From the sweeping High Plains to the fertile Rio Grande Valley, from the Gulf Coast to the Guadalupe Mountains, few states have beguiled the silver screen as Texas has. As the backdrop for such epics as Giant and The Right Stuff and as inspiration for The Alamo and Terms of Endearment, Texas has fostered voice-of-their-generation films like Slacker and Easy Rider, made music with State Fair and Honeysuckle Rose, spawned the rise of indie filmmaking with The Whole Shootin' Match and Slacker, and created cult classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The state stands in a class of its own. And few states can take their premier musician and turn him into a screen presence without peer, like Willie Nelson.
Sounds like a hard sell Chamber of Commerce pitch, doesn't it? Trying to describe Texas' truly unique place in the history of filmmaking is not simply daunting; it's nearly impossible to do effectively and avoid the breathless platitudes. Reining in the gushy talk and trading it for career acknowledgement is the job of the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards gala, now in its 11th year as the premier event honoring the state's endless contributions to the art of cinema.
Uncertainty always lies on the horizon for the arts, dependent on funding and grants, and with the proverbial hard times on the doorstep of many organizations, support for the arts is endangered like never before. That's ironic, according to Evan Smith, who finds that "the general state of Texas filmmaking is strong."
"The chaos and dislocation and roiling change that creates opportunity for smart, entrepreneurial types in other industries has given a whole new generation of filmmakers reason for optimism," says Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune and co-founder of the Texas Film Hall of Fame. "The barriers to entry have been obliterated. Costs have come way down. Technology makes everything possible. And, of course, Texas is still the very best place to make movies."
"The very best place to make movies" may sound like a typical Lone Star brag, but the Texas mythos embedded in the world's consciousness was planted largely through images on the screen.
"Texans not only live by a code of honor but have always acted larger than life, as though not citizens of a state but characters in a moral drama," says Louis Black, Austin Chronicle editor and co-founder of the TFHOF. "What saves them from being simple blowhards is that so many of them are outstanding storytellers as well.
"A great Texas story is usually loaded with characters, features unexpected twists and turns, and is told in a self-deprecating way. Long before film, Texans were conceptual filmmakers, so it is no wonder that so many Texans have proven to be marvelously talented filmmakers, writers, actors, and actresses."
Which is precisely the reason for an annual ceremony to recognize that talent.
"The thing that most surprises me is that people take it for granted at this point," laughs Smith. "'Naturally, there's gonna be a Texas Film Hall of Fame gala this year!' because those of us who've been involved with putting it on start over every year and think, 'How are we gonna pull it off this time?' For the men and women behind the curtain, it's a lot of work."
That sort of work involves months of inquiries and schedule perusal with agents and managers and handlers, and usually some commitment shuffling – several years ago, slated honoree Shirley MacLaine had to drop just weeks before the event. Wrangling Academy Award-winning actress and former Austinite Renée Zellweger for this year's presentation required a master juggler's skill.
Zellweger and actors Rip Torn and John Hawkes will receive awards this year for their acting. Before she stole the world's heart in Jerry Maguire and won an Oscar for Cold Mountain, Zellweger was a student at the University of Texas, taking acting classes and uncredited roles in films like Dazed and Confused. Rip Torn – arguably Texas' finest character actor ever – claims a lengthy résumé from off-Broadway to the big screen (Men in Black, Defending Your Life) to his Emmy-winning role on The Larry Sanders Show. John Hawkes was a familiar face in Austin, performing with Meat Joy in the 1980s, landing memorable bit parts before he scored as Sol Star on HBO's Deadwood and in his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone.
Few film organizations honor the umbilical cord between television and film, yet the TV series Friday Night Lights is in the spotlight. From its film origin to the fierce battle to save the acclaimed series from the ratings axe, Friday Night Lights – with its fifth and final season airing on NBC starting in mid-April – stands for things dear to most Texas hearts: family, friends, and football. Much of the cast is expected to be in attendance as the show receives honors. And expect a few misty eyes as the show's signature call-and-response – "Clear Eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose!" – is murmured.
Another award that distinguishes the TFHOF Awards from like-minded events is its Soundtrack Award. For so many films made in Texas, soundtracks play a major part, branding them with distinctive motifs – think of the haunting "The Green Leaves of Summer" from The Alamo or the hapless suits of Office Space taking revenge on their printer to a rap track or Paris, Texas' lonesome guitar. Past years have honored ZZ Top and Lyle Lovett; this year's choice is Spoon.
Fronted by Britt Daniel with Jim Eno, Rob Pope, and Eric Harvey, the band burst on Austin in the mid-1990s and immediately staked its claim with tough, indie-rock releases such as A Series of Sneaks, Gimme Fiction, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Spoon's distinctive, engaging sound quickly made the band a favorite for soundtracks, and its music was featured prominently in such disparate films as Stranger Than Fiction, Fast Food Nation, Cloverfield, Garden Party, (500) Days of Summer, and 17 Again. Spoon's recordings also found their way into such television series as The Simpsons, Chuck, One Tree Hill, Scrubs, Bones, and Veronica Mars. Around town, the consensus was that Spoon belonged to the world by 2003, when they were picked up by the soundtrack of the short-lived but ultra-hip Fox series The O.C.
TFHOF's cast of presenters is as sterling as the winners, including native Texan and famed columnist Liz Smith and director Jeff Nichols. Smith stepped in as emcee in 2007, following the death of former Gov. Ann Richards, who presided over TFHOF in its early years. This year, actor-comedian and writer for The Daily Show Wyatt Cenac comes to the podium.
To achieve its efforts, the Austin Film Society receives funding and support in part from the city of Austin's Cultural Arts Division, a Texas Commission on the Arts grant, and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to producing the TFHOF Awards, AFS brings star-studded film premieres to Austin, attracts film development and production to the city and state via Austin Studios, offers discerning screenings to its members and the public, provides film-education opportunities for kids, and gives grants to young filmmakers via its essential Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund program. No question the TFHOF is the gem in that crown.
"Beyond that," Evan Smith says, "I think we're all gratified to see that there are tons of worthy honorees we haven't even gotten around to considering at this point. A few naysayers predicted at the beginning that we had, at most, a few years of honorees in us and that was it. Couldn't be further from the truth."
Still, there's a ceremony to put on. Smith's reaction to finishing one show is to begin thinking about the next. "We'll get Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones and Debbie Reynolds before they kick.
"Or before I do."
The Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards take place Thursday, March 10, at Austin Studios, 1901 E. 51st Street. Red carpet arrivals begin at 6pm; presentation at 8pm. See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.
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