Murphy’s Romance (Martin Ritt, 1985)

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JUST WHEN YOU THINK YOU’VE FOUND THE RIGHT GUY, SOMEONE EVEN WORSE COMES ALONG.

The last thing Emma Moriarty expected to find in Eunice, Arizona, was love. So how does she wind up the object of MURPHY’S ROMANCE? Sally Field and James Garner star in this endearing comic love story from director Martin Ritt. Field plays a gutsy divorced mother eager to make it as a horse trainer on a small desert ranch. Enter the town’s most eligible widower, Murphy Jones (Garner). The lovable, free-wheeling pharmacist befriends Emma and eventually comes a-courting. But just when Emma may have found the right guy, her ne’er-do-well ex, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), rides back into her life. Which one of these persistent suitors will lasso the reluctant filly? Share the warmth and feel-good humor of Field, Garner and MURPHY’S ROMANCE!

Special Features:

Murphy’s Romance (Martin Ritt, 1985) opens with Emma Moriarty (Sally Field) driving with her 12 year-old son Jake (Corey Haim) through the Southwest in a well-used pick-up truck, the rear bed uncovered and revealing a modest collection of possessions making the trip with them. The image harkens back to the Dust Bowl and the Depression when over a million migrants headed west in search of farm jobs advertised in California. Emma’s journey isn’t quite as desperate or distant but it does mark a lifestyle change and a leap of faith that is not entirely unfitting to the allusion. Perhaps Emma’s poverty is more romantic than it is material. Her destination is Florence, Arizona, and she arrives at a rundown ranch that she and Jake quickly set upon refreshing. Emma is 33 and divorced and has rented the horse farm in hopes of starting over, although money quickly becomes tight without any customers and with the bank refusing a loan on the basis that she has no collateral and no man in her life.

Emma’s salvation is found in more ways than one through Murphy Jones (James Garner), a popular widower in town who runs an old-timey pharmacy/soda fountain, drives a vintage 1928 Studebaker plastered with bumper stickers for various liberal causes, plays fiddle at the Friday night dance, and faces off with city hall over an undesired parking metre outside his business. Friendly, understated, and sufficiently idiosyncratic to remain interesting, Emma take a shine to Murphy and quickly makes friends of him. For his part, Murphy enjoys Emma but not enough to lend her any much needed money. Instead, he buys a horse to keep at Emma’s ranch, turns some more townsfolk Emma’s way, and hires Jake to wash glasses after school. He visits Emma in the hospital after a car accident and sticks around for dinners, card games, hat-fittings, and bingo nights even while Emma’s ex, Bobby Jack Moriarty (Brian Kerwin), arrives and sets himself up in Emma’s home, being tolerated by Emma for the joy his presence brings to Jake. Although the original novella by Max Schott has a different ending, Emma and Murphy’s coupling never seems in much doubt in the film, even with a roll in the hay between Emma and Bobby Jack that gets cut short thanks to a well-timed sneezing fit. Murphy’s Romance is not really about romantic obstacles; it’s about the slow, sensitive progress from friendship to love.

Garner and Field have genuine chemistry in the film. Field has famously cited Garner as her best onscreen kiss. The project began while Field was still riding the success of Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, 1979). Jane Fonda encouraged her over lunch to pursue projects through Field’s production company Fogwood Films, established with her business partner Laura Ziskin. Yet even with Norma Rae‘s writers (Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch) and director (Martin Ritt) on board, Columbia Pictures felt little attraction for project (no “sex or violence”) and even less for James Garner (just a “TV actor”). The studio proposed Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Walter Matthau, and others for the role of Murphy, and Paul Newman declined the role, thwarting a potential reunion with Ritt and the screenwriters and an odd intertextual connection to Hud that would have been fascinating and likely distracting. Garner’s autobiography asserts that Sally Field threatened to abandon the project entirely if Garner wasn’t cast as Murphy. True or not, Columbia succumbed to star pressure and the film got made with Garner co-starring. Talking about Garner, Ritt said, “I think he’s been underrated for a long, long time. An actor needs a vehicle, the right material, the right script, and the right director in order to achieve what he is capable of achieving.” Murphy’s easy, self-assured liberalism is given added authority through the extratextual connection to Garner as a private but politically active celebrity. Garner was a lifelong Democrat, met his wife at an Adlai Stevenson rally, and nearly came to blows with Los Angeles City Councilman Kurt Rundberg in 1964 over the conservation of the Santa Monica Mountains. Garner believed his off-screen life encouraged some to discount his acting, but Murphy’s Romance delivered the 58 year-old actor his only Academy Award nomination.

