Director: Joseph Anthony
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 1972, Robert Duvall appeared in one of the most iconic films of all time—The Godfather. His supporting performance as Tom Hagen, Irish consigliere to the Corleone mob family, is measured, rational, understated. He provides a counterbalance to James Caan’s hotheaded Sonny Corleone, whom Hagen idolizes, and an insider/outsider character that gives the audience a way into the picture.
Duvall will always be remembered for The Godfather, but he appeared in another 1972 release for which he gave what is arguably his finest performance—the almost forgotten Tomorrow. This independent film with a no-name cast is an adaptation of a William Faulkner short story by the much-honored writer Horton Foote. Foote, whose To Kill a Mockingbird (adapted for the screen with a plum role for Duvall) amply demonstrates his sensitivity and understanding of the South. His screenplay gave Duvall plenty of space to fill the character of Jackson Fentry, a poor, lonely backwoodsman offered by chance an opportunity to love. Duvall has said that Fentry is his favorite role, and it’s clear he gave it his whole heart. I cried like a child for 20 minutes after the film ended, so powerfully did his performance affect me.
The film uses a voiceover narration by a man we will later learn is a lawyer named Douglas (Peter Masterson, Horton Foote’s son-in-law), who tries to explain why Fentry is a lone holdout on a jury asked to convict a man for killing a young thug named Buck Thorpe (Dick Dougherty). The film opens up and tells the part of Fentry’s life that led to this impasse. We are taken to a shack at a sawmill where Fentry lives alone, acting as its guard and caretaker while the sawmill sits dormant during the cold, winter months. The essential nature of this bare bones world are shown starkly in black and white, with the ambient sounds of birds accompanying Fentry in his daily routine.
Isham Russell (Richard McConnell), the son of the mill owner, calls in on Fentry just before Christmas. Fentry is getting ready to head down to his father’s (William Hawley) cotton farm for the holiday. The two men wish each other well, and Russell takes off. As Fentry packs a few of his meager belongings, he hears what sounds like a woman crying out. He goes out and toward the sound, and does indeed find a woman prostrate at the bottom of a small rise near the sawmill. She appears to have blacked out or slipped on some snow—probably both in her weakened state. He takes her back to the cabin, where he offers her food and stokes the wood stove to help warm her up.
When she is rested, he learns her name is Sarah Eubanks (Olga Bellin). He asks her where she was going. In a sort of a daze, she tells him she wasn’t really going anywhere. Her husband left her three months before when she told him she was pregnant. Her “people” told her never to come back home after she married Eubanks against their wishes. Realizing she has nowhere to go and no one to look after her, Fentry tells her she can stay with him. When she goes back to sleep, he goes to the grocery in town. He asks how much hard candy 4 cents will buy him; the storekeeper holds up a huge scoopful. He says he’ll take it. Sarah is delighted.
The months pass. Fentry and Sarah have settled into a domestic existence of sorts. They frequently talk about the weather—how nice the sun feels, whether the spring will ever come, whether the rain will ever stop. This is small talk, of course, the talk of strangers thrown together, but it is also very real in a place where the elements have such a bearing on how the day will progress.
Gradually, Sarah’s talk becomes more personal. She quite chatters at times about herself while the reticent Fentry listens, watches, and cooks. Sarah has little interest in food. One day, when the weather has broken, Fentry says that the Russells have promised to build him a house near the mill and asks Sarah if she wants to see the site he’s picked out, the prettiest in the area. They walk there together. The clearing is bordered by white pine trees, a very pretty location, agrees Sarah. Sarah says she always wanted a house like one she saw in Jefferson, with a wraparound porch, oak trees, and flower beds. Her daddy never let her plant flowers or, it seems, showed her any kindness at all. Rather suddenly, Fentry asks Sarah to marry him. She says she can’t because she’s already married. He drops it. But when her time comes, he asks again. This time she accepts and tells him to get the preacher right away. She fears she will die. “She’s played out,” Mrs. Hulie (Sudie Bond), the midwife, tells Fentry after she has helped Sarah deliver a son. Two minutes after they are declared man and wife, Sarah dies, having extracted a promise from Fentry that he will raise her son as if he were his own.
Duvall’s Fentry is a man who speaks infrequently, slowly, and simply. According to the hubby, who lived in the South for many years, his backwoods accent (which Billy Bob Thornton must have ripped off for Sling Blade) is very authentic. His actions are as simple and straightforward as his words. He sees a woman in need, and he takes her in. She says she’s been abandoned and abused, and he is attentive and gentle. She asks him to care for her son, and he does, with all the love he wanted to shower on her. His pure, decent heart so filled with pent-up love finally has a path on which to shine, and when that path is blocked, he still finds a way to nurture the love he’s finally come to know.
Bellin’s Sarah is not nearly as convincing. She does project frailty and anger, but her speeches seem a bit too sophisticated and poetic for the life she’s lived. One day, when Fentry is late coming home, she paces nervously, but it seems more like a pose than actual panic. That said, one scene shows Sarah’s growing tenderness for Fentry. As they sit in front of the wood stove, Sarah takes a safety pin from one of the many tears in the only shirt Fentry ever wears and refastens a split in his sleeve that has fallen open. It’s a completely useless act given how hopeless the shirt is, but it conveys a level of caring and desire for contact that she never really achieves. These small gestures, repeated again and again by the characters—and especially Fentry—build a story of great emotional power. It shows yet again how less is more when it comes to acting.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, bringing a particularity to their characters no matter how little screen time they have. I especially liked Fentry’s father, who shows in one brief scene how much of a real relationship he and Fentry have—angry that Fentry didn’t show up for Christmas, matter-of-factly accepting his explanation that he got married and had a baby, and happy to let Fentry name his son after the generals under which the old man served.
In 1972, Robert Duvall showed just how good an actor he was playing two understated characters. I think he would agree with me that Jackson Fentry is the one for which he really should be remembered.