Pras on World Films: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997)

Clint Eastwood directed this adaptation of John Berendt’s popular Southern gothic true-crime best-seller about a Savannah Georgia, murder case, created an immense anticipation when it was released in 1997. When this film was released, Berendt’s book had been on best-seller lists for four years.

Midnight in Garden of Good & EvilSet in mossy, sun-dazed Savannah, Georgia during the mid-’80s, a world poised between the Old South and the New, and stocked with enough oddity and scandal to fill a month’s worth of National Enquirers, the book is as overflowing as a Robert Altman ensemble piece, but with a pungent psychosexual hook. The drama hinges on a kind of aestheticized nostalgia for an era when homosexuality was taboo. On the one hand, Williams’ lifestyle is accepted (with a raised eyebrow); on the other, his sexuality depends on its invisibility — on being regarded as another local ”eccentricity.”

Equipped with a clean-cut hero, the film begins with a long meet-and-greet phase introducing Savannah’s verdant squares and talkative citizens. The whole Savannah atmosphere gives the sense of the city as a menagerie of ”characters”. Along the way John runs into a string of the local curios. My favorite is the guy who keeps house flies on short strings so they all buzz around his head. There is a reason for this and for why he always carries a bottle of poison with him. Another guy walks a dog who died two decades ago. And yes, there’s a good reason for that one too. Irma P. Hall appears in a small role as Minerva, the voodoo expert who, one midnight, takes John and Jim to the Garden of Good and Evil. “To understand the living, you got to commune with the dead,” she explains to John. All of the characters are believable, but, with the exception of Kelso, each has his or her own special oddities. As John Kelso, John Cusack gives a great performance. Kelso has to hang around with a black transvestite named Lady Chablis. Lady Chablis plays herself. She gets some hilarious one-liners, and she has a gift for physical comedy that keeps the show from ever dragging when she is on the screen. And her slinky, sequined dresses are to die for. Finally, in a large cast Clint’s daughter Alison Eastwood stands out as an attractive woman named Mandy Nichols, who helps John in his investigation. And falls for him too.

As the film begins, New York journalist John Kelso (John Cusack), alter ego of author Berendt, arrives in Savannah to do a brief (Town and Country) article on the