This is Sally Field’s film, she was at the height of her film clout. A two-time Academy Award winner, yeah we like her, and Murphy grew to love her.
Murphy’s Romance was a surprise hit, not because it was good, but because it told a mature love story and found an audience. A few decades later, its charm is still evident.
Murphy Jones’ life is content and settled, but that is a long way from happy. He is about to hit 60, and she comes into his life. Murphy is a widower, catnip for the the single women as far as several towns away. He has this unnamed relationship out of town, but it is obvious that he protects his heart and is not serious about anyone. He owns Murphy’s Drugs, a pharmacy and general store.
Emma is trying to start a new life, and it is off to a bumpy start. She rents a ranch that needs a lot of work; she cannot get a loan to start her horse training business because she has no collateral and is the wrong gender. But Murphy takes a liking to her, boards his horse with her and steers other clients to her.
Emma is spunky, something that Murphy possesses, but it is called something else for his gender and generation. Emma and Murphy keep crossing paths. Murphy is impressed with Emma. She is talented in training horses and although there is an age difference, he likes her. She enjoys being around him and appreciates his kindness. They are friends.
Life becomes complicated when Emma’s ex-husband shows up, and moves in. He’s a carefree spirit that charms his son, but only confuses Emma. During his stay, he puts the moves on Emma, trying to rekindle what they had when they were younger. Emma’s situation seems to intensify Murphy’s interest.
Sally Field as Emma has the showier of the leads, but she doesn’t abuse it. James Garner is the easygoing Murphy, an old school progressive, but very old school about life. The contrast between Murphy and Emma’s ex-husband Bobby Jack is startling. Bobby Jack is out for a good-time, the boy who never grew up. Despite his charming and boyish nature, Emma has grown up and is looking for something else.
Emma and Murphy spend most of the film pretending not to be attracted to each other, even though they like each other and develop a friendship. The age difference lurks under the surface, but his maturity has greater reward than Emma first realizes.
Emma finds many excuses to keep Murphy around when he visits to ride his horse, dinner almost every night and a little help around the house or with her son. The competition is swift between Bobby Jack and Murphy.
It becomes obvious that Bobby Jack’s flaws are not impressing Emma; he cheats at cards, likes gory films, steals money from Emma and seems averse to hard work.
Murphy is a bit of a mystery, but there is something genuine and comforting about him. It is not shiny and glamorous, but steady, honest and heartfelt.
The film is based on a novella and was produced by Fields’ production company. She hired Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae) to direct and Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (Hud, The Long, Hot Summer) to write the film. The studio did not want Garner; Field had to fight for him. The studio moved the general release of the film from the holiday season to January, a sign that they did not support the film’s chances against big blockbusters. In 1985, there were films that made more money, but a number of those have faded into obscurity.
Murphy’s Romance is a lighthearted and tender film, and it has stood the test of time. Garner, who the studio did not want, earned a Best Actor nomination as Murphy. The film is a romantic comedy, and despite Field’s popularity, it was hardly a blockbuster. Garner, who moved back and forth between film and television, was not a big box office draw at the time, but he was perfect as Murphy Jones.
The film is populated with decent people who care about each other, and who have risen from disappointments and heartaches in life. Letting down the wall, to let in strangers is hard. Even Bobby Jack has some redeeming qualities; when his girlfriend and twin sons show up, he lights up. Emma tells him it is time for him to grow up and take responsibility. He leaves town with his new family. Emma is alone and confused. Murphy, in a few words, tells her she needs to take responsibility, meaning if she is interesting in Murphy, the time is now.
There is a lovely score by Carole King, too bad it has never been released. The soft photography is by veteran cinematographer William Fraker (Bullitt, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), also nominated for an Academy Award. There is a lot to like about this film, if you haven’t seen it in awhile, think about looking it up.