Filmmakers have long been drawn to “the Texan” as a character type. Our series Playing Texan revisits some of the most notable of these portrayals, from the legendary to the ludicrous, to determine what they say about how the world sees Texas—and how we see ourselves.  

In the movies of old, when everything was black and white, Texas was the playground of heroes. It made sense that “the Texan” was such a stolid archetype of the silent film era, because the Texans didn’t have much to say, or any real need to say it. They were the strong, capable cowboys who patrolled the lonesome scrub, relied upon to shoot the bandit and rescue the most vulnerable nearby woman without making a big fuss about it. Their dance cards didn’t leave much room for inner lives. Most of those guys—and they were always guys—didn’t even have names. Often, they were just called Tex.

The earliest Texas movies were a lot of fun, but they were mostly filler. They weren’t exactly going to win any Oscars. Well, okay: Wings did, a lavish war drama filmed at San Antonio’s Kelly Field that became the first-ever Best Picture honoree in 1927. But Wings wasn’t a “Texas movie” in any meaningful sense. And it would be many decades more before another movie made in Texas was deemed worthy of that kind of recognition. 

Notably, the films that pulled the state out of the B-movie abyss were about Texans whose lives had been shaped by the movies. Giant, Hud, Midnight Cowboy, The Last Picture Show—these were all stories about Texans who looked up at those thirty-foot-tall legends on the screen, desperately trying to square John Wayne’s rollicking adventures with their own mundane, rapidly modernizing realities.

In the broader American imagination, Texas was the land where “everything’s bigger” well into the early eighties, an image reinforced by the obscenely rich oil tycoons of Dallas, the mechanical-bull busters of Urban Cowboy, and the panting hypersexualization of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. But as a reaction to all that bloat, Texas movies got smaller. Without any cattle to drive or bandits to chase, the modern movie Texan suddenly had a lot more time to think about himself. He (it was still a he) became sadder, emptier, more restless. He got talkier. The movie Texan had once been a strong, silent superman who could lasso the whirlwind. Now he mostly just reaped it—and this yielded some truly remarkable films.

In 1983, Texas finally produced another Best Picture. I say “Texas” in the most generous sense, because Terms of Endearment, despite being set in Houston and based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name, wasn’t much of a “Texas movie” either. In fact, when its director, James L. Brooks, twice took the podium at the Academy Awards, he didn’t mention Texas at all. Why should he have? Brooks never wanted to make a movie about Texans anyway. In the production handbook for Terms of Endearment, Brooks laid out plainly how the leafy River Oaks neighborhood that he’d chosen as the home of its feisty widow protagonist, Aurora Greenway, played with Oscar-winning snappishness by Shirley MacLaine, was “more distinctly American than Texan.” Brooks filmed most of Terms of Endearment in flat, stagy medium shots, like you’d expect from a guy who cut his teeth on sitcoms, so that the film may as well be set in Connecticut. He wouldn’t even let MacLaine do an accent. Arguably, the most “Texan” thing you’ll find on-screen is Danny DeVito in a cowboy hat. 

Nevertheless, Terms of Endearment can be regarded, some forty years later, as the apex of a truly pivotal moment for Texas filmmaking. Most obviously, it was one of just three Oscar-dominating movies shot in Texas that were released that year, alongside Silkwood and Tender Mercies. The collective acclaim for these three films helped to legitimize Texas—long regarded as a sort of domestic Eastern Europe where directors went to make bad movies on the cheap—as a place where serious films could be made for less-than-serious money. By 1984, The New York Times was trumpeting the “bumper crop” of Texas films being created here, with an estimated thirty “major” projects in production. That number, according to the Texas Film Commission, expanded in the years since. 

There are dry, economic reasons for the rapid growth of Texas filmmaking in the wake of 1983. The Times article cites the “eagerness factor” of hungry local actors and crews who were happy to accept less money than their Los Angeles competitors, just to work on a big Hollywood project. Texas’s right-to-work laws also allowed budget-minded producers to sidestep the unions, if so needed. And small Texas towns like Waxahachie, where Tender Mercies was shot, were willing to rent out their streets and storefronts at little to no cost, just for some excitement. Perhaps most importantly, Texas’s investor class was finally coming around to the movies as a potential revenue stream in the early eighties, thanks to prospectors like Sam Grogg and his FilmDallas fund and the Dallas real estate mogul Trammell Crow, who’d spent some $35 million building the soundstage complex where much of Silkwood was shot.  

But there was also a more intangible, spiritual factor behind filmmakers’ attraction to the state. As seen in the movies being made here in and around 1983, Texas finally began realizing its “Third Coast” ambitions because filmmakers stopped seeing the state solely as a land of myths. They began using Texas to tell scrappier, more intimate stories, in which Texas was the unforgiving backdrop for universal struggles of the human condition. 

