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HORTON FOOTE by Wilborn Hampton


America’s Storyteller

by Wilborn Hampton

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4165-6640-3
Publisher: Free Press

Fawning biography of playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote (1916–2009).

New York Times theater critic Hampton does little to restrain his admiration as he follows Foote from his birth in small-town Wharton, Texas, to his installation in the playwrights’ pantheon. By the end of his career, Foote earned two Oscars, a Pulitzer, an Emmy and a Tony nomination. Hampton describes Foote’s struggles to make it as an actor, his decision to focus on writing rather than performing (with occasional directing stints), his scripts produced during the “golden age” of 1950s television, his big breaks (especially the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird), his debates with executives in Hollywood (who failed to adequately promote Tender Mercies, even after its Oscar wins), his temporary disappearance in the ’70s (and consequent financial difficulties), his reemergence in the ’90s and his grand end-of-career conception (the nine-play Orphans’ Home Cycle). The author charts Foote’s long and usually happy marriage and keeps track of his children and their myriad failures and successes—most notably, his daughter Hallie, who performed well, Hampton says, in several of her father’s productions. The author occasionally pauses to summarize the plots of Foote’s works and to review what critics thought of them. Here, as elsewhere, Hampton seldom quotes discouraging words but frequently quotes at length any encomiums, most prominently those of Times colleague Frank Rich. Scholars and other curious readers will find this work frustrating. The author cites few sources and includes no notes, and he reproduces, without attribution, verbatim conversations from Foote’s memoirs. In response to a pivotal question—why Foote is often overlooked in comparison to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller—Hampton offers a fairly feeble answer: He was too nice a guy.

More reverential than critical.