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The Religious Affiliation of Academy Award-winning Screenwriter
Horton Foote


Screenwriter Horton Foote was raised in a Methodist family in a small, deeply religious town in Texas. As an adult, Foote become converted to Christian Science and remained a devout Christian Scientist.

Horton Foote was an acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter. He received Academy Awards for his screenplays for Tender Mercies (1983) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, based on the novel by Harper Lee). His screenplay for The Trip to Bountiful (1985), which was based on his own play, was nominated for an Academy Award. The Trip to Bountiful was produced by acclaimed Latter-day Saint filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen (who also produced Foote's screenplay Convicts). All three of these movies convey deeply Christian themes and values. In fact, this can be said of essentially all of Foote's films - a remarkable and unusual accomplishment for somebody who worked entirely in the secular, Hollywood market.

From: James M. Wall, "Home, family, religion - screenwriter Horton Foote - Interview", published in Christian Century, 19 Februeary 1997 (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n6_v114/ai_19174185; viewed 24 October 2005):

EVERYONE WANTS to know if 81-year-old Horton Foote is related to Shelby Foote, the gravel-voiced historian who graced Ken Burns's television series on the Civil War. So when I had the chance to visit with Foote I asked him about it. Yes, he answered, the two Footes are third cousins; their great-grandfathers were brothers. "And while we didn't grow up together, we have become friends; I was the voice of Jefferson Davis in that TV series," he added proudly.

The Foote cousins also share a writing talent. Horton has earned two Academy Awards for screenplays (for Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird), and in 1995 won a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta. The production of that play brought him to Chicago, where it will run until its New York opening in March.

Like all his plays, Young Man is drawn from family stories. Foote's much-acclaimed Orphans' Home Cycle includes nine plays, the first of which begins in 1902 with the death of his real-life paternal grandfather and the remarriage of his grandmother. The cycle ends with The Death of Papa, in which a nine-year-old Horton (called Horace Robedaux Jr. in the play) experiences the loss of another grandfather. (Foote does not consider The Young Man from Atlanta, which features characters drawn from an aunt and uncle, as part of his Orphans cycle. "That series has ended; it was about my father's search for a home.")

About the cycle, Foote has written: "The time of the plays is a harsh time. They begin in 1902, a time of far-reaching social and economic change in Texas. The aftermath of Reconstruction and its passions had brought about a white man's union to prevent blacks from voting in local and state elections. But in spite of political and social acts to hold onto the past, a way of life was over, and the practical, the pragmatic were scrambling to form a new economic order."

Foote began to write the cycle of plays in 1974, the year of his mother's death. His father had died the previous year "in the very room and on the bed my brothers had been born in." Foote later bought his parents' home in Wharton, Texas (called Harrison in the plays), and continues to live there. After sorting through his parents' letters and personal papers, Foote began writing plays that tell the story of his parents' lives and "the world of the town that had surrounded them from birth to death." Reynolds Price has said that Foote's family saga "will take its rightful place near the center of our largest American dramatic achievements."

Foote was raised as a Methodist in Wharton (population 3,000, "half white, half black"), where religion was so much a part of the culture that it wasn't at all unusual for a minister to greet a newcomer with the question, "Where were you baptized, Mr. Sledge?"--which is a scene in Tender Mercies. That 1983 film stars Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge, an alcoholic country singer whose life is turned around when he marries a young widow who sings in the Baptist choir. The movie offers a rarity in contemporary film: when Mac is baptized, along with his young stepson, the Baptist immersion is treated respectfully.

Foote, who left Texas at age 17 and who has lived in New York, New Hampshire and California, remains a a southern writer whose work is saturated with religion. When pressed on the topic, however, he worries that he might be accused of what he calls, nervously, "proselytizing." He need not worry; his writing does not proselytize, but it does reveal the integral, inescapable role religion plays in his characters' lives.

He delights in telling interviewers about how a young Texas boy who had never before seen a stage play launched a career as an actor, and then later became a writer of plays and of television and movie scripts: "When I was about nine or ten, there was this gray-haired, dignified man we would see walking along the sidewalk. My parents would tell me, in awed tones, after he passed us, that Mr. Armstrong had been working in the cotton fields of Mississippi, when he got a call to come to Texas to preach. And I really was fascinated by that call. My mother told me that he was a Baptist minister, but Methodists and Episcopalians could also get calls. My father, who wasn't very religious, told me that preachers didn't make much money. I think he was afraid I might get the call to preach.

"Then, when I was 11 years old, I got a call just as distinct as Mr. Armstrong's, but my call was to be an actor. And I never veered from that, until I began writing and only then did I stop acting."

