If the 1970s were the birth of the Austin film scene, the 1980s are when the local film industry started to take its footing. With more features being made, a crew-base of trained professionals started to take root in the area. The word got out to Hollywood that there were diverse locations in the Austin area: Hill Country, ranches, small towns and a cool city with lots to do during down time. More importantly, there were skilled technicians and creatives in town, which allowed productions to film on location and—more importantly—to do so on time and on budget.
It was an exciting time in Austin. Joel and Ethan Coen made their debut with "Blood Simple" and the film world never be the same. Tobe Hooper came home to produce the deranged, magnificent tongue-in-cheek sequel to the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Robert Benton, another Texan who found success in Hollywood, came to Austin to make the romantic comedy "Nadine," in which Austin plays a supporting star. The decade came to a close with the majestic "Lonesome Dove," a tour de force western about the cowboy way. The mini-series was an international hit and a true statement of how far the local film industry had come.
There have been about 300 films and television series produced in Austin over the past 50 years. In this series, we will look back decade-by-decade and explore those classic #MadeInAustin productions that are available to stream from the comfort of home. In this second part, we will look at the 1980s.
Honeysuckle Rose (1980)
Directed by: Jerry Schatzberg
Starring: Willie Nelson, Dyan Cannon, Amy Irving, Slim Pickins
Rated PG / 119 minutes / Drama, Music, Romance
Already distinguished in their trades, Willie Nelson and Bill Wittliff now had blossoming film careers. A generation before it was commonplace, they used their clout to bring films home to Austin. Wittliff, a distinguished writer and publisher pushed to bring Texas literature to the screen. Willie used his musical talents to segway to acting. Honeysuckle Rose gave Willie Nelson his first top-billing in a movie and was followed by a slew of successful starring features, some of which were made in Austin like "Songwriter," "Red Headed Stranger" and the made-for-tv movies "A Pair Of Aces" and "Another Pair of Aces." "Red Headed Stranger" allowed Nelson to build Luck, Texas - a permanent western town set located right outside Austin that is still used by film and television productions to this day.
In "Honeysuckle Rose," Willie Nelson plays country singer Buck Bonham, who is struggling to find national fame while spending his life on the road. He juggles his music career with his responsibilities to his long-suffering wife Viv (Dyan Cannon) and their son. Buck has everything going his way until Lily Ramsey (Amy Irving), the daughter of his former guitarist, joins his tour. The road leads to temptation, which leads to his potential downfall. It’s soundtrack is fantastic, and includes Nelson’s biggest hit, "On the Road Again," for which Nelson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Keep your eye out as rock-photographer-turned-director Jerry Schatzberg and cinematographer Robbie Muller ("Paris Texas," "Down By Law") shine a light on a variety of Nelson's performances at long gone local music institutions like the Soap Creek Saloon and the Skyline Club. Honeysuckle Rose is also the first of many Austin-set scripts by the late, great Bill Wittliff.
Raggedy Man (1981)
Directed by: Jack Fisk
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Eric Roberts, Sam Shepard
Rated R / 94 minutes / Drama
Sissy Spacek's first movie after winning the Academy Award for "Coal Miner's Daughter" was "Raggedy Man," directed by Spacek’s husband Jack Fisk, working from a script that Bill Wittliff had been trying to get produced since the mid-'70s. It may have been Fisk’s first foray as director but he was already a renowned production designer who has made feast-for-the-eyes films like "Days of Heaven," "Phantom of Paradise," "Mulholland Drive," "There Will Be Blood," "Tree of Life" and "The Revenant." Spacek plays Nita, a divorced mother of two boys, who is stuck working day and night as a telephone switchboard operator in Gregory, Texas during World War II. Her friendship with Teddy (Eric Roberts), a sailor on leave causes tongues to wag in the small town including two nefarious drunks who lust after Nina. Partially filmed in Lockhart, the suspense-filled drama also stars the amazing Sam Shepard and William Sanderson and features the debut of Henry Thomas ("E.T.").
Directed by: Colin Higgins
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning, Jim Nabors
Rated R / 114 minutes / Comedy, Musical
They don’t call Austin the Live Music Capital of the World for nothing and Alan Rudolph knew a good thing when he heard it, tapping into the local music scene for his two of his locally-shot features "Roadie" and "Songwriter." Nobody had to tell Dolly Parton either, she knew Austin was the place to make a musical and she did just that with "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." The film went on to be the fourth highest-grossing live-action musical film of the 1980s and is a defining Texas classic.
