Saturday Night Rom-Com: 'Murphy's Romance'

Post by: Rick Ellis 07 August, 2021

There is a generation of male actors that became stars in the 60s and 70s that have a certain something that you just don't see in today's male actors. It's a strain of masculinty that comes from having lived a hard life before audiences ever saw them for the first time. Men who grew up in tough childhoods, served in the military and whose road to stardom was as much a surprise to them as it was to the world at large.

James Garner was one of those actors. He's probably best known to most modern audiences for his starring role in The Rockford Files, which seems to be streaming everywhere in 2021. Watching him in that show, it's hard to imagine how someone could reboot the series today. What modern actor in 2021 could bring the attitude he did to the role? He's masculine, capable of violence but not searching for it. He loves women but also is respectful of their intelligence and sees them as fully-rounded people. He's comfortable with being gentle or vulnerable when he needs to be. He's loyal to his family and friends. When things go wrong for you, Jim Rockford is the guy whose number you want on speeddial.

The role was seemingly so perfect for Garner that I suspect Jim Rockford is the way that most audiences think of James Garner. Which is all well and good, but it complicated things when the show ended in 1980. Two years later, Garner took the role of King Marchand in Victor/Victoria and it's fair to say that role was as far away from Jim Rockford as you can imagine. But the movie (and Garner) were a hit and you would think that might have opened up roles for him. Garner had been a very successful film actor before The Rockford Files and thanks to both his TV success and a long-running series of commercials with Mariette Hartley, he had a huge fanbase.

But when it came to being cast in 1985's Murphy's Romance, he had to fight to get the role. Columbia Pictures didn't want to make the movie at all, because they worried that there wasn't any sex or violence. They eventually greenlit the project, primarily because Sally Field had previously worked with director Martin Ritt on the hit 1979 film Norma Rae. According to press reports at the time, Paul Newman was originally the favorite for male lead, in part because he has successfully worked with Field on the 1981 film Absence Of Malice. But when Newman turned it down, Field and Ritt then argued with the studio to approve Garner. But executives argued Garner was primarily seen as a "TV actor." In the end, Columbia agreed, reportedly after Garner and Field agreed to a sequence in the film where they mention drinking Coke, the company that owned Columbia at the time.

In Murphy's Romance, Field plays Emma Moriarty, a 33-year-old divorced mom who moves to a rural town in Arizona to make a living as a horse trainer. Garner plays the town's pharmacist, Murphy Jones, and despite their age difference, a chemistry develops between them. But Emma admits she is a mess and any romance seems out of the question when her somewhat shiftless ex-husband Bobby Jack Moriarty (Brian Kerwin) moves in with her and their 12-year-old son Jake (played buy Corey Haim).

The description of this movie doesn't give it nearly enough credit. There are so many ways this film could have been a disaster. Every element of the movie has to be just perfect in order for it not to be a slightly creepy disaster. And in fact, I can't imagine having a movie in 2021 that features a man having a romance with a woman half of his age without there being an extinction-level response on social media.

But it's a testament to the skill and chemistry of Garner and Field that you never feel that way as the movie unfolds. It's just this amazing love story that reveals itself in the way a lot of true life love stories do: it's messy, unpredictable and difficult to define. But you know it's real as sure as you know your own name.

If you are a fan of James Garner in The Rockford Files, you will love this film. It's a familiar Garner, working opposite an actress in Sally Field who was probably doing the best work of anyone in Hollywood in the late 1970s and 1980s. Garner received the only Academy Award nomination in his career for the movie and it's a shame it's not streaming anywhere, because Murphy's Romance is one of those movies that should be on the "must-watch" list of anyone who loves a good romantic comedy.

Besides, there is Sally Field, who I admit that I have adored my entire life.

Murphy's Romance is available for rent at all of the familiar digital movie platforms.

Last modified on Saturday, 07 August 2021 17:27