Rural America in the Movies

Between 1970 and 2008, there were almost 280,000 movies produced around the world that are indexed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Only a few were set in rural America, but some of those films were among the best. For example –

    • “The Last Picture Show” was set in a small west Texas town during the ’50s and followed the coming of age of two friends, played by Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms. It was the 9th highest grossing film of 1971 at $13 million and won best supporting actor and actress Oscars for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.
    • “Deliverance” was the 4th highest grossing film in 1972 at over $22.6 million. The plot pits urban Yuppies – out for adventure on a whitewater river – against rural misfits and sexual deviants. Film scholar Pat Arnow suggests that the movie “is still the greatest incentive for many non-Southerners to stay on the Insterstate.” Anthony Harkins, in his book Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, says “Deliverance” was “the most influential film of the modern era in shaping national perceptions of southern mountaineers and rural life in general.”
  • “Deliverance” spawned a fear of rural life and energized a whole genre of “backwoods horror” films. The basic plot of these films is that urban young people venture out to the country where they’re terrorized and usually killed by deranged rural predators. The genre includes such series as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (beginning in 1973), “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), “Friday the 13th” (1980), and “Children of the Corn” (1984).
  • In 1973, “Paper Moon” traveled through Depression era Kansas with a father-daughter pair of con artists. The film was a nostalgic look at rural life and was the 9th highest grossing film at $16.5 million. Ten-year-old Tatum O’Neil won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role.
  • That same year, “Badlands” portrayed rural Nebraska as the breeding ground of mass murderer Charles Starkweather. The film starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.
  • Sissy Spacek won the best actress Oscar for “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in 1980 portraying country music star Loretta Lynn. The film was the 7th highest grosser at $67 million.
  • “Urban Cowboy” asked the burning question, ‘What’s a girl got to do to find a real cowboy?’ In 1980, Debra Winger played a young Texas woman who hangs out at Gilley’s Bar to find her cowboy. In walks John Travolta, who looks the part but actually works in a refinery. It’s an ironic casting twist from Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever” urban dancer.

In the middle 80s, farmers were in a severe recession. Many were loosing their farms to foreclosure. Hollywood took notice.

    • In 1984, Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek (again) starred in “The River” where the two head a family trying to save their farm by battling bankers and a raging river. In “Country” the brutal banks teamed up with a tornado and bad harvest to threaten the farm of Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange. But the most popular rural film of ’84 was “Footloose” where Kevin Bacon moves from Chicago to an unnamed small town and overturns a ban on rock music and dancing. The film came in at number 7 and grossed over $80 million.
    • In the 1985 film “Witness,” an Amish farm boy visits Philadelphia and sees a murder. Harrison Ford plays a big-city cop who has to protect his witness by trying to fit into the boy’s tight-knit rural community. The movie won Oscars for best original screenplay and film editing. It was the 8th highest grossing film of the year at $68 million.
    • That same year, “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Fandango,” and “Murphy’s Romance” all portrayed rural America as romantic destinations for urban folks.
    • In 1991, “City Slickers” sent Billy Chrystal and his middle-aged buddies to a cattle drive for urban “dudes.” The film was the 5th highest grosser with $124 million. In “Doc Hollywood,” Michael J. Fox played a recently graduated plastic surgeon stranded in Grady, South Carolina. And “Fried Green Tomatoes” took a nostalgic look at the women of Whistle Stop, Alabama.
    • In 1994, “Forrest Gump” was both the highest grossing film (at almost $330 million) and the most honored. It won Oscars for best picture, best director (Robert Zemeckis) and best actor (Tom Hanks). While Forrest wandered all over the world of the 1960s and met important people, he kept running back to his mother’s rural Alabama boarding house.
    • “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) brought Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep to the real Madison County, Iowa, for their romantic interlude.
    • That same year, “Babe” told the story of a pig who wants to be a sheep dog – all in the words of the pig. The Australian film won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy.
    • In 1996, “Twister” tore up both the plains of Oklahoma and the box office. It was the second most popular film with over $241 million grossed. “A Time to Kill” came in 10th with over $108 million grossed. The film focused on racial tensions in the fictional rural town of Clanton, Mississippi.
    • “Fargo” didn’t earn as much in 1996, but this “homespun murder story” set in North Dakota won the Oscars for best original screenplay (for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen) and best actress (Frances McDormand). McDormand plays a local police chief who unravels a murder for hire plot across the blizzard-swept plains.
    • In 1999, Hilary Swank won her first Oscar for best actress for playing a rural Nebraska girl trying to pass as a man in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Swank was actually born in Lincoln, NE, and returned to play the real Teena Brandon who was murdered in 1993 in Falls City.
    • In 2000, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” followed George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson across the South to a soundtrack of classic country music. The film was another Coen brothers rural movie, and produced a Golden Globe best actor award for George Clooney.

  • In 2005, “Walk the Line” was based on the love affair and careers of country music stars Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. The Golden Globe awards named it best picture in the musical or comedy category. Joaquin Phoenix won the Globe as best actor, and Reese Witherspoon won best actress. Johnny Cash was portrayed as a simple rural man battling addictions. The movie didn’t get into the top 10 but it did gross $186.4 million worldwide.
  • “Brokeback Mountain” depicts the complex romantic and sexual relationship between two cowboys from 1963 to ’83. The film won the best picture Golden Globe in 2005 and Oscars for best director (Ang Lee), best adapted screenplay and best original score.
  • In 2007, “No Country for Old Men” won four Oscars for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best directors (the Coen brothers, again) and best supporting actor (Javier Bardem). In the film, rural west Texas in 1980 is the land of botched drug deals and increasing violence.

Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century rural America – according to the Hollywood movies of the time – alternated between a place of nostalgia and terror. Perhaps that’s to be expected since the people involved in producing the movies are virtually 100% urban, from one coast or the other, and with no roots in any rural community.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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