In this comedy musical, Dolly Parton plays Miss Mona, manager of the Chicken Ranch, a brothel with a long history in Gilbert, Texas. The locals have a good relationship with the institution and Mona is respected in the community. Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds) looks out for the Chicken Ranch due to his past with Miss Mona. But when pious reporter Melvin Thorpe (Dom DeLuise) targets it as the Devil's playhouse, it leads outside interests to try and shut it down, putting the governor (hilariously played by Charles Durning) in a tough spot. Filmed in Austin and Pflugerville, this was the first movie production ever allowed to film inside the historic Texas Capitol building. The Kuempel Haus in Pflugerville was used for the notorious Chicken House location. It’s now an event space, though it has had a number of famous on-camera roles including in the films "Hard Promises," "Flesh & Bone" and "Transformers: Age of Extinction." The world premiere of the movie was held at Austin's Paramount Theater and was preceded by a parade. Parton would return to Austin in the early '90s to make the made-for-TV film "Wild Texas Wind."
The Blood Simple (1984)
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, John Getz, M. Emmet Walsh
Rated R / 99 minutes / Crime, Drama, Thriller
The neo-noir "Blood Simple" signaled the arrival of the Coen Brothers upon its release in 1984. Many critics considered Joel and Ethan Coen's first film to be the greatest American independent film of all time. "Blood Simple" concerns bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya), his wife Abby (Frances McDormand in her debut starring role) and Ray (John Getz), the bartender Abby plans to leave Marty for. Marty finds out and hires a sleazy private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill the runaway couple. However, as the classic tagline states, nothing is simple when blood is involved. Paths cross and tangle to the point where the plot becomes a series of ingenious circumstances and thrilling mistakes. Filmed in Austin, Hutto, Pflugerville and Round Rock; from the opening atop Mount Bonnell to the atmospheric showdown in a Sixth Street loft, "Blood Simple" has a way of using the local locations. Joel Coen picked Austin after the city made an impression on him during a brief tenure at the University of Texas for graduate school. The film’s cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who later became a noted director himself with the hit "Men in Black") made the most of his time in Austin, even helping to shoot the music video for The Clash’s "Rock the Casbah" when the band stopped in town for a tour date. The Coen Brothers would return to Austin 25 years later to film their remake of "True Grit."
Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Kevin Costner, Judd Nelson, Sam Robards, Suzy Amis
Rated PG / 91 minutes / Comedy, Drama
Steven Spielberg, saw Texas native Kevin Reynolds’ USC student film "Fandango" and offered to produce a feature length version of the film with Reynolds at the helm. Set in 1971, "Fandango" centers around five college buddies from the University of Texas, known as “The Groovers.” Facing graduation, marriage and the draft, they decide to skip out of their own graduation party for one last road trip and head to the Mexican border before real life comes crashing down. As the trip progresses, Gardner (Kevin Costner) and his buddies, including Kenneth Waggener (Sam Robards) and Phil Hicks (Judd Nelson), struggle with their impending adulthood and the uncertainty of the future as they take part in a handful of adventures along the way. Fandango features Kevin Costner in his first starring role and his first collaboration with Reynolds - the pair would go on to team up again with "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Waterworld" and "Hatfields & McCoys." Quentin Tarantino called "he film “one of the best directorial debuts in the history of cinema.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Johnson, Bill Moseley
Rated R / 101 minutes / Comedy, Horror, Thriller
Maybe the most important movie ever made! Okay, a little biased, but this is the movie that gave way to the founding of the Austin Film Commission... Someone had to be an authority with a chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, Chop Top and Lefty running around the city! After success with the Stephen Spielberg-produced "Poltergeist," Cannon Films gave Tobe Hooper a three-picture deal that included a sequel to his 1974 hit "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" may throw some viewers off as it’s more of a black comedy than a true horror like the original. Not to say there aren’t great effects gags by "Dawn of the Dead" gore guru Tom Savini. Leatherface is back and up to his cannibalistic ways, along with the rest of his twisted family. This time, family has set their sights on disc jockey Vanita "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams), who teams up with Texas lawman “Lefty” Enright (an amazing Dennis Hopper), whose relatives were victims in the first installment, to battle Leatherface and his cohorts deep within their carnival lair. Next time you are having a drink at the Mean Eyed Cat, take a close look around; you may recognize that you are at the location of the infamous Cut-Rite Chain Saws scene!
