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Carson McCullers's first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), published when she was 22, set the template for most of her future work. Set in her native South, it dealt with isolated, damaged people who reach out to others, but are unable to communicate or help them or themselves. John Singer is a deaf mute silverware engraver who moves to a small town to be near his mentally-challenged companion who's been institutionalized. Singer lives in a boarding house where he befriends Mick Kelly, the teenage daughter of the owners. He also touches the lives of the alcoholic Jake Blount; a black physician, Dr. Copeland; and Copeland's daughter Portia.
The Georgia-born McCullers lived a life that was as troubled and tragic as her work. She married young, but the marriage was difficult. Both she and her husband Reeves McCullers were bisexual, and he was also an alcoholic. They divorced and later re-married, but Reeves McCullers eventually committed suicide. Carson McCullers suffered from health problems all of her life, including rheumatic fever as a teenager, and a series of crippling strokes, the last of which killed her at the age of 50. Her third novel, The Member of the Wedding (1946) was the first of her works to be dramatized, becoming a successful play in 1950, and a film in 1952. The film version of her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1940), directed by John Huston, was released in 1967, the year McCullers died.
She had sold the screen rights to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to producer/screenwriter Thomas C. Ryan in 1961. At the time, there was talk of Montgomery Clift playing the role of John Singer. But the complexity and subtlety of the characters and relationships in the novel made it difficult to adapt. Ryan finally completed the screenplay in 1966, and read the script to McCullers, who was by that time partially paralyzed and bedridden by a variety of illnesses. She died on September 29, 1967.
Three days later, production began on the film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968). Location shooting took place in Selma, Alabama, with Robert Ellis Miller directing. It was the former television director's debut as a feature film director. Other film debuts included that of 21-year old Sondra Locke, who played Mick Kelly, and Stacy Keach, who played Jake Blount. The delicate, evocative musical score was the first feature film score composed by Dave Grusin, who would go on to write music for a wide variety of films, including On Golden Pond (1981), Reds (1981), Tootsie (1982), and The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), for which he won an Oscar®.
According to Variety, "Translating to the screen the delicate if specious tragedy of Carson McCullers' first novel was clearly not an easy matter. Nor an entirely successful one, either. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter emerges as a fragmented episodic melodrama, with uneven dramatic impact and formula pacing." Perhaps the novel, like many of McCullers's works, was not suited for translation to the screen, since much of the character development and emotions are inward and unexpressed.
There is, nevertheless, much to admire about the film, especially Alan Arkin's performance. After more than a decade as a folk singer and theater actor, Arkin had been nominated for a Supporting Actor Academy Award for his feature film acting debut in the comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966). His poignant portrayal of John Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter earned him the New York Film Critics Award, a Best Actor Oscar® nomination (he lost to Cliff Robertson, who won for Charly), and unanimous critical raves. According to Renata Adler of the New York Times, "Alan Arkin, as Singer, is extraordinary, deep and sound. Walking with his hat jammed flat on his head, among the obese, the mad, the infirm, characters with one leg, broken hip, scarred mouth, failing life, he somehow manages to convey every dimension of his character, especially intelligence." Judith Crist wrote in New York magazine, "With The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Arkin comes into his own as an actor, and a very fine one at that....It is all in the eyes, the hands, the inclination of the head, the turn of the torso that Arkin slowly and surely -- no instant characterizations here -- unfolds the 'dummy' and exposes the complexities of a voiceless man who observes and responds to human agony but is denied the surcease of telling his own."
Many critics also singled out Sondra Locke for praise, from Crist's "[Her] physical and emotional portrait of adolescence sets the screen aglow," to Adler's more qualified, "Sondra Locke...is as fine as she can be within the limits of a lot of rather mawkish business and corny lines." Locke, too, earned an Oscar® nomination, as Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Ruth Gordon for Rosemary's Baby.
Director: Robert Ellis Miller
Producer: Thomas C. Ryan, Marc Merson
Screenplay: Thomas C. Ryan, based on the novel by Carson McCullers
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editor: John F. Burnett
Costume Design: Albert Wolsky
Art Direction: LeRoy Deane
Music: Dave Grusin
Principal Cast: Alan Arkin (John Singer), Laurinda Barrett (Mrs. Kelly), Stacy Keach (Blount), Chuck McCann (Antonapoulos), Biff McGuire (Mr. Kelly), Sondra Locke (Mick Kelly), Percy Rodrigues (Dr. Copeland), Cicely Tyson (Portia).
by Margarita Landazuri