TCM Diary: Faulkner’s Tomorrow
“I can’t help it. I ain’t going to vote Mr. Bookwright free.”
Those words are spoken by Stonewall Jackson Fentry, the lead character in William Faulkner’s short story “Tomorrow,” first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1940. The story starts with a Mr. Bookwright on trial for murdering Buck Thorpe. Since Buck was known by everyone in town as an all-around bad person, nearly the whole jury thinks Mr. Bookwright was justified in his actions and votes to acquit. Fentry, a “little, worn, dried-out hill man,” is the lone holdout, so immovable that the trial ends in a hung jury. Baffled, county attorney Gavin Stevens (who appears in many of Faulkner’s books) and his nephew Chick (who narrates the story) set out into the Mississippi hill country of Yoknapatawpha County, to see if they can get some answers.
In Faulkner’s story, the townsfolk interviewed along the way help us piece together Fentry’s past. Turns out that 20 years before, he married a backwoods woman who had showed up pregnant on his doorstep, on the run from her deadbeat husband and his family. When the woman died shortly after giving birth, Fentry raised the child as his own, until one day the husband’s family took the boy back. That boy grew up to be the aforementioned Buck Thorpe, killed by Mr. Bookwright. Fentry emerges, then, as an unlikely mythic hero—a man capable of unconditional enduring love.
It’s a short little thing, the story, spoken in blunt country voices: “Except maybe it’s like the fellow says, and there ain’t nowhere you can hide from neither lightning nor love.” In 1972, Tomorrow was turned into a film, directed by Joseph Anthony (mainly known for his unprecedented success as a theater director: four simultaneous hits on Broadway) and written by Horton Foote. Robert Duvall stars as Fentry alongside Olga Bellin as “Sarah,” the pregnant woman who is unnamed in the original. Duvall and Bellin had played the roles in a small stage adaptation at HB Studio in New York in 1968. No one who saw the HB Studio production forgot it, including producers Gilbert Pearlman and Paul Roebling, who put up most of the money themselves to make the film. (An earlier adaptation aired on CBS’ Playhouse 90 live series in 1960, with Richard Boone and Kim Stanley; all three versions were written by Foote.)
Where did Tomorrow go? Several critics put it on their Top 10 lists, and considering that 1972 was the year of Cries and Whispers, Cabaret, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Last Tango in Paris, that’s saying something. Not to mention The Godfather, which had upped Robert Duvall’s profile as a movie star just one month earlier. But Tomorrow did not catch on with audiences, and this spooked distributors. The movie barely made a dime, but since then it has found a passionate audience, especially among Duvall fans.
Filming on location in Tupelo, Mississippi and surrounding areas, Anthony and cinematographer Alan Green were inspired by Walker Evans’s photographs of the poverty-struck faces of America’s forgotten. And so they decided to shoot in black and white (another strike against it with distributors). The cast was made up of non-actor locals, except for the leads and two other roles: Foote’s cousin and Actors Studio member Pete Masterson (who would later direct Trip to Bountiful) plays the attorney who opens the film with a rousing closing statement to the jury, and Sudie Bond—she with the unforgettable face—is the midwife who delivers Sarah’s baby in the cabin. James Franks, an actual local preacher, plays the country preacher summoned to marry Fentry and Sarah when she is on her death bed. Franks is a humble and simple presence, with a long beard and dusty clothing, and he (and others) contribute to the film’s documentary-like quality.
One of the first things you notice in Duvall’s performance is the voice: deep and halting, that of a man not used to talking. His accent is thick as tobacco chew. Duvall explained his conception of the character in an interview with David G. Yellin and Marie Connors, who wrote a book about the film: “I once went with my brother to southern Missouri to spend a few days, and went into Arkansas and we met this guy. He didn’t open his mouth until he had something to say; he talked straightforward. He talked like a cow. Fentry was such a guy, a closed guy.” The effectiveness of the performance lies in the silences, its unexpected gentleness, the way he says bluntly: “Marry me, Sarah.” Duvall has said: “I still point to Fentry as my best part.” It was the second role written by Foote that Duvall played, following Boo Radley in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird; their third collaboration, 1983’s Tender Mercies, earned Oscars for both men.
Sarah, as imagined by Foote and actress Bellin, is a weakened woman, running away with nowhere to go. She has a positive, chatty personality, all the more heartbreaking considering her brutal circumstances. Fentry’s promise that he will take care of her child no matter what happens to her is so heart-rending it practically ruptures the delicate fabric of the film. That is the intended effect. Bellin’s performance is more mannered than the rest of the cast, but it reflects Sarah’s persistent attempts to imagine herself into a better world: a house, a garden… She doesn’t ask for much, but even that has been denied her.
With the exception of a few self-consciously dramatic camera angles, and a highly stylized opening sequence showing Mr. Bookwright shooting Buck Thorpe, Tomorrow has a spare no-frills look. You can feel the crunch of frost on the grass, the warmth from the wood stove. The roads are rutted and rocky, the scenery rough, but with its own kind of forbidding beauty. Irwin Stahl composed the simple score, and Anthony made a couple of interesting choices in using it, dropping it out entirely in the final scene. That sequence occurs in total silence. It’s powerful.
The theme of Faulkner’s original story is voiced by Gavin near the end, echoing the famous monologue from Macbeth: “The lowly and invincible of the earth—to endure and endure and then endure, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Faulkner spoke of this concept of the honor of endurance in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance . . . The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Foote said of the challenges of bringing Faulkner to the screen: “I think Hollywood has so often failed with Faulkner because they insisted on improving him, for whatever reasons: trying to make him more palatable, more popular, more commercial. I think it would be well for any dramatist to give up this approach. Faulkner can be dramatized. He can’t be improved.” Presented without condescension, Tomorrow not only stands as a work of unquestioned authenticity, an example of a project where everybody involved worked on it because they loved it, but as that rare film that evokes Faulkner’s voice, his people, his world.
Sheila O’Malley is a regular film critic for Rogerebert.com and other outlets including The Criterion Collection. She wrote the narration (read by Angelina Jolie) for the Gena Rowlands tribute reel played at the 2016 Governors Awards. Her blog is The Sheila Variations.