Only in the ’70s could Sally Field or Sissy Spacek have become major movie stars. In the fallout from the antiglamour ’60s, all that most audiences asked was that their heroines be plain and true — average angels whose triumphs might seem real. Field and Spacek not only embodied that down-home aesthetic better than most, they worked it hard through the decade and were each eventually rewarded with Oscars: Field for 1979’s Norma Rae and 1984’s Places in the Heart, Spacek for 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.
The ’80s saw the glamour factory resurgent, though. Pfeiffer and Roberts are the names now, and neither of them would look dowdy in a snood. Spacek and Field, meanwhile, have lost their momentum as stars, and their divergent attempts to deal with that situation echo fascinatingly throughout two movies just out on video: Not Without My Daughter and The Long Walk Home.
On the surface, both films fall into the genre these two actresses helped to pioneer: the socially relevant women’s weepie. Both cast their stars as housewives whose sights are set on hubby and kids until the tide of history and the perfidy of menfolk force them to take a moral stand. And both feel much more at home on the small screen than in their brief appearances in theaters. They’re like made-for-TV soapers with a cultural long view: Mildred Pierce as Mother Courage.
The Long Walk Home would seem to be one of those small-scale dramas that’s too Good For You to enjoy, but relax, it’s definitely worth a rental. The quiet, sharp script gives us the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott from the twin perspectives of a wealthy woman and her maid. Miriam Thompson (Spacek) is the genteel lady who lunches, wife of a handsome community leader (Dwight Schultz), and mother of two lovely daughters. Well educated and intentioned, Miriam has taken the broad-mindedness of her circle for granted, but the facades fall as the boycott stretches on and a young preacher named Martin Luther King becomes a focus of inspiration. In this context, a kindness such as Miriam’s driving her maid, Odessa, to her job (so she can honor the boycott without being too exhausted to work) becomes a political act in and of itself. The Long Walk Home is about how Miriam comes to realize that, and what she does about it.
In a way, this is Driving Miss Daisy with Miss Daisy in the front seat. It’s also, yes, another movie that shows the struggle for equal rights through self-congratulatory white eyes. True, Whoopi Goldberg is beautifully low-key as Odessa (she’s as invisible as a black maid in a white household was supposed to be), and the film devotes many scenes to the ways in which Odessa’s family deals with their growing sense of destiny. But this movie is less about how the blacks of Montgomery have to protest than about how Miriam chooses to protest with them.
That said, Spacek is not only very fine in her first film in four years, she pulls off something remarkable: She supplely adjusts her screen image from past-tense leading lady to future-tense character actress. We’re not invited to identify with this chic country-club wife the way we were with Spacek’s Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter or the working-mom whistle-blower in 1985’s Marie. Because Miriam is socially correct down to her pressed white gloves, the depths of her actual human decency surprise her as much as anyone, and the actress leads her character on that interior journey with surgical skill. It’s a miraculously well-judged performance.
Judgment is one quality missing from Not Without My Daughter. The film casts Field as Betty Mahmoody, a Michigan woman who married a westernized Iranian doctor, and is based on the real-life Mahmoody’s account of how she bore his child, then let him talk her into visiting his relatives in Teheran. Once there, however, Moody (Alfred Molina) rediscovered his Muslim roots and decided to stay. When Betty objected, she was allegedly beaten and locked up. Two years later, in 1986, she escaped across the Turkish border with her daughter.
There’s a lot you can make from the bare bones of her story: an escape thriller, or a tale of one woman fighting a patriarchal society. But while Daughter touches on all those aspects, the filmmakers are more interested in cranking up the soap opera and ramming home a repellent little message.
That message is simple: Foreigners are out to get you, and if you think otherwise, you’re a fool. Initially depicted as thoroughly assimilated, Moody transforms into a wild-eyed wife-beater in a week’s time: The inference is that he has been lying in wait all along. Betty is shown as a trusting naif whose eyes are finally opened (”I thought he was an American,” she sobs). We’re given no understanding of Khomeini’s dictatorial regime, no historical context, no glimmer of why a westernized Iranian like Moody might return to fundamentalism. Gazing at another culture, the film sees only the shrill horror of what Betty calls a ”backwards, primitive country,” and that’s an insult to characters and viewers alike.
As for Field, she frets and storms and plots her escape with pluck, and in so doing she endorses Daughter’s xenophobic once-a-fur’ner-always-a-fur’ner sentiments. This from an actress who won her Oscars playing women who fight injustice in the blue-collar trenches. That was then, apparently. The difference between Sally Field’s current approach and Sissy Spacek’s lies in the films themselves. The Long Walk Home is only about racism. Not Without My Daughter embodies it. B+