and then moves from Dealy Plaza on to Louisiana where controversial New Orleans D.A. James Garrison (Costner) develops his not-so controversial theory that Oswald didn’t act alone in the assassination of President Kennedy. There’s so much information presented here that there’s hardly time to pay attention to anything but the plot. But however flawed the evidence might be, the argument Stone builds is quite persuasive. Solid acting all the way across the well-cast board, and the skillful use of archival footage and flashback sequences makes for a very coercing film that delivers the entertainment value of a riveting whodunit. An easy way to remember it’s not a documentary: the real Jim Garrison plays Earl Warren in the movie.
LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO
Directed by Eagle Pennell; with Sonny Carl Davis, Louis Perryman, Steven Matilla, Tina-Bess Hubbard, Amanda Lamar, and Peggy Pinnell. 1984
With more cussing in the first five minutes (and throughout the film) than you can shake a stick at, this one offers an authentic insight into culture of the Texas barroom. Texas Chainsaw Massacre scribe Kim Henkel again puts a darkly comedic spin on a terrifying subject—a group of drunk, potty-mouthed good ol’ boys trying to keep their favorite Houston watering hole, the Alamo, from closing down. These realistic urban cowboys are colorful to say the least, and for such a low-budget enterprise, the acting is uniform and the black-and-white camera work dramatic.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich; with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. 1971
Definitely a contender for all-time best Texas film, The Last Picture Show captures a time—the fifties—and a locale—small-town Texas—so well that it has become legendary. The opening scene, where a solemn Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) makes a futile attempt to sweep his pool hall just as a fierce wind kicks up the dust in the streets and under his broom, becomes a metaphor for the entire film. High school pals and football teammates Duane Jackson (Bridges) and Sonny Crawford (Bottoms) grow up, get girls (Cybil Sheperd in her first feature performance, and Cloris Leachman who is exquisite in her role as the wife of the basketball coach), get married, go to war, and return to the sameness of home; lives intertwined under a hopeless Texas sky. The film also expresses a true and simple understanding of state culture: high school football, dance halls, and movie theaters, all framed in dazzlingly stylized black and white cinematography.
Directed by John Sayles; with Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Joe Morton, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Mendillo, Frances McDormand, Stephen Lang, Ona Faida Lampley, Eleese Lester, Joe Stevens, Clifton James, Gonzalo Castillo, Tony Frank, and Miriam Colon. 1996
That would a roundup of quintessential Texas films be without a border movie? John Sayles’s works are known for their incredible sense of place, and this is no exception—the Eagle Pass location provides such flavor that the border almost takes on a life of its own. Sam Deeds (Cooper) is the town sheriff who, after the discovery of human bones in the desert, is forced to investigate the possibility of an age-old crime involving his late father, which had been spoken of only in whispers until then. Newly-discovered Texas son McConaughey plays the righteous and much-loved sheriff Buddy Deeds; Kristofferson is maniacal as the racist sheriff Charlie Wade who rubbed the whole town the wrong way and then turned up missing. Still, nothing’s that black and white at this culture-crossed point on the map. Fine characterization, rich subtext and a natural pace (though most of the story is told in flashback) also add dimension to Sayles’ compelling mystery.
LOVE AND A .45
Directed by CM Talkingon; with Gil Bellows, Renee Zellweger, Peter Fonda, Rory Cochrane, Jeffery Combs, Jace Alexander, and Michael Bowen. 1995
Another in a long line of lovers-on-the-lam movies (each one after Bonnie and Clyde growing more violent and deranged than the next) Love & a .45 is uncannily reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. But trailer trash couple Watty (Bellows) and Starlene (Texas actress Renee Zellweger) would definitely not want to meet Mickey and Mallory in a dark alley, as this pair’s more mild-mannered crime spree consists of robbing convenient stores with unloaded weapons and trying to avoid murdering people in cold blood. Actually, the film was completed before (but released after NBK) and has plenty of violent scenes of its own. Rory Cochrane plays an insanely scary villian with a shoddy tattoo that covers his bald head entirely (the attached scene is a disturbing one), and Peter Fonda has a cameo as an aging hippy who speaks through a hole in his throat. The film was shot on location in East Texas where director Talkington grew up.