Tender Mercies was one such small tale. It’s the spare, unsparing story of a down-on-his-luck country singer named Mac Sledge—played with stoic restraint by Robert Duvall, who would win an Oscar for his performance—whose raw talents have been drowned in booze and bitterness. Sledge begins his slow crawl toward redemption along a pitiless stretch of Waxahachie road, settling down with a motel owner, played by the Dallas actress Tess Harper, and her young son and trying to make a fresh start of his waylaid life.

Not much actually happens in Tender Mercies. Sledge almost makes a comeback, then he doesn’t. He almost falls off the wagon, then he doesn’t. He is tormented by the success of his country-star ex-wife (played by Fort Worth native Betty Buckley), he reconnects with their estranged daughter, and he grapples with profound moments of love, resentment, and grief, but he never gets all that worked up over any of it. In the film’s ostensible climax, Sledge gives a terse little speech about why he just can’t “trust happiness,” which Duvall delivers beneath a big, blue Texas sky that seems both wide-open with possibility and imperiously indifferent. In stark contrast to the Texas movies of old, Tender Mercies recasts that vast, rambling countryside as a lonely desert that’s not to be conquered, but wandered in desperate search of oneself. 

Waxahachie, with its flat prairie-scapes and frozen-in-time Victorian architecture, quickly became a favored setting for these sorts of stories about depression, both economic and personal. The films 1918, Places in the Heart, and The Trip to Bountiful were all shot there in quick succession between 1983 and 1985, each of them about similarly hardy Texas folk in their own dying small towns. But even the bigger Texas cities weren’t immune from this sense of creeping alienation. In 1982, Joel and Ethan Coen began filming Blood Simple, a lean, nasty yarn about a murderous love triangle that plays out against a Texas that quietly ripples with danger. The film, which went on to win the grand jury prize at Sundance and helped reignite Austin’s film community after years of torpor, begins with M. Emmet Walsh’s sleazy, cowboy-hatted detective—a perversion of the Texan white hat—intoning, “What I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own,” his wheezy drawl unfolding over shots of lonely oil rigs pumping away in the middle of a whole lot of portentous nothing.    

This recontextualizing of our once mythical frontier was even more evident in the movies being shot in West Texas, where Giant director George Stevens had once staged the tumbleweed-strewn sands of Marfa and Alpine as the gladiatorial arena of swaggering, self-made oilmen. In 1983, those same landscapes formed the barren backdrop to Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, a film that, much like Tender Mercies, viewed them as a sort of liminal purgatory, the backcountry bardo where Harry Dean Stanton’s mute drifter, Travis Henderson, consigns himself as punishment for his own lifetime of alcohol-fueled misdeeds.

Paris, Texas happened to be filming around the same time as Fandango, a movie that couldn’t have been more different superficially, but that used the West Texas setting to similar ends. Written and directed by San Antonio native Kevin Reynolds, Fandango is a rowdy coming-of-age comedy about a bunch of recent University of Texas at Austin grads who call themselves the Groovers. Led by a young, leonine Kevin Costner, the Groovers embark on a beery road trip through the desert highways as the last, reckless gasp of their youth. The indifferent West Texas emptiness grants the Groovers the freedom to do whatever they want: Texas is “wild,” Costner’s character explains. “Always has been, always will be. Just like us.”

But Fandango also has a dark subtext beneath its sunbaked surface. Several of the Groovers have just been drafted for the Vietnam War; their journey is thus tinged with death, which perhaps explains why they spend it throwing themselves out of airplanes and lassoing their stalled car to a passing locomotive. Maybe it’s just coincidence that Fandango is set in 1971, the same year that The Last Picture Show was released. But both films are about young Texas men who are grappling with the realization that their lives will never be as free and “wild” as those Texas legends promised. In Fandango’s most quietly potent scene, the Groovers spend a cold Marfa night sleeping beneath the rotting facade of Giant’s Reata set, symbolically passing through the shadows of the Texas myth that’s crumbling around them.

Cowboy, the pointedly named protagonist from Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, also seeks shelter in those dying myths. The 1983 film reunites Pennell’s Austin-based acting duo Sonny Carl Davis and Lou Perryman from his first Tex-istential ramble, The Whole Shootin’ Match, telling a similarly talky tale that’s set during the final hours of a beloved dive bar facing foreclosure from a rapidly gentrifying Houston. Davis’s Cowboy is the saloon’s self-styled hero. He holds court with boozy braggadocio about heading out to Hollywood to become a movie star—painfully, if perhaps only subconsciously, aware that the last remaining place for guys like him now lies in those old western fairy tales. Like the main characters of Tender Mercies; Paris, Texas; and Fandango, Cowboy is lost and without purpose, adrift in a Texas town that may be laced by highways and skyscrapers, but is no less desolate.

