Horton Foote: filmmaking radical with a tender touch
`ON Valentine's Day'' has been hailed as a thoughtful and literate drama that proudly rejects current movie fashions -- emphasizing character as well as action, and celebrating the power of the spoken word at a time when most films stress flashy images and aggressive editing. Much credit for the excellence of ``On Valentine's Day'' goes to the fine performers and skilled technicians who crafted it under the guidance of Ken Harrison, a new and promising director.Skip to next paragraph
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But the lion's share of praise must be reserved for Horton Foote, who originated the project (as part of an ambitious nine-part series) and wrote the sensitive screenplay. If anyone has a chance of reclaiming the word ``auteur'' for authors -- after years of seeing it used as a synonym for movie directors -- it's certainly this soft-spoken Southerner, who's never afraid to reject the Hollywood rule book in favor of his own insights and instincts.
Not that it's easy to make your own rules in an age of conformity. After building his stage and screen reputation over more than two decades, climaxed by an Oscar-winning script for ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' in 1962, the highly succesful Foote found himself out of step -- at the midpoint of his career -- with sweeping and often sensational new trends in story treatment, tone, and permissiveness. ``I was interested in what was going on,'' recalls Foote of the period between the late '60s and late '70s. ``But people weren't exactly beating my door down.''
Instead of changing direction and trying to alter his style, Foote retired from the scene and moved to New England, not sure what his next activity should be. Eventually he set to work on a highly personal project: a series of plays called ``The Orphan's Home,'' loosely based on memories and stories relating to his parents, their experiences, and the Texas landscape they inhabited.
Two of his latest films -- the new ``On Valentine's Day'' and last year's ``1918,'' which had many of the same characters -- are based on plays in this cycle. Other recent Foote movies include ``Tender Mercies,'' which marked his return to the motion-picture world and won him a second Academy Award; and ``The Trip to Bountiful,'' which earned him yet another Oscar nomination and carried star Geraldine Page to victory as ``best actress'' just a couple of months ago.
In more than one meeting with Foote, including a recent visit to the homey Greenwich Village apartment where he and his wife now live, I've always found him a genial reflection of the gracious Southern spirit that breathes through his movies. He has a reputation for firmness as well as gentility, and exerts as much control as possible over his projects -- personally supervising the performances in ``On Valentine's Day,'' for example, to make sure they stayed true to his vision. Yet with his subtle and thoughtful approach to movie matters, he bears little resemblance to the common picture of a busy show-business entrepreneur.
The qualities of subtlety and thoughtfulness are especially suited to ``On Valentine's Day,'' which is rooted in the history and folklore of Foote's own family and features one of his daughters, Hallie Foote, in a leading role. Set in 1917, the story focuses on a young couple named Elizabeth and Horace, who have recently married despite the strong objection of her rich and powerful father. The film doesn't offer much in the way of action, but its atmosphere becomes charged with emotion as the newlyweds interact with relatives and neighbors (some of whom have badly unstable personalities) and prepare for the birth of their first child.