Murphy’s Romance‘s other Oscar nomination was for William Fraker’s cinematography. Fraker relies heavily on “magic hour” shots around the ranch, particularly of Murphy riding across the range or being invited in for supper by Emma. The effect is impressive, fulfilling Ritt’s desire for a film that looked “good and rich.” Other scenes are helped by location shooting in Florence and on its historically preserved Main Street, giving the film a distinctive character and providing a supportive context for Murphy’s throwback charm. Carole King’s sax and synth heavy score and her theme song, “Love for the Last Time,” provides Murphy’s Romance with its most era-specific hallmarks. Infamously, Ritt’s film initially received an R rating for two instances of profanity, causing the director to launch an emphatic appeal that stated, “In close to thirty years of filmmaking, I have never made an ‘R’ rated film. I have never made an exploitation film. I am quite sure that Murphy’s Romance is one of the more moral films you will see this year. To saddle the film with an ‘R’ rating is, in my opinion, a miscarriage of justice.” Ultimately, Ritt cut one “fuck” of two in the film and got back a PG-13 rating for his trouble.

Ritt’s film is a moral one not merely for its restrained use of the F-bomb. Watched today, Murphy’s romantic pursuit of Emma reads like an old school response to male selfishness, entitlement, and egotism (toxic masculinity to use the parlance of today). While Emma asks Bobby Jack’s “How come you were never as good on your feet as you were between the sheets?”, her relationship develops with Murphy on the solid foundation of mutual respect, one where Murphy treats Emma neither as a conquest (his sexual desires are resolved “out of town”) nor as a female in peril in need of saving (“I’m not a lifeguard, and I don’t put up bail, and I’m not your damn Dutch uncle.”). Murphy is obviously impressed with Emma’s pluck and resolve, and the film becomes a process of observing their admiration transition to love and to Emma processing her situation (unpressured) once Murphy expresses his feelings for her directly. In its way, Murphy’s Romance is too shrewd for the rom-com genre, resisting the crutch of embroidering its romance with the high school immaturities of false denials, thoughtless misunderstandings, or cheap game-playing. Murphy and Emma are too seasoned and too smart to fall into such tired traps. Roger Ebert endorsed the romantic line traced through the film by remarking that “[m]uch depends on exactly what Emma and Murphy say to each other, and how they say it, and what they don’t say. The movie gets it all right.” Murphy’s Romance is a film that is narratively, cinematically, and romantically unhurried, growing and blossoming at its own organic pace, and it’s easy to see the individual contributions of Frank, Ravetch, Ritt, Field, and Garner to such a generous and amiable picture.

Murphy’s Romance deserves to be better known and certainly deserves better than its very dated DVD. Thankfully, the film fits exactly into Shout Select’s wheelhouse: an unheralded Hollywood gem of the 1980s. Field, Garner, and even Corey Haim offer star power to the title as well as an air of nostalgia that defines much of the Shout Select library. Notwithstanding the recent release of When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989), the imprint remains notably slim on romances and romantic comedies and so MMC! is hopeful to one-day see Florence, Arizona in high-definition compliments of Shout Select.

Credits: A rare shout-out to my mom, who counts Murphy’s Romance in her top three favourite watches (along with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) and who was obviously the inspiration for this post.  Happy B-Day, Mom!

Our cover summary is taken from the existing DVD. All thanks to Roger Ebert’s review, TCM’s article, Greg Orypeck’s review for Classic Film Freak, and Ariel Schudson’s post for The New Beverly Cinema’s blog, each of which was essential to this proposal.

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