THE NEWTON BOYS
Directed by Richard Linklater; with Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Julianna Margulies, Dwight Yoakam, and Charles Gunning. 1998
A true-life historical account of four outlaw brothers raised in Uvalde who robbed banks all across the States and in Canada and were responsible for one of the biggest train robberies in the country, The Newton Boys doesn’t offer many surprises but it is a stylish and diverting jaunt nonetheless. With a cast of heartthrobs and some nice directorial moments, it seems this film was more about getting the Newton’s story to celluloid than reaching any cinematic heights. The twist in this 20s western is that instead of ending with the typical fatal shootout, our personable outlaw protagonsists live to tell their story. In fact, the film is worth sticking out just for the credits, over which play an 80s Johnny Carson segment featuring Joe Newton, and a portion of an interview with gang leader Willis Newton from an earlier documentary. Austin-based director Linklater has already proven loyalty to his home state with previous films, and this, his latest, also enlists local Austin alterno-blue grass band, the Bad Livers who create a refreshing score.
NORTH DALLAS FORTY
Directed by Ted Kotcheff; with Nick Nolte, Mac Davis, Charles Durning, Dayle Hadden, Bo Svenson, Steve Forrest, Dabney Coleman, and Guich Koock. 1979
The way Texans feel about football one would think they wouldn’t be very happy about how the game is portrayed here: North Dallas Forty is based on Peter Gent’s book about labor abuse in the NFL, depicting the sport as a giant corporation more interested in money and success than in the human beings that battle it out on the field. Nick Nolte as a recently-benched wide receiver and Mac Davis, the personable star quarterback, are the conscience for the entire team, and at times are reduced to cynical, limping messes who pop pain killers like candy and are scolded like wayward children. Still, this film heralds the start of Dallas Cowboys’ long tenure as “America’s Team,” and if it doesn’t offer a romantic view of the gridiron, it does direct audience sympathies to the toll such a weekly beating takes on our professional athletes. Though much has changed in the NFL since North Dallas Forty was released, a state so devoted to the sport should know about this stuff, not to mention all the partying going on.
Directed by Wim Wenders; with Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clément, Hunter Carson, Natassja Kinski, and Bernhard Wicki. 1984
A little long in the tooth but keen on scenery, this Sam Shepard-penned flick is a surreal maelstrom of emotion. Harry Dean Stanton (who already has a telling face like a rodeo cowboy or an outlaw) meanders silently on foot through the Texas desert. We find out he’s been lost for four years, having left behind a young son in the care of his brother, and a wife (Kinski) who has not been seen since. Vowing to piece his past life together, he goes on a quest to Houston where he finds her employed at a peep show; the scene where he speaks to her through the glass is one of the most heart-wrenching in movie history. As are all of Shepard’s works, Paris, Texas is theatrical; symbolism and western myth abound. Shepard’s love for this part of the country mixed with Wenders’ vast direction and cinematic eye makes for exceptionally passionate filmmaking. Plus, the Ry Cooder soundtrack is unforgettable.
PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE
Directed by Tim Burton; with Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, and Judd Omen. 1985
Dottie: Pee Wee? Where are you calling from?
Pee Wee: Texas!
Pee Wee: Honest! I’ll prove it! [singing] The stars at night are big and bright…
Passersby [singing and clapping]: … deep in the heart of Texas!
The search for Pee Wee’s stolen bike doesn’t take place solely in Texas, but the sequences filmed in San Antonio are so memorable that it deserves to make the cut. After Madame Ruby predicts his beloved bike is being held in the basement of a famous Texas landmark, Pee Wee sets off on an adventure that crosses paths with a motley assortment of over-the-top characters. The live-action cartoon is sure to help non-Texan fans to never forget the Alamo, and at the same time remember it doesn’t have a basement. Hilariously scripted by Paul Reubens and the late Phil Hartman, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure shouldn’t be tossed-off as a low-brow comedy—I recently came across the theory that the film is director Tim Burton’s tribute to the Italian classic The Bicycle Thief.
A PERFECT WORLD
Directed by Clint Eastwood; with Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Laura Dern, T.J. Lowther, Keith Szarabajka, Leo Burmester, Paul Hewitt, and Bradley Whitford. 1993
Texas is a logical locale for chase movies because it offers so much state to chase through. A Perfect World has all the familiar elements of the genre: miles of roads, pit stops, and a showdown at the catch, but in this one, the pairing up of a criminal and a kid makes for a refreshing twist. Costner plays Butch Haynes, a smart, relatively good-natured escaped convict forced to take an eight-year-old boy hostage. Red Garnett (Eastwood) is the Texas Ranger on their tail, a hard-working lawman with a cross to bear. No doubt it’s the relationship between Haynes and the boy that makes up the meat of the movie, but that could take place anywhere. What’s Texcentric about the film is its study in law-enforcement, and the unique situation the Texas Rangers find themselves in when solving a crime. Nowhere else is there an agency like the DPS’s mythic old-school rangers, separate from the county sheriff’s department and local police force. The struggle between Garnett, local authorities, the FBI, and the female criminal psychologist (played by Dern) assigned to the case by the governor also heralds a time of change for Texas and the nation itself. Set in the pre-assassination 1960s, A Perfect World portends the imperfect one that is just around the corner, without innocence and hindered by bureaucracy. In A Perfect World, the perfect metaphor is an Airstream trailer presented to Garnett for travel, a shiny beacon of the future that proves too cumbersome for an old-fashioned Texas manhunt.
