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Horton Foote's Alone
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Horton Foote's Alone
Review by JMW

This was originally a Showtime movie, and renowned playwright Horton Foote wrote the screenplay. It's apparently an original screenplay, as it doesn't reference being an adaptation of one of Mr. Foote's plays. (For those unfamiliar with his work, in addition to his numerous plays, he is also known as the screenwriter of the classic movie To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from Harper Lee's novel.) However, it is typical of his plays in that it focuses on the actions and interactions of a family in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas at a time when family relationships are under strain.

As the story opens we meet John Webb (Hume Cronyn), visiting his lawyer about the probate of a will. Webb, we find out, is a man at a crossroads. He has been a relatively successful farmer, but farming is not as profitable as it once was, and he's struggling. After 52 years of marriage he is now recently widowed, his children and their families now live in Houston and his friends have all left or are leaving the area. The only family he has nearby are the children and grandchildren of his brother, who has been dead for ten years at the time of this story. On a visit to his daughters in Houston, Webb finds out that both their families are in difficulties. One daughter has problems with children flunking out of college, and the other, whose children have already left home and settled down in other cities, is terrified that her husband will eventually be caught in the rounds of layoffs happening at his job.

Into this set of circumstances comes a representative of an oil company with an offer to lease mineral rights that both families share on property Webb owns. The nephews see this as a godsend to get them out of financial problems, and try to use guilt to get him to agree to the first offer rather than negotiate for a better one -- because THEY need money right away. The impression that comes though is that they had no use for the uncle until there was money in the offing, and with the money as bait they will cling to him like leeches until they get all they can.

Once the oil company puts their well in, and starts drilling, the pattern continues. The nephews spend all their money, convinced that there will be more when (not if) oil is discovered on the land. Meanwhile, Webb confides to his friend, Grey (James Earl Jones) that each of his daughters independently came to him and asked that he give the OTHER their portion of the money now (rather than wait for an inheritance), as that sister and her family needs it more than she herself does.

By this time, the one daughter, -- and her husband Peter (Selby) -- are living with Webb at his farm. The downsizing at Peter's job had, as his wife had feared, finally caught up with him, eventually costing them their home and their car and forcing them to leave Houston and accept Webb's offer for them to live with him on the farm. Selby's role is relatively small, yet pivotal, and he does his usual workmanlike job of breathing life into a character. His Peter is a good man who has done well in providing for himself and his family for most of his life. By his own self-deprecating admission, they lived perhaps better than they should have. But now the same circumstances that have turned farming into a hand to mouth business have affected the business he worked for, and after close calls in a few rounds of layoffs he too finds himself without a job. The situation he finds himself in is even more common now than it was ten years ago: a lifelong employee of a company finds himself, in middle age, without a job and, despite every effort, all he is offered are jobs where the salaries are not even a fraction of what he made, much less what his skills and abilities are worth. Selby does an excellent job of showing us the damage this does to the self worth of a proud and independent man who wants nothing more than to provide decently for his family, yet finds at every turn that a lifetime of skills and experience are considered worthless in this new job market. Yet, unlike the cousins, he doesn't sit around waiting to count his money when the oil well comes in. He continues to make every effort to find work, and while doing so he works his father in law's farm, despite it being work he is not used to and doesn't care for. Finally he finds a job he can live with, though not an ideal one, and he and his wife move back to Houston.

Eventually the well comes in, but there is nothing but salt water found, and everyone is forced to give up their dreams of wealth. Each member of the family takes this true to character: the nephews carry on and complain about the money being spent already, and how badly off they will be without the oil well money. Webb and his family take it philosophically. He is not much worse off than he was originally, and at least now he has a new tractor to show for it, and no debt until the next planting season.

Needless to say, this work is extremely character driven, and fortunately was given an excellent cast to support this. The writing is excellent, with true to life experiences and dialog throughout. The cast list includes many respected character actors, even in small support roles.

Hume Cronyn's body of work speaks for itself, and his John Webb is one more finely drawn and detailed character in a long career. Webb is the lynchpin on which the work depends ; without an actor who could completely sell the role and the character's motivations and interactions with other characters, the entire work would be weakened. Character support is also supplied by: James Earl Jones (Grey), Frederick Forrest (Carl, one of the nephews), Shelly Duval (Estelle, Carl's wife), Joanna Miles (Jacqueline, Paul's wife and Webb's daughter) Ed Begley Jr. (Gerald, Webb's other son in law) and Piper Laurie as Lillie Dawson.

On a final note, a bit of trivia that anyone who reads this site should appreciate is that Horton Foote also wrote the play The Man From Atlanta, which Selby did through LA Theaterworks. I hope to have a review of that play up on the site sometime in the next few months.

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