Tuesday, June 6, 2017

From the DVR: Tomorrow (1972)

H.T. Bookwright (Jeff Williams) was on trial for the shooting death of a young no-account named Buck Thorpe (Dick Dougherty), who was shot while attempting to run off with Bookwright’s daughter.  Bookwright’s lawyer (Peter Masterson), a man named Douglas, was fairly sure the jury would acquit his client on self-defense (gotta stand your ground where family is concerned, son) …but he hadn’t counted on one holdout—a cotton farmer named Jackson Fentry (Robert Duvall), who refuses to vote for acquittal.  Why?  Douglas looks further into the matter, and learns that Fentry should never have been seated as a jurist in the first place.

Olga Bellin, Robert Duvall
For the explanation why, we flashback to Fentry’s life from many years previous.  Jackson is hired by the father of Isham Russell (Richard McConnell) to be the caretaker of the family’s sawmill during the winter…and on the morning of Christmas Eve, Fentry prepares to set out for his father’s farm when he discovers a young woman passed out from hunger not far from his shack.  She’s Sarah Thorpe Eubanks (Olga Bellin), pregnant and homeless after being abandoned by her husband and shunned by her family.  Fentry asks her to stay in the boiler shack he calls temporary home (the Russells are planning to build him a permanent dwelling come spring) until she delivers the baby…and their friendship eventually blossoms into a romance, one where Fentry and Sarah tie the knot despite her already being married.

In 1973, Robert Duvall received the first of his seven Academy Award acting nominations for his supporting turn as consigliere Tom Hagen in The Godfather (1972).  (Duvall would eventually win a trophy for his performance as a veteran country music singer-songwriter in 1983’s Tender Mercies…though some have persuasively argued he should have won it for the title role in 1997’s The Apostle.)  I’d be willing to gamble, however, that Bob would have preferred his inaugural Oscar nom be for his outstanding work as Jackson Fentry in Tomorrow (1972), a performance that he has singled out in several interviews as one of his personal favorites.  The story goes that Duvall based Fentry’s unusual accent (from the information presented in the film, Fentry is a Mississippian…though I’m sure some natives would take exception to this) on a man he encountered walking the foothills of the Ozarks.  Listening to Duvall’s speech patterns (I particularly enjoy how he pronounces the woman’s name as SAY-ruh as in “Marry me, Sarah”) reminds me of that kid in Swing Blade (1996—Duvall has a small role in this one, too): “I like the way you talk.”

A soft-spoken man with limited emotional reserve, the stoic Jackson Fentry surpasses expectations by reaching out to a woman who’s been kicked around by life; Sarah, who’s not used to being allowed a voice in any kind of situation, relates how she lost her mother at an early age and that her existence has been dominated by men insensitive to her needs from that moment on.  Fentry is the man she’s sorely needed to bind her emotional wounds—on that initial Christmas Eve morning, he purchases some hard candy for her as a Christmas gift, and is determined to take care of her after the arrival of the baby.  Taciturn for most of the film—he speaks only when it’s necessary—Fentry expresses unbridled love and joy in the scenes where he’s taken on the responsibility to raise Sarah’s son (Johnny Mask) …a happiness that, sadly, will be short-lived.

Written by William Faulkner as a short story published in 1940, Tomorrow was fashioned into a play by Horton Foote (who won screenplay Oscars for two of Duvall’s films, To Kill a Mockingbird [1962] and Mercies) that was originally presented on CBS’ Playhouse 90 in 1960 (with Richard Boone and Kim Stanley).  Foote would rewrite and expand his presentation for a production that ran for 25 performances at the HB Playwrights Foundation Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1968; it starred Duvall and Olga Bellin, who reprised their roles for the film directed by Broadway veteran Joseph Anthony.  Tomorrow was Bellin’s feature film debut…and her swan song; she purportedly did not take direction well from Anthony, and decided to return to stage work until her death in 1987 from cancer.  (Olga’s celluloid resume is sort of spotty, though she did guest star in such TV classics as Route 66 and Naked City.)

At the time of its initial release, Tomorrow barely made a blip on the radar of moviegoers: New York Times critic Vincent Canby wasn’t particularly laudatory, noting “Even if the movie's intentions are decent, as reflected in the accurate look of the production, filmed in Mississippi, the effect is mostly patronizing.”  The movie got a bit more exposure when it was re-released in 1982, but for the longest time it was a difficult film to track down (a DVD released by Homevision in 2004 quickly went OOP…thankfully B2mp brought it to Blu-ray in 2015).  I first saw it on IFC in the late 90s back when those letters stood for “Independent Film Channel” (since being bought by AMC, both it and The Sundance Channel have strayed vastly from their “independent film” mission to become AMC-Lite) so when I saw it on the schedule of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ recently I was eager to possess it (my precious).

Sudie Bond
As a person who’ll readily admit to not being particularly enamored of a lot of William Faulkner’s work, Tomorrow is one of my favorite adaptations.  I love how director Anthony chose to shoot the film in black-and-white to emphasize the harsh, rural setting, and Duvall’s performance is a marvel (I’ve noticed a few critics have emphasized that deciphering his thick accent can be a chore for some…which worries me, because I never had a problem).  One of my favorite character actors, Sudie Bond, also does splendid work as the midwife who provides Fentry with support and assistance.  Some viewers might find Tomorrow challenging because it’s mostly dialogue-driven (it also takes some sleuthing figuring out how the scenes in the beginning connect with the rest of the movie) and devoid of blowing things up real good, but the characters are so vividly drawn that I’m always filled with regret when the closing credits run.  I agree with Randy Miller III at DVD Talk when he observes “Tomorrow is a buried treasure that's unquestionably more compelling than any simple write-up can make it sound.”

No comments: