Thursday, March 5, 2009

Remembering Horton Foote

by Janet Crain
Texas has lost its most brilliant screenwriter and story teller. Horton Foote was born in Wharton, TX and always considered Wharton his home. Wharton is one of my favorite Texas towns. The rich heritage of a populous composed of descendants of early settlers from Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi, along with Jewish immigrants, arriving as early as the 1850s, soon joined by other settlers in the community including Swiss, German, Mexican, and Czech immigrants and descendants of plantation slaves supplied Horton Foote with much of his material.

His roots were deep in the South and Texas in particular. He understood the people and his work showed that.

Remembering Horton Foote

The son of a small-town Texas haberdasher and a piano teacher, Horton Foote headed to Dallas by train at age 16 to become an actor -- but even as he became a leading writer for the stage and screen he never really left home. Tiny little Wharton, Tex., and the stories his father picked up from his customers would fuel a remarkable body of work that included a Pulitzer-winning play (1995's The Young Man From Atlanta) and two Oscar-winning scripts (the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from Harper Lee's best-seller, and 1983's Tender Mercies, starring his long-time acting muse, Robert Duvall, as a down-and-out country singer).

Foote, who died March 4 in Hartford, Conn., at age 92, was a remarkable storyteller whose work, like William Faulkner's, was rooted in the ordinary struggles of ordinary people in the American South. After abandoning acting, he got his start as a writer during the golden age of television and adapted many of his stories for different media. The Trip to Bountiful -- about an old woman yearning to visit her hometown of Bountiful, Tex., one last time before her death -- began as an NBC teleplay in 1953 starring Lillian Gish, then became a stage play in 1962, and was later adapted into a 1985 movie that earned Geraldine Page an Academy Award for Best Actress (and another nomination for Foote himself).

There was something charmingly old-fashioned about Foote's prodigious body of work. He wasn't overtly political or experimental in form. He wasn't a flashy stylist. His works typically have a beginning, middle, and an end -- though often many diversions along the way to that end. And he took a Chekhovian approach to his characters, hardscrabble souls with deep family histories and endless depths of backstory.


© Janet Crain

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