What happened "On Valentine's Day," 1916, in Horton Foote's gently unfolding saga (at Plitt Century Plaza) of four generations of an enduring Texas family? On the surface, a small event. In the shaping of a family, a milestone.
Foote's screenplays have a distinctive stamp: They are small-scaled, regional, quiet; they speak about values and strengths of an earlier time, firmly and without sentimentality, as if to fix them carefully in our memory. His current series is an elegy to deep-rooted families; it is as revivifying as a long, deep drink from a cool well. You have to be prepared to step back from the frazzling pace of today's movies into a quieter time, a less frenzied manner of storytelling.
Valentine's Day marked an elopement. A rebellion. An act of courage and steadfast faith. Sheer folly. Depends on which member of the Vaughn family of Harrison, Tex., you talk to.
Speak to 27-year-old Horace Robedaux, deeply in love with his wife, and you find that Valentine's Day--their wedding day--was the point at which he began to know happiness. To his wife, 24-year-old Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux, it marked an astonishing step of defiance of her parents' will, taken quietly but firmly.
To Elizabeth's watchful 17-year-old brother (Matthew Broderick), a dedicated but innocent-looking hell-raiser known to everyone as "Brother," Valentine's Day meant an act of delicious sedition, maybe one worth copying.
And to Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn, who probably use that formality even in the privacy of their bedroom, this marriage by their privileged daughter to a penniless nobody is an act of excommunication from the bosom of the family. It's barely tempered now at Christmastime with the news that Elizabeth will present them with their first grandchild in early summer.
"On Valentine's Day" is part of Foote's cycle of nine plays called "An Orphans' Home," based on material from the playwright's family in Wharton, Tex. The film versions are coming to the screen out of chronological order. Two years ago we had "1918" (also directed by Ken Harrison), in which we met Horace (William Converse-Roberts) and Elizabeth (Hallie Foote), their neighbors and their family.
In that film, the Robedauxes coped with the unspeakable tragedy of the death of their young daughter during the deadly influenza epidemic of that year. (Those who saw "1918" will realize mournfully that it's this baby--as yet unborn--whose death is one of the central points of "1918.")
The cycle is picking up dramatically. Foote draws precisely and unhurriedly; the hand that shaped such other Southern-based dramas as "The Trip to Bountiful," "Tender Mercies" and the adaptations of "Tomorrow" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" works in long, lyrical arcs and cannot be jostled into today's movie shorthand. In a production in which an accumulation of physical detail is as much a part of the story as the characters, Foote takes the long route home. But in among the gossiping pleasantries and discreet reconciliations of "On Valentine's Day" is a jagged lightning bolt, a character and a performance so dangerous that they rivet our attention: Steven Hill, as the intermittently mad George Tyler.
There was probably a Tyler in every small town, someone called "a character," or "harmless." Because George Tyler is one of the town's richest men and because his son looks out for him devotedly, he has escaped confinement, even after the incident when he menaced his wife with a butcher knife. But as the film unfolds, Tyler's confusion and desperation escalate. Because of their warmth toward him, Tyler considers the gentle Elizabeth and Horace his friends; his visits become more frequent. And with every visit we worry that some irreparable harm will come to this fine, struggling young couple.
In a true ensemble like this, it's almost bad form to suggest that one performance is a tour de force, particularly when Hill goes about his work so self-effacingly. But it is just that. Without mannerisms or glittering eyes, Tyler simply slips back and forth from geniality to menace; his gentle movements become sharp, urgent, then polite again; his interior world becomes more demanding. If this performance were on the stage it would become one of those "great moments" that theatergoers reminisce about years later; on film, in a "small" movie, it may go unnoticed--but it shouldn't.
"On Valentine's Day" is full of first-rate work: George Tirl's eloquent cinematography; the costumes of Van Broughton Ramsey and Howard Cummings' art direction; individual performances by Converse-Roberts as the splendid Horace and Foote as Elizabeth (actually, her own grandmother); Broderick's sly, uncontrolled Brother; Richard Jenkins as the lost, drunken Bobby, and Jeanne McCarthy as the naive, omnipresent Bessie. There's a lot of humor in "On Valentine's Day," and young McCarthy's round-eyed sang-froid has a lot to do with it.