Best Movies by Farr: More Sam Shepard

August 24, 2009 | John Farr

Get your Sam Shepard fix from these recommendations:

Days of Heaven (1978)


After fatally injuring his boss in a fit of rage, Chicago steelworker Bill (Richard Gere) flees to Texas in 1916 with girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister, Linda (Linda Manz), where the three find work laboring with other migrants in the lush wheat fields of a lonely, ailing landowner (Sam Shepard). When the handsome farmer falls for Abby, who’s posing as Bill’s other sister, Bill devises a simple, deceitful plan to lift them out of destitution.


Hailed for his poetic debut “Badlands,” Malick returned five years later with a film every bit as innovative and dreamlike. As adversaries in love with the same woman, the male leads are outstanding, with Gere’s intensity blazing from his eyes and Shepard’s brooding, wary farmer matching him for sheer charisma. Narrated by Bill’s jaded, uneducated sibling, Malick’s film employs an elliptical storytelling technique, but is filled with so many arresting images of pastoral beauty that you never care. With a harrowing, cathartic sequence involving a plague of insects, “Heaven” is a cinematic masterpiece of Southern gothic romance.

The Right Stuff (1983)


After pilot Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shepard) conquers psychological demons to break the sound barrier in 1947, N.A.S.A. recruits the hardiest group of fearless pilots it can find to spearhead its space-race program. Ill-fated Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) and squeaky clean John Glenn (Ed Harris) are the first to attempt an orbit of the Earth, but not without danger and dire frustrations, both at home and in the eyes of the public, as the Russians edge closer to the same goal. Eventually, four men, including wild-at-heart flyboy Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), are selected for the Mercury program and groomed for success.


Adapted from the book by Tom Wolfe, this dynamic, three-hour history lesson recounts the formation of America’s space program through the stories of the daredevils recruited to do the impossible, and “punch a hole in the sky.” Apart from assembling a top-grade cast (Quaid and Harris are marvelous in breakout roles), Kaufman melds testosterone-fueled adventure with poignant family drama, sci-fi with broad All-American slapstick, even nodding to John Ford Westerns in staging cowboy pilot Chuck Yaeger’s breaking of the sound barrier in the California desert. “The Right Stuff” soars as it tracks seven unlikely heroes on a thrilling journey into a brand new era: the Space Age.

This So-Called Disaster (2003)


This intriguing film provides an astonishingly intimate glimpse into the intense rehearsals leading up to the 2000 San Francisco production of “The Late Henry Moss,” a play written and directed by Sam Shepard, based partly on the author’s recollections of his own alcoholic father. From initial readings to opening night, we follow the stellar cast, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin, through a remarkable process of preparation.


“Moss” is a dark, demanding piece, so the rehearsals director Michael Almereyda respectfully captures in “Disaster” are draining for all concerned. What transfixed this fly on the wall was how directors and actors adopt their own language in rehearsing a play–one virtually unintelligible to the layman, but to trained professionals, a pure dialect pinpointing emotion and motivation. “Disaster” is an absolute must for anyone interested in the inner workings of acting and the theatre.

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