Friday, December 30, 2022

#2,887. Love Field (1992) - Jonathan Kaplan Triple Feature


November 22, 1963. Dallas area hairstylist Lurene Hallett (Michelle Pfeiffer), accompanied by her wheelchair-bound neighbor Mrs. Heisenbuttel (Peggy Rae), heads to the airport to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, who are visiting for the day. Lurene, who delivered a stillborn baby not too long ago, feels a special bond with the First Lady, who also lost a child.

While driving home from the airport, Lurene notices a crowd has gathered around a television set in a shop window. Then, a few police cars race past her. Sensing something terrible has happened, Lurene pulls over to investigate, only to learn that her beloved President has been gunned down, and is dead.

Distraught, Lurene announces to her husband Ray (Brian Kerwin) that she plans to travel to Washington D.C. to attend the President’s funeral. Ray forbids it, and tells Lurene in no uncertain terms that she is to stay home and get on with her life. Angry and determined, Lurene packs a bag and sneaks out that night, hopping a bus headed north.

While on the road, Lurene strikes up a conversation with Paul Cater (Dennis Haysbert), an African American who is traveling with his mute daughter Jonell (Stephanie McFadden). Mistaking Paul’s secrecy and Jonell’s failure to talk, along with some bruises on the young girl’s body, as a sign the she has been taken against her will, Lurene sneaks into a rest stop pay phone and alerts the FBI.

But the truth is very different.

Paul is, indeed, Jonell’s father, and has been living in Philadelphia. After her mother died, Jonell was placed in an orphanage, where she was abused. To save his daughter from a very bad situation, Paul snuck Jonell out and intends to bring her north with him, where she has a chance at a better life.

Regretting her actions, Lurene agrees to accompany Paul (who now had to steal a car to get back on the road) as far as Washington D.C., doing what she can to help them dodge the Feds (who are hot on their trail) before hopping out to attend the President’s funeral.

During their journey, Lurene’s and Paul’s eyes will be opened to the realities of life in 1960’s America, as well as the possibility there might be something more out there for both of them

The opening scenes of Jonathan Kaplan’s Love Field center on the Kennedys’ arrival in Dallas and the President’s subsequent assassination, and get the movie off to a dramatic start. The scene where Lurene discovers what has happened is one of the film’s most poignant, and is handled to perfection by Pfeififer, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance here.

Love Field also shines a light on bigotry, with Lurene, who up to that point believed President Kennedy had improved things for African Americans, realizing not much has changed after all. At the first rest stop, Jonell needs to use the bathroom, only to find the “colored” toilet is out of service (it’s the only one blocked off). Later, as the three drive the highways of the south, Paul will incur the wrath of a truckful of rednecks, who want to know why he’s traveling with a white woman.

Yet, at its heart, Love Field is neither an account of an American tragedy or an exposè on the injustices of racism. Both are there for the taking, and are presented quite well by director Kaplan, screenwriter Don Roos, and the film’s fine cast. But this is a love story, in which two people from very different backgrounds find each other, and under extreme circumstances fall in love.

In one very memorable scene, Lurene, Paul, and Jonell are hiding out at the house of Mrs. Enright (Louise Latham), the mother of Lurene’s boss. A police car approaches, and the cop asks Lurene (who went out to meet him) if she has seen Paul. As Paul is hiding in an upstairs bedroom, he hears Lurene tell the officer she has not seen him, then uses a racial slur to further throw the police off the trail.

Hearing Lurene use this word is shocking for the audience. Her racism up to that point stemmed more from ignorance, and the mistaken belief things have improved for African Americans.

As shocking as it was for us to hear Lurene say this word, it was doubly so for Paul. During the journey, he experienced racism and hatred at nearly every turn, yet never protested or fought back, so that he could get his daughter to safety without drawing attention. Yet he reacts angrily to Lurene’s slur, and announces he is taking his daughter and leaving. It’s clear at this point he couldn’t care less what the rest of the world thinks, but to hear Lurene, who he has grown to care for, talk that way has hurt him.

But here’s the thing: he knew why she did it! She said it to get them out of a jam. Paul realizes that, yet cannot hide his heartbreak. It’s a clear sign that a deeper relationship has developed between the two than either of them realized.

Much like 2002’s Far from Heaven (which also featured Dennis Haysbert as Julianne Moore’s eventual romantic interest), Love Field tells a tale of love across racial lines, and during one of the most chaotic periods of American history. Thanks to the fine work of all involved, it does so wonderfully.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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