PLACES IN THE HEART
Directed by Robert Benton; with Sally Field, Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, Danny Glover, John Malkovich, Amy Madigan, Yankton Hatten, and Gennie James. 1984
Even though it’s kind of sappy, there’s plenty to like about this story of a newly-widowed young woman determined to support her family and save her home from the bank. For one, her little daughter is named Opossum and she’s as cute as one, and for another it co-stars a young John Malkovich as a blind boarder, and Danny Glover as the farmhand that saves the day. Texas stars proudly as Waxahachie in the 30s, and pulls off some impressive dusty, flat landscapes and a spectacular tornado scene. Though there are some great shots of the famous Waxahachie courthouse whose stonework depicts a woman’s descent into madness, it doesn’t draw any parallels with the film’s warm outcome. Places in the Heart won writer/director Benton an Oscar for best screenplay (he’s a Waxahachie native) and gave Sally Field Best Actress for her role as Edna Spaulding. Places in the Heart also has to be one of the only films that features an entire dance of the Cotton-eyed Joe.
Directed by Howard Hawks; with John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr., Shelley Winters, Harry Carey, Jr., and Harry Carey, Sr. 1948
Touted as one of the best westerns of all time and featuring one of the greatest roles for the genre’s king, John Wayne, this film embodies the big scale Texas myth: miles and miles of untamed land that can bring wealth and prestige to any man possessing hardscrabble pioneering qualities (of course it has to be stolen away from the American Indians or the Mexicans, first). Wayne is the determined Tom Dunson, hardened by personal loss, who breaks free from a wagon train headed west to settle in Texas. Starting with a measly herd of two cows, he grows the largest cattle ranch north of the Rio Grande. But Dunson isn’t cash rich, and he’s forced to drive his herds to Kansas for the sale. In a story that recounts the creation of the Chisolm Trail while visiting the themes of mutiny, power, regret, and rebirth, the unsympathetic authoritarian Dunson is ultimately corralled by his more humane surrogate son (played by the dashing Montgomery Clift). Wayne has a memorable line in the first moments of the film, when Dunson first realizes he’s in Lone Star land. “We’re in Texas,” says his faithful companion, Goot. “It feels good to me,” Wayne answers.
Directed by Lili Fini Zanuck; with Jason Patric, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sam Elliott, Max Perlich, Gregg Allman, Tony Frank, William Sadler, and Special K. McCray. 1991
Based on the true story of narcotics agent Kim Wozencraft who succumbed to addiction while undercover on a case in Tyler, Texas, in the 1970s, Rush is a gritty account of the perils that law enforcement agents face in the war against drugs. Jason Patric is intense as the experienced Raynor, an undercover cop who shoots up with the dealers to prove he is one of them and convinces his inexperienced partner (Leigh) to do the same. By the end of the film, we discover that these two might not be cops posing as drug addicts, but drug addicts pretending to be cops. Wozencraft spent time in prison for her addiction, where she kept the journals that were later formed into a novel and adapted for the screen. If it’s not altogether apparent that Rush was filmed in Houston, this local true-crime tragedy is a reminder that the drug trade also exists under the big skies of Texas, and that more than just tourists and illegal aliens pass back and forth over the border we share with Mexico.
Directed by Gregory Nava; with Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, John Seda, Constance Marie, Jacob Vargas, Lupe Ontiveros, and Jackie Guerra. 1997
In the world of bio pics Selena may not stand out technically nor substantively, but the film accurately documents the rise and premature fall of singer Selena—Tejano music’s darling, murdered by a jealous employee, just on the verge of success outside her regular channels—a subject of great import to a significant segment of the Texas population. Edward James Olmos delivers a stand-out performance as Selena’s nurturing yet strict father, and as Selena, Jennifer Lopez straddles the fence between sweet and red hot sexy with ease. Not only does the film share the details of Selena’s childhood and rise to stardom, but it gives insight into contemporary Mexican-American culture in Texas, the importance of family—Selena’s brother and sister were members in her band—and their stick-togetherness in surmounting the obstacles that come as the price of fame. Cheerful beachy street shots of Corpus Christi, where Selena grew up, will make you want to visit.
