Directed by Martin Ritt
It's one of those films that, from the first time I saw it, I was enchanted and for nearly 30 years now, it has cast a spell over me. Measuring it against movies that have become favorites, it is a little film with an art house feel. It's about the south, a true story, about a writer (God, I love movies about authors!) and it has a wonderful cast of actors and a superb director.
Additionally, as in the case of a couple more of my upcoming favorite movies, I was so drawn to the movie's location that I hopped in my trusty machine and wound up in the tiny Florida community of Cross Creek.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is most famously the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling. She would come to write Cross Creek upon which this film is based.
Rawlings could be stubborn and determined, kind and aloof, narcissistic and a bit frosty. In 1928 New York she was married to wealthy Charles Rawlings who had no interest in sharing the simple life she envisioned for herself on a Florida orange grove while she wrote the great American novel. Off to Florida she went without him, uncertain of her future, and a divorce would follow.
One lovely little piece of the film is that when she strides into town, she asks directions from an unnamed townie who in real life was played by Norton Baskin, who would one day become Rawlings' husband, although not during the course of the film.
Despite the excessive heat, the mosquitoes, the poisonous snakes, the condition of the house she bought, sight unseen, Rawlings fell head over heels in love with Cross Creek. This is even more meaningful when one considers she went there to be left alone so she could write and she was at times overwhelmed by the overly-friendly neighbors and townsfolk. Upon her arrival Baskin tried to discourage her from staying, saying you won't meet many itellectuals out here.
Rawlings loved the land. She loved working the land, getting right in there and getting dirty while trying to tame a wild orange grove, even bringing irrigation to it. She would say Cross Creek is to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and above all to time. I have always liked that.
In addition to the land, it was also about the people. For those familiar with The Yearling (novel or film), we come to see how the Baxter family of that work was born. The prototypes were the Marsh Turner family. In the film and I assume in the novel (which I have not read), Pa Baxter is loving and utterly kind. Here, morphed into Turner, he's kind of mean and heartless. In the film, Ma Baxter has those same traits while in this film that character is struck simple by her insurmountable circumstances and has retreated into her own world.
Most different is that in the The Yearling the focal character is the Baxter's only child, a boy, Jody. In Cross Creek there are four children and the eldest one, the keeper of the fawn, is a girl, Ellie. The vivid differences and the alarming similarities are some of the most striking things about this film.
Additionally, we get to see about Rawlings' developing but always fascinating and often humorous relationship with Baskin. The same could be said of Geechee, a local black woman who surprises Rawlings while she is typing away with an offer the writer can hardly refuse... to do pretty much everything around the house for a pittance of a salary. Rawlings simply didn't have much money.
She also comes across a young, dirt-poor couple who becomes the inspiration for one of her first stories, Jacob's Ladder. Rawlings had been struggling with her writing and suffered through the usual rejections, which made her crabby and sent her for the bottle which she would befriend more and more as she got older. Her editor, the famous Max Perkins (whose own biography I would go on to immensely enjoy), told her to lay off the gothic romance stuff and write about the people in Cross Creek, so colorfully outlined in her letters to him. She followed his advice and it would bring her immortality.
The film ends as she and Baskin are on the verge of marriage. In real life, the two left Cross Creek and moved to St. Augustine after the marriage where she continued to write although mainly short stories.
Film, as most of you undoubtedly know, is a director's medium. No matter what you see and hear in that movie palace, all is done under the guidance and visionary intelligence of the director and in Martin Ritt we had one of the finest, most sensitive movie directors there ever was. He turned out many fine films with clearly delineated characters played by a number of Academy Award-winning actors. Just consider The Long, Hot Summer, Hud, Hombre, Sounder, The Great White Hope, Norma Rae and Murphy's Romance to see what I mean.
Of course there's also the superb acting of an entire ensemble of actors. Sadly, I don't think any of them reached the top echelon of their profession despite their fame, awards, nominations or longevity. Although she'd already won an Oscar, this was only Mary Steenburgen's sixth film and she brought a great dignity and quiet strength to her portrayal of Rawlings. She was steadfast with her employees, respectful of her neighbors, sometimes coquettish with Baskin... all great fun to watch. Of course the film rides on her performance. She IS Cross Creek.
I am not sure I knew who Alfre Woodard was before Cross Creek but I know I was thunderstruck by her in the film and forever attentive to her work afterwards. Her Geeche was a stitching of doe-eyed earnestness, child-like enthusiasm and hidden intelligence in her role as Rawlings' housekeeper. Here, have a peek of their meeting:
Woodard rightly nabbed an Oscar nomination as did Rip Torn for his crusty backwoods Bubba offering. It was a slightly dangerous character and Torn saw to it we were always wary of him.
Peter Coyote was an actor I was completely aware of because he had been in another favorite film of mine (hmmmm) although I confess to seeing little of his work over the years. I thought his well-turned-out, thoughtful, kind, intuitive, Southern gentleman was right on the mark. He and Steenburgen were a delightful screen team. Dana Hill was heart-breaking as the young owner of the fawn and Joanna Miles was tender and sad as her mother. All the other actors, most of them young ones, were completely believable.
I need to sing the praises of Dalene Young's adaptation of Rawlings' novel and John Alonzo's photography of the wild and seemingly untameable Florida wilderness and also the intimacy of the home. Richly deserving of his Oscar nomination is Leonard Rosenman, who created a musical score I love to this day. I just viewed the film again a couple of hours ago and when I first heard that music, I let out a big comforting sigh. It was played by the L.A. Chamber Orchestra to great effect.
It was several years after I first saw the film in 1983 that I read the book upon which it was based. As I was reading it, I knew I would visit Cross Creek. Somehow I would get down to Florida, probably combining it with some other sites of interest, and that's exactly what happened a few years later.
Cross Creek is just a little hamlet of a place. I suspect the locals would not like the fame that Rawlings brought to it. Those roads just look like they don't like being driven over. To this day I look at the pictures we took on those roads and bridges and canals and waterways. The place, for all its quiet demeanor, is as alluring as Shangri-la and I have no doubt whatsoever what drew Rawlings in so completely.