Robert Benton, born in 1932 in Waxahachie, Texas, began his career as a screenwriter. His first credit was with David Newman for Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and their work got an Oscar nomination. After a couple other writing credits shared with Newman he began to direct as well as write in 1972 with a Western, Bad Company, starring Jeff Bridges. By 1977 he was solo writer and director on the detective story The Late Show with Lily Tomlin and Art Carney, for which he was also nominated for a writing Oscar. In 1980 he won both directing and writing Oscars for his divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer with Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman.
Places in the Heart reflects the 1930s Waxahachie of Benton’s childhood and was filmed lovingly in that town, just south of Dallas, and the surrounding countryside. It was written and directed by Benton, and starred Sally Field, Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, John Malkovich and Danny Glover. The cinematography was by Nestor Almendros, the costume design was by Ann Roth, and the music was by John Kander. It was released in September, 1984. Benton won an Oscar for his screenplay, and Sally Field won an Oscar for best actress. Oscar nominations went to the actors John Malkovich and Lindsay Crouse, to Ann Roth for the costumes, to Benton for his direction. The film was also nominated for best picture.
Vincent Canby, in the New York Times of the period, wrote, “As a title, Places in the Heart is . . . misleading in that it befogs the disciplined nature of the movie, which sees time and place with a critical eye and reserves its affection for the remarkable people who survived hardships that were at first beyond their imaginations. Like the best work of Jean Renoir and François Truffaut, Places in the Heart never denies the existence of the void that lies just beyond the film's horizon, and which infuses even the sunlit scenes with tension and foreboding.” He also wrote that Benton and Almendros “have given the film the idealized look of the work by some of the better, now-anonymous painters who, supported by Federal subsidies during the Depression, traveled around the country covering the walls of public buildings, in small towns and large, with murals that weren't always flattering to the people who commissioned them.“
By the fourth century A.D. the Christian church had devised a statement of belief, called the Apostles’ Creed, that has come down to many of the Christian churches still with us today. In one version it ends “I believe in the Holy Spirit/the holy catholic Church/the communion of saints/the forgiveness of sins/ the resurrection of the body/and life everlasting. Amen.” For me, in my life of faith, the communion of saints has been a very real presence. In Benton’s film, as you will see tonight, he visualizes that communion in the strongest possible way, and, as it happens, he does it in the home church of the family of a late friend of mine, Heneri Cockerham Short. The church is the Bethel Methodist Church. She and I visited it together one Sunday afternoon, of happy memory. I hope you enjoy watching this exceptional movie, Places in the Heart, with me tonight.