The "call" that sent young Horton off to Broadway provides one of those nice ironies that so often occur in a Foote script. And there may also be a bit of irony in the fact that a boy raised in bedrock Protestantism left the Methodist Church and as an adult converted to Christian Science--a faith little known in the Texas of his childhood, but one he faithfully follows.

Asked by the Christian Science Monitor how his work deals with "the questions of goodness and 'the things which are not seen,"' Foote responded, "I'm rather wary of any stated thesis like that or of any sense of proselytizing. As an artist, as a writer, I don't consciously do that. I watch and I observe and I try to be as objective and truthful as I can to the human condition I see around me."

He succeeds in this assignment through his use of understated dialogue--exchanges described as "slow" by one Chicago critic. These polite conversations both cover and reveal deep pain and frustration, laced with longing and hope. A more positive assessment of Foote's style comes from New York Post critic Jerry Tallmer, who points to Foote's use of "dry irony which can sketch character in a line." For example, one of his noncycle plays, Talking Pictures, contains this exchange between Katie and Myra:

Katie: "Willis says you're not going to Hell if you go to the picture shows."

Myra: "I wasn't worried. Thank you anyway, Willis, for telling me.

The Protestant tradition (of Methodists, Baptists and "a few Episcopalians") which was such a force in Foote's childhood is always present in the background of his characters. Always, too, there is concern for why some people are able to cope with adversity and others cannot. Foote told one interviewer: "The earliest thing that I remember being puzzled by as a child was that kind of mystery.... I've never been able to explain it.... I think that there's something essential that you can't explain.... That's certainly what I'm trying to explore. And that remains a mystery to me."

Foote has said that his plays are about "dislocation, sibling rivalries, elopements, family estrangements, family reconciliations, and all the minutiae that make family life at once so interesting and yet at times so burdening." His writing is deceptively simple, filled with quiet exchanges between people who desperately went to understand what is happening to them but are constantly confronted by loss and suffering over which they have no final control.

Religion does not provide answers for Foote, but it-does provide a context with which to struggle with mystery. His dialogue and narratives move his characters through sudden turns of fortune--the death of a parent or husband, the loss of a job--while in the background is southern Protestant culture, portrayed through the cliches of the community and the poetry of the gospel songs and romantic ballads he heard while sitting on the front porch in Wharton. Music is prominent in his plays, and it evokes the longing, sadness and hope of Foote's religious tradition.

Some Foote characters embrace religion, others resist it vigorously, but it is always there. Lily Dale Kidder, for example, in The Young Man from Atlanta turns to religion with considerable intensity after the death of her 37-year-old son, who drowns under mysterious circumstances. When I asked Foote about Lily Dale's faith, he said, "I don't know if I understand totally her religion; I tried to understand it. I do know that after the death of her son, it became a life force for her. She was always religious, but after his death, she became almost obsessional about it. This is very understandable. She gives up everything and begins a deep study of the Bible."

In Young Man Will Kidder loses his job at age 63, summarily fired by the son of the man with whom Kidder' had started a produce supply company. The ever-present anxiety inherent in the economic insecurity of an adult who lived through the Depression is vividly portrayed. Will buys Lily Dale a house and new car in an effort to assuage her grief over the death of their son, but when he loses his job he is forced to turn to her for a loan. This is humiliating for a man whose entire life has been a quest for financial security and to provide for his family. It is painful to witness his disintegration as the play progresses, and it becomes apparent that Lily Dale may have been conned out of her money by the young man from Atlanta, who may or may not have been a close friend of their son.

I reminded Foote of the scene in Tender Mercies in which Mac Sledge, his life finally stable, married, with a young stepson he loves and a song writing career back on track, loses his daughter in an automobile accident. Poking the ground of his garden, trying to get his emotions under control, Mac asks his wife, 'Why did she have to die?" Then he adds, "I never trusted happiness; I never have, and I never will." Then Mac goes across the road and starts playing catch with his son--still living with his grief, but somehow moving forward.

About that scene, Foote commented, "We all have this great fear that if we are given something nice, it is going to be taken away." But Mac's despair, Foote said, "is only a momentary thing; if one deeply believed [in such despair] all the time one couldn't get out of bed in the morning. I think, on the contrary, there is this sense of mending, of healing [in the film]."

Foote has his own way of coping with what he calls "life's vicissitudes." Foote has just completed work on a screenplay for Alone, a movie produced for Showtime about a man whose wife has just died. Foote wrote the screenplay after "meditating" on the death of his own wife three years ago. The writer whom Public Television's Jim Lehrer describes as "a national treasure" continues to create stories of suffering and hope. Why does he do it? "I guess I finally, deeply inside myself, do feel that in spite of all ; the chaos around us, there's an awful lot to celebrate in human beings."

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Webpage created 24 October 2005. Last modified 24 October 2005.
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