Scriptobit: Horton Foote

Horton Foote was always more of a man of the theatre than the screen. Recalling his first visit to Hollywood, when he wrote 1956’s Storm Fear, he said, “I just didn’t feel that it was a place for writers to be, and I still don’t think so.” But the novelist/playwright, who died aged ten days shy of his 93rd birthday, won two Academy Awards for his scripts. He also formed a close bond with Robert Duvall, one of the very best of contemporary screen actors.

Foote came from Wharton, Texas, the real life counterpart to his fictional universe of Harrison, Texas. He left home to become an actor, but changed to writing after being asked to create a scene for acting class. During his absence from home, his mother wrote him on nearly a daily basis. Those letters and his upbringing formed his understanding of the complicated country people Foote wrote about.

His first success was A Trip to the Bountiful, initially written for TV’s Philco-Goodyear Playhouse in 1953. Lillian Gishwas such a success as Mrs. Carrie Watts, the widow yearning to visit her Texan home one more time, that Foote expanded the TV play into a stage production for the Theatre Guild. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times of the play:

“He is a scrupulous author who does not want easy victories, and that is to his credit morally. But he might also do a little more for the theatre by going to Bountiful himself as a writer, providing his play with more substance and varying his literary style.”

Informed by his training in the Method, Foote much preferred to write to what he called “beats” than big lines. Actors took to his understanding of mood and character goals with masterful performances. Geraldine Page won a Best Actress Oscar in the role of Watts in the big-screen version of Bountiful. Harper Lee found him a perfect adaptor for To Kill a Mockingbird, which earned Oscars for Foote and Gregory Peck. Foote later said he was inspired to tackle the script when he discovered the similarities between Mockingbird and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Mockingbird also featured Foote’s discovery Robert Duvall in the role of Boo Radley. In 1971, Duvall performed on stage and on screen in Foote’s Tomorrow, with the Texan again adapting the work of a Southern writer–in this case, William Faulkner. To this day, Duvall will assert Jackson Fentry is his finest performance.

Tender Mercies wasn’t written with Duvall in mind. Inspired by his nephew’s travails as a musician, Foote wrote the script about down-on-luck country singer Mac Sledge for money. Duvall contributed songs and vocals. The result won Oscars for them both in 1984, and in a noisy decade, still impresses as a quiet marvel. It’s a rare country movie that feels like a country song. Writing in Time Out, Geoff Andrew said,

“Refusing to get into heavy plotting–the story’s most dramatic event occurs offscreen–it relies on mood, gesture and observation to offer the unfashionable thesis that life, however hard or disappointing, is always worth living.”

“I’m a taker-outer rather than a putter-inner,” Foote once remarked. But he’d probably appreciate it if we left that in.

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One Response to “Scriptobit: Horton Foote”

  1. The Slate: Wolverine vs. American Jesus « SquallyShowers Says:

    […] by an extraordinary stranger in Main Street. The film is the last screenplay of Horton Foote, who died earlier in the mouth. The role of local cocksman will be played by Andrew McCarthy (Weekend at Bernie’s). Other […]

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