Streaming on: @iTunes
Directed by: Robert Benton
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Rip Torn, Jerry Stiller
Rated PG / 83 minutes / Comedy, Mystery, Romance
Nadine Hightower (Kim Basinger) is in a lot of trouble. She's trying to recover photos of herself that were "lots more artistic" than she bargained for from a sleazy photographer (Jerry Stiller). Instead, Nadine ends up in the middle of a murder scene and in possession of development plans that real estate kingpin Buford Pope (Rip Torn) will kill to get. Nadine’s estranged husband Vernon (Jeff Bridges) is a handsome troublemaker who runs a failing local lounge called the Blue Bonnet. Vernon sees a way to make money in all this and a ton of comedic fun and a potential divorce ensues. "Bonnie and Clyde" writer-turned-director Robert Benton specifically crafted the role of Nadine for star Kim Basinger. Benton’s film captures the essence of Austin in 1954; the film incorporates Sixth Street into a number of sequences beautifully lensed by the legendary cinematographer Néstor Almendros ("Days of Heaven").
Johnny Be Good (1988)
Directed by: Bud S. Smith
Starring: Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Paul Gleason, Jennifer Tilly, Uma Thurman.
Rated R / 91 minutes / Comedy, Sports
It’s the '80s, so of course a member or two of the bratpack came to town (and we don’t mean the infamous "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" poster spoofing "The Breakfast Club"). "Johnny Be Good" stars Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny Walker, the top high school quarterback prospect in the nation who is being heavily recruited by multiple schools. His best friend Leo Wiggins, played by Robert Downey Jr., thinks he should hold out for the best offer. His girlfriend, Georgia (Uma Thurman, in her second film), wants him to go to State University with her and get a solid education. And his coach ("The Breakfast Club" principal Paul Gleason) tries to sell him out by striking a deal with one of the interested colleges to become their next head coach. Filmed in part at Thomas Jefferson High School in Georgetown, "Johnny Be Good" marked the directorial debut of renowned editor of "The Exorcist" and "Flashdance" Bud S. Smith. The soundtrack really encapsulates time and place, with a metal cover by Judas Priest of Chuck Berry’s classic "Johnny B. Goode."
Lonesome Dove (1989)
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Starring: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Chris Cooper, Ricky Schroder, Glenne Headly, Anjelica Huston, Barry Corbin, DB Sweeney, Fredric Forrest.
Rated TV-14 / 384 minutes / Adventure, Drama, Western
"Lonesome Dove" is the mini-series to end all mini-series. Bill Wittliff’s ambitious adaptation of Larry McMurtry's western epic follows Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones), two famous former Texas Rangers, who now run a livery in the small and dusty Texas border town of Lonesome Dove. Gus is twice a widower and a womanizer while Call is somewhat of a workaholic. They renew their spirit of adventure as they set out on a cattle drive to the Montana Territory. The pair are joined by Joshua Deets (Danny Glover), a black tracker and scout from their Ranger days and Newt Dobbs, a 17-year-old who may or may not be Call's illegitimate son. Though "Lonesome Dove" filmed across Texas, Bastrop State Park is featured prominently as is Luck, Texas, standing in for Fort Smith, Arkansas. The film is a great adventure for the whole family. With an all-star cast and clocking in at just over six hours, this Texas classic is the perfect binge.
There are a great many films not mentioned here; important ones too! It’s unfortunate, but some film gems from Austin's 1980s output are not currently available to stream. That said, these titles are well worth tracking down and can be found on DVD via your local video store or other retailers, including: "Roadie," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Songwriter," "DOA" and Richard Linklater’s warm-up film "It’s Impossible To Learn to Plow by Reading Books." Others have only ever been available on VHS, such as "Murder Rap" and "The Red Headed Stranger."
Check out the previous list of streaming films from the 1970s. And, next time, we'll cover defining films of the 1990s that helped make Austin the "indie film capital of the world."