GEORGIA ON MY MIND: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997)

October 11, 2016

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Clint Eastwood’s improbable late career run continues with Sully, an exquisite multi-perspective rendering of Sully Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency plane landing. Replaying the pivotal moment over and over, from the point-of-view of the plane crew, air traffic controllers, and Coast Guard, Eastwood displays how Sully’s heroism was the result of dozens of professionals working in concert. Eastwood took a similar approach to Midnight in the Garden Of Good and Evil, his box-office failure from 1997. Adapted from the phenomenally popular true crime novel by John Berendt (at the time it was the record holder for longest time spent on the New York Times bestseller list – 216 weeks), it is a portrait of the vices and virtues of an eccentric Savannah community – and how those interlocking society pieces led to the murder of an errand boy. Digressive and character driven, Eastwood’s film spends a leisurely 155 minutes to reach an ambiguous Rashomon-like conclusion. In the wake of Sully’s critical and box office success, it is worth revisiting Midnight, which was just released in a fine-looking Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

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Eastwood became aware of the project when screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who wrote the script for A Perfect World, showed him his stab at an adaptation. The book was considered unfilmable, due to the proliferating number of characters and the labyrinthine details of the plot. Hancock did a lot of condensing, collapsing four murder trials into one while excising characters. According to Eastwood’s interview with Michael David Henry (published in Clint Eastwood: Interviews), Warner Brothers was considering turning the property into an outright comedy, but he convinced them to go with Hancock’s script, which he would direct. Being able to include one of his favorite songwriters (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer) all over the soundtrack probably helped goad him to take the job.

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The story circles around Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a nouveau riche Savannah socialite and closeted homosexual who kills one of his employees and lovers Billy Hanson (Jude Law) after one of his famed Christmas parties. He claims self defense, but the police believe the scene to have been contrived, and that Billy was shot in cold blood. Into this mystery steps freelance writer John Kelso (John Cusack), in town to churn out a puff piece on the party, but who sees a much bigger story in the killing. Williams grants Kelso access into his world in return for a free exchange of information  – and the two form an uneasy alliance. Kelso is the Berendt and audience stand-in who stumbles around Savannah getting to know the city’s  people, including nightclub singer Mandy (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter), the drag queen MC Lady Chablis (playing herself – she passed away earlier this year), and voodoo priestess Minerva (Irma P. Hall).

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The film was shot on location in Savannah, and starred some of the real people from the story – most significantly Lady Chablis plays herself, and she sashays away with the film. In an interview with The Advocate close to the film’s release, Eastwood discusses the casting of Chablis: “I thought, why go beyond the real thing when the real thing is any good? This is Chablis’ whole life. She lives this day in day out, so she can play it effortlessly. I didn’t want the film to have the usual gay cliches. I wanted the gay element of Savannah to have a reality to it and not be some straight guy’s interpretation.” Lady Chablis had been disappointed in straight guys’ interpretation of the drag lifestyle before, telling The Advocate , “I don’t enjoy movies like To Wong Foo. I do not like anything stereotypical at all. In To Wong Foo, Wesley Snipes was just like big old Wesley Snipes in a dress — making fun of, you know, people who do this very seriously.”

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Lady Chablis is a very serious performer, a slinky acid-tongued presence that seems to bend the film to her will, suspending narrative time to make room for her act. In her scenes with John Cusack, who does his fine hesitating everyman routine, Cusack becomes just another spectator, watching as she extemporizes folk wisdom (“Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it”), or tears up the dance floor at a black cotillion ball. Eastwood clearly loved working with her, since he grants her whole sequences that have very little to do with the central narrative, including the trip to the cotillion, in which she shows up in a tight sequined gown and dirty dances with one of the straitlaced male guests. Eastwood said he could have “easily dropped” this sequence, “but for me, such details, the way they compose an atmosphere, are what makes the film more than a straight court drama.”

It is perhaps these details, the focus on local color and sense of place, that soured critics and moviegoers. There is little traditional tension and release here. Kevin Spacey’s character is a charismatic, sympathetic figure, a collector of beautiful things whose sexuality made him a curiosity as long as it was an open secret. Once it became an open fact, all his friends faded away. But there is no clarity to his crime, as he offers two different versions of events at different parts in the film, never revealing what is the real truth. It was either self defense or cold blooded murder, but either way he will get his comeuppance in the next life. Spacey has made a career out of these smoothly insinuating egomaniacs, and he is wonderful here, his Williams has compartmentalized every aspect of his life so well he has become naive – shocked that his “friends” leave him after his arrest and seemingly blissfully unaware of the dangers that face him.

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The murder is replayed many times in re-enactments that keep shifting the more the story is told. Unlike Sully there is only one surviving perspective, that of Williams, so there is no certainty, no closure. Where Sully finds heroism in the everyday execution of work, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil only finds mystery. Perhaps it is this ambiguity that doomed Midnight, or maybe it is the film’s loping sprawl, allowing star turns from Lady Chablis and extended cameos from dogs both invisible (a porter takes a long dead canine on a daily stroll) and of local fame – the Georgia Bulldog mascot Uga makes a memorable extended cameo huffing and puffing down a Savannah park.

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Eastwood told Michael David Henry his theory for the film’s failure: “What amuses me is the state of confusion this country’s critics are in. They keep complaining that we are not making character-driven films like in the 1930s and ’40s, but on the other hand they rave about action-driven movies that are devoid of any complexity. I think the influence of television has transformed the way movies are perceived. There is a whole generation, the MTV generation, which wants things to keep rolling all the time. You never linger, you never revisit anything. Whatever the case may be, I can’t worry about it. I filmed the story that I wanted to film.”  I would be curious to hear Eastwood’s opinion on the glut of contemporary “prestige” television programming, and whether that has brought back an appreciation for his kind of character-driven films. In any case it’s a pleasure to watch Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil now, the normal courtroom drama trappings subsumed in an exploration of the gay community of Savannah, Georgia, standing as a tribute to the dynamic presence, humor, and humanity of the late Lady Chablis.