Tuesday, November 20

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Favorite Movie #21

1997 Crime Drama
From Warner Bros
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Kevin Spacey
John Cusack
Jack Thompson
Allison Eastwood
Lady Chablis
Irma P. Hall
Jude Law
Kim Hunter
Geoffrey Lewis
Paul Hipp

Once upon a time a very, very good novel was written.  It was pounded out with meticulous attention to detail by one John Berendt.  I considered it a masterpiece then and I still do.  It was about a murder involving Jim Williams, a rich, gay man of Savannah, Georgia.  He lived in a famous home, Mercer House, formerly owned by songwriter Johnny Mercer.  The many characters were so richly written and fascinating.  As is often the case with good writing, I felt I had grown to know them very well.  Just as importantly I felt the same about Savannah.  Steeped in history and dotted with beauty and charm, I just knew I had to visit.  I had hoped it would be soon but as it turned out it was a couple of years away.

I was paying rapt attention to news of a prospective movie and was surprised but pleased to hear that Clint Eastwood was going to direct it.   He would give it the right touch.  Little by little I heard of a new cast member and my intrigue built.   Three cast members immediately caught my eye.  First and foremost was the Lady Chablis, a black drag queen entertainer who figures prominently in the novel, who would play herself.  Secondly the real defense attorney, Sonny Seiler, would play the judge and lookalike ace actor Kevin Spacey would play Jim Williams.

I ain't jokin' when I tell you I could barely contain my excitement as the lights went down, the curtains opened and soon the cameras were skimming across the fields and the water and k d lang's melancholic voice began the haunting Skylark.  Then we see a woebegone black lady feeding a squirrel in Forsythe Park.  I didn't know yet it was Forsythe Park, but I soon would be sitting just where she was.

Ten minutes into the film I knew my dream of visiting Savannah, long tucked away, was going to happen soon.  Two weeks later I was there, squealing with childish delight in visiting this most alluring of American cities.  In reality it grabbed me with even more ferocity than the book and film did.  I loved sitting in Forsythe Park.  I loved walking the squares with its sea of   beautiful, restored mansions.  I, of course, especially noticed Mercer House on Bull Street, another star of the film.  A long stay at Bonaventure Cemetery, where the real murdered kid is buried, as is Johnny Mercer, where the moss hangs on trees looking like tinsel thrown casually on a Christmas tree, was mysterious and eerily beautiful.

Mercer House, site of the murder

Jim Williams bought the somewhat rundown mansion and restored it to its former glory and then some.  Jim was a suthin gentleman, fascinating, aloof, commanding.  He was closeted in his gayness but everyone knew.  Every Christmas he opened up his fabulous home for two parties.  One was for the local gentry, those snooty locals full of fat diamonds, fat wallets and fat heads, and the second one was for gentlemen only.

Into all this comes Berendt himself (played by John Cusack).  In the book he is himself; in the film he's given another name and another sort of biography.  Insinuating himself into the proceedings is part of the genius.  He is also the narrator. 

When the Berendt character, a New York writer, arrives in Savannah for an assignment, he quickly becomes involved in the far more interesting story of the murder of Jim Williams' gofer-handyman-occasional lover.  The remainder of the film deals with the writer sniffing out details and histories from the myriad colorful locals and vigorous trial. 

Just as happened in the book, a mood enveloped me in watching this fine film.  I have already gone on record with my love of things southern.  I am enchanted by the people, their manners, their speech, their way of thinking.  The beauty of such a glorious city was not diminished when learning of the flaws and eccentricities of some of its people.  Au contraire, I was all the more fascinated... and I still am.

When we walked out of the theater, I began planning my trip.  I visited all the places shown in the film and the book, found the grave of the dead man, visited Mercer House, wandered the town squares, talked with locals about the book, film and real-life incidents, went to a shop dedicated solely to the book and film, and collected mementos.  My most treasured is Bird Girl, featured in the poster and on the book cover.  She occupies a spot in my home.

Bird Girl

Another thing happened on the way out of the theater which I found discouraging.  I heard a number of people carrying on about what a bad film it was, how it sure wasn't as good as the book.  Obviously I do not agree.  Most movies are not as good as the book and while that may hold true here as well, that is not to say it is a bad film.

One thing I don't understand is why so much was changed on Berendt's character for the film and why a galpal was written for him.  It did provide Eastwood's daughter Allison with a role and I thought she acquitted herself admirably, but why was it necessary?  In the book, as in real life, there were actually four trials and they were whittled down to one for the film.  Folks were whining about that coming out of the theater but it was obviously and smartly done for clarity and time constraints.  There are a few other changes which never bothered me.  So to all the naysayers, I offer this from the film... two tears in a bucket...  Oh, I can't type out the rhyming final line but if you know it, you know it.  If you don't, watch the movie.

Frankly I can't praise this film enough.  Wonderful story, imaginative actors and acting, good adaptation of a superb book, great look, feel, mood, wonderful musical score.

The year 1997 was a watershed one for me.  Four of my 50 favorite films came out of it.  One I have already discussed (Wilde) and two more are upcoming. 

Here, have a look at an interview with the author John Berendt:

Review of Life of Pi

1 comment:

  1. I SO agree with you about this wonderful film, lovingly directed by Clint Eastwood. He really GOT and captured the flavor and zaniness and beauty of the book and its stranger-than-fiction characters. The book is what first led me to Savannah, and it fulfilled its promise!

    My best friend, who loves the Berendt book and Savannah as much as I do, hates this film for the reason you mentioned...the fictionalized John Cusack character...but I can't hate it, it's too too divine...especially Spacey, Jude Law, the Lady Chablis and one of my favorites, the wonderful cabaret singer Dorothy Loudon.
    You captured my sentiments exactly about a wonderful book, film and town! Cheers!