Tomorrow (1972)

Director: Joseph Anthony

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • Pat spoke:
    8th/04/2008 to 9:12 pm

    I had never heard of this film till it showed up on Turner Classic Movies the other night. I thought about taping, but didn’t get around to it.
    I’ll have to watch for it next time around.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    9th/04/2008 to 10:31 am

    I apologize in advance for not reading your whole review but I stopped after the first paragraph since I have never seen it and really want to. After I see it I’ll come back and read the whole thing. But from the brief intro I read I can’t wait to see it now.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2008 to 10:49 am

    Pat and Jonathan – This is a wonderful film, so I hope you both do get a chance to see it. It is now available on DVD in a new digital transfer, with a commentary track by Duvall and Anthony. It was shot around Tupelo, Miss., so the setting is authentic.

  • Kevin Campbell spoke:
    20th/04/2008 to 2:40 pm

    Thanks for introducing me to this film. I love Duvall as an actor and can’t believe I’d never heard of it. I just put in an order for it. Great review.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/04/2008 to 10:09 pm

    Kevin, You’re welcome. I know you’ll enjoy it. Feel free to stop back and let us know what you thought of it.

  • Pat spoke:
    19th/07/2008 to 5:21 pm

    I saw the movie for the first time last night – Turner Classics. I was so moved. Didn’t remember the name of the movie, so I googled “Jackson & Longstreet” to find the name of it. I think Olga Bellin’s performance was wonderful. By the way, it was late, didn’t want the sound to bother hubby and the dog, so I watched the entire movie on mute and read the words!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/07/2008 to 8:04 pm

    Pat, I’m so glad you liked it. This really is a special film.

  • Lisa spoke:
    19th/07/2008 to 11:54 pm

    I also saw the movie for the first time on Turner Movie Classics the other night. It was so stark and simple, so compelling, I had to watch it even though I had no idea what the movie was called. Duvall’s character just drew me in. Spectacular. I now have to go find the book and read it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/07/2008 to 10:46 am

    Nice to hear how affected you were, Lisa. There was an uptick of interest in this film the past few days, so I’m assuming some of you may have seen the link to this review. This is why I do what I do, so that people can discover the way I did some great, unheralded films that tell us who we are.

  • janejane spoke:
    21st/01/2010 to 7:14 pm

    ………
    This is one of my favorite Duvall performances — have seen it a few times. He’s just incredible as Jackson Fentry. Brilliantly stark and unadorned, yet a deeply soulful character, perfectly played.
    I have a feeling Heath Ledger was very aware of Duvall’s performance and applied a semblance of it for Brokeback Mountain.
    One small thing, Fentry said he wasn’t lonely when he was asked early on in the film.
    On the court case, wasn’t Fentry the dissenting vote to render the accused innocent? Or is that what you were saying?
    This was sort of like a filmed theater play.
    I agree with you 100% on Olga Bellin’s performance. Great write-up on this film. Thank you.
    ………

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