Directed by Bruce Beresford; with Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin, and Allan Hubbard. 1982
A very slow and genuine story of a famous alcoholic country singer (Duvall) inspired to straighten up his life by a young woman (Harper) and her son, Tender Mercies captures the wild abandon and regret commingled in the rich musical history of Texas, and at the same time tells a deeply moving tale of personal redemption. Scripted by Horton Foote (upon whose play the film is based), the loose narrative hangs on longshots of the desolate Texas landscape. Both Foote and Duvall won Academy awards for their efforts, Duvall’s role extending beyond his touching performance to the soundtrack containing songs he wrote and sang expressly for the screen.
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT
Directed by James L. Brooks; with Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow, and Lisa Hart Carroll. 1983
This family-comedy-turned-melodrama appears regularly on lists of Texas films even though it lacks some of the local flavor of the McMurtry novel on which it is based. Prominently featuring Houston (it was shot there and in Nebraska), Terms of Endearment follows an emotional mother-daughter relationship over the years, and the film adaptation owes its success to rich characterization. MacLaine has burned sharp-tongued yet loving mama Aurora Greenway into our collective subconscious, and Debra Winger is a perfect example of the rebellious daughter that really never leaves the nest. The best part of the movie, the acidic repartee between Aurora and her love interest—the equally biting ex-astronaut/neighbor Garrett Breedlove (Nicholson)—serves as a compelling distraction to the tragic events that turn Terms of Endearment into an unrivaled tearjerker.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Directed by: Tobe Hooper; with Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Allen Danziger, Edwin Neal, Paul A. Partain, and William Vail. 1974
Saw this one at my grandparents’ drive-in and was scared of Texas for years. Now I’m just sometimes leery of barbecue. A precursor in the genre of film which includes both Halloween and Friday the 13th, this grisly yet somehow silly story of a family of freak murderers who chainsaw their victims and dress in their skin plays out just like a Texas tall tale. Thing is, the film originally advertised that the story was supposed to be based on true ocurrences. Unremitting and not one bit subtle, we follow our unsuspecting vanful of teenagers through demise by meat hook, sledgehammer and ole’ Leatherface’s buzzing saw. Hands-down winner for longest screaming sequence ever.
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich; with Jeff Bridges, Annie Potts, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman, Earl Poole Ball, William McNamara, and Sharon Ullrick. 1991
Well it’s 30 years later—the picture show is long since gone from Anarene, and Sam the Lion is dead—but our principles are still kicking. Duane Jackson is head of a turbulent family and owns an oil business that’s $12 million in debt; Sonny may be mayor but he’s seeing movies in the sky and increasingly can’t recall where he left his car; and the high school homecoming queen, Jacy Farrow, is back from Hollywood to mourn a dead son. As morose as this all sounds, Texasville is quite funny. The follow-up to the quintessential Texas film has been criticized for turning McMurtry’s characters into stereotypes and it does, a little. But considering no sequel could have lived up to The Last Picture Show, at least we can be entertained by the all-out mischief that provides these folks a much-deserved break from existential dread. Director Bogdanovich may have replaced the Royal Theater with a cheesy façade of old-time Texasville (put up in the town square for the Centennial celebration), and traded the desolate black and white landscapes of the original for dirt roads littered with Dairy Queens, but it’s still all about the timeless desires that drive a simple Texas town.
Directed by James Bridges; with John Travolta, Debra Winger, Scott Glen, Madolyn Smith, Barry Corbin, Brooke Alderson, and Cooper Huckabee. 1980
This John Travolta vehicle helped to foster the cliché of Texas city life; the legend of Gilley’s flashy honky-tonk has found space in our collective conscience right next to Wranglers and Ropers. All about atmosphere, the script was adapted from a 1978 Esquire article about the way the young wannabe macho petrochemical workers in Houston spent their leisure time—drinking, shuffling across the dance floor, and attempting to out ride each other on that silly mechanical bull. Though the film was no Saturday Night Fever, and may in fact have been the beginning of the end (until late that is) of Travolta’s time in the spotlight, it captures a subculture of late-seventies Houston with disconcerting flourish.