But if this all sounds rather depressing, the most Texan thing about all of these films is the way they celebrate resilience, if not outright stubbornness. Tender Mercies ultimately finds Mac Sledge delivered, like the biblical psalm that inspired its title, by the small graces of forgiveness and family. In Paris, Texas, Travis Henderson is able to find a similar peace and make his own tentative steps toward atonement. When morning finally arrives for the barflies of Last Night at the Alamo, they don’t light out to California to seek their fortunes after all, but they do make sure everyone gets home safe. 

In each of the films made during this small, yet meaningful era of Texas storytelling (Blood Simple’s nasty noir excepted), you are left not with the two-fisted triumph of heroic myth, but the quieter, more reassuring sense that life goes on. Fandango culminates with Kevin Costner’s character offering a final toast to his fading youth and the friends he may never see again: “Here’s to us and what we were!” he yells across the echoing Rio Grande canyon. But it also allows for a slight tinge of hope, as he quietly adds, “And what we’ll be.” The Texan endures, a victory that’s arguably far more potent. 

I began this piece by averring that Terms of Endearment wasn’t really a “Texas movie,” but I suppose this isn’t entirely true. After all, many of these same themes can be found in the story of Aurora Greenway, who endures her life’s upheavals with a hardiness that is recognizably Texan, even without the accent. Terms of Endearment also has its own quintessential Texas hero gone to seed in Jack Nicholson’s retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove, a space cowboy who’s been dragged back down to earth to drink and bemoan his rapidly dimming star. It is perhaps all the more remarkable that this man, the film’s most arguably Texan invention, issued not from Larry McMurtry’s typewriter but from James L. Brooks’s.

But then, Larry McMurtry didn’t see Terms of Endearment as a “Texas” story either—at least, not as such a story had been traditionally defined. The film arrived in theaters just a couple years after the author caused a minor regional tizzy with his infamous 1981 speech turned essay, in which he chided Texas writers for remaining so immutably in thrall to hoary tales of cowboys and country living. McMurtry firmly believed that Texas should stop clinging to its increasingly distant rural past and embrace the complexities of the cities that now dominated the state. And with the success of Terms of Endearment, McMurtry had fully realized that goal, using the state to tell a more cosmopolitan story that, along with many of the other movies made here around that time, challenged the popular notion of what a “Texas movie” could be. 

To be sure, Texas was still cranking out plenty of stereotypically “Texas movies” in 1983—shoot-’em-ups starring taciturn he-men, like Chuck Norris’s El Paso–set Lone Wolf McQuade (which Norris later remade as Walker, Texas Ranger, taking those old cowboy myths to dizzying new heights of ludicrousness). Texas was also still serving as the economical midwife to movies that Hollywood didn’t really want to make, like Robert Altman’s 1983 Streamers, which was shot quickly and on the cheap at Trammell Crow’s Dallas studios. That same year saw the filming of the spy adventure Cloak & Dagger, starring two native Texans, San Antonio’s Henry Thomas and Austin’s Dabney Coleman, and making judicious use of San Antonio landmarks like the River Walk and the Alamo. But as with so many Texas movies from around that time, the film’s Texanness was only a matter of convenience, the city chosen solely because Thomas, a budding twelve-year-old superstar thanks to E.T., still lived there with his parents. 

But after 1983, the “Texas movie” attained a new prestige that lifted it out of these sorts of journeyman roles. In the year of Texas’s big Oscars sweep, many of the films shot here in and around 1983 received their own plaudits: Paris, Texas was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1984, while Last Night at the Alamo took home the special jury prize at Sundance. In 1985, Blood Simple won big at Sundance and Places in the Heart racked up several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, with wins for both actress Sally Field and the film’s screenwriter, the Waxahachie native Robert Benton. During his acceptance speech, Benton made sure to thank his hometown, acknowledging the role, both practical and spiritual, that Texas had played in inspiring its story. 

In the decades since, Texas films like Dallas Buyers Club, Boyhood, No Country for Old Men, Hell or High Water, and The Tree of Life have enjoyed their own Oscar nominations and victories—each work as distinctive and disparate as the state’s topography, and all of them helping to further redefine the “Texas movie.” Texas’s landscape has always been able to play anything on-screen. After 1983, its people could as well. And, as it turned out, the Texan had a lot to say.