The Stars Fell on Henrietta

Friday September 15, 1995

     For a little picture like "The Stars Fell on Henrietta" to get made, powerful people have to fall in love with it. And although a good number did, including Robert Duvall, who gives the kind of deft performance that has become his trademark, it wasn't enough to raise this film out of the realm of the ordinary.
     Both first-time screenwriter Philip Railsback and director James Keach had grandfathers who were Texas oil wildcatters during the 1930s, and they conceived "Henrietta" as homage to a class of men they felt deserved more appreciation.
     Clint Eastwood shared their enthusiasm, and when he signed on as co-producer and agreed to make the film under his Malpaso banner, a lot of pieces fell into place. Among the Eastwood regulars on the production team are co-producer David Valdes, cinematographer Bruce Surtees, production designer Henry Bumstead and editor Joel Cox. And acting roles were given to Eastwood's former companion Frances Fisher (memorable in "Unforgiven") and their young daughter, Francesca Ruth Eastwood.
     Although everyone involved does solid work, "Henrietta's" story does not finally seem worthy of so much attention. Slow and obvious, with a tendency to mistake unpleasantness for reality, it is worth seeing only for Duvall's memorable performance, yet another notch in his world championship belt, character acting division.
     Duvall plays Mr. Cox, "not duke, not lord, just Mr. Cox," a veteran wildcatter who wanders through 1935 Texas accompanied by his cat, Matilda, and a dark cloud that signifies misfortune, not oil. Although Cox prefers to say, "I've had my ups and downs," no one else can remember any of the ups.
     An eccentric hunchmeister who believes he can both hear and smell oil underground, Cox is a man of steely determination with the air of a devilish Mr. Scratch about him. With his bow tie, bowler hat and sparse goatee, he materializes like a cantankerous leprechaun on the farm Don Day (Aidan Quinn) owns with his wife, Cora (Fisher), just outside of Henrietta.
     With three children and a dog to support and a hefty mortgage on his land, Day is not exactly in a supportive mood when Cox announces that he smells oil on the homestead and needs $5,000 to bring it to the surface.
     Although the eventual outcome of this hunch is not much in doubt, time does have to be filled up, and Railsback's script splits the story line into two lackluster segments. Cox retreats to the metropolis of Big Stone, determined to get the drilling money any way he can, and Day, left to himself, finds that he's been so infected by the oil virus that he's willing to risk his marriage to get a well into the ground.
     With the intention of giving "Henrietta" a bittersweet quality, both of these subplots have been peopled by noticeably sour-tempered individuals. But given the film's generally uninspired level of storytelling, all that accomplishes is to make the proceedings more unpleasant than they need to be.
     Duvall's performance, however, is frankly on a different level than anything else in the film, so assured that even Matilda the cat can't steal a single scene. With his innate ability to create people whole, to make his familiar mannerisms and gestures work effectively in every situation, Duvall is an actor to wonder at. Although it is not within his power to save the picture, if you collect memorable performances "The Stars Fell on Henrietta" is worth a visit.

The Stars Fell on Henrietta, 1995. PG, some violence and language. A Malpaso production, released by Warner Bros. Director James Keach. Producers Clint Eastwood, David Valdes. Screenplay Philip Railsback. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Editor Joel Cox. Costumes Van Broughton Ramsey. Music David Benoit. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack G. Taylor, Jr. Set decorator Alan Hicks. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Robert Duvall as Mr. Cox. Aidan Quinn as Don Day. Frances Fisher as Cora Day. Brian Dennehy as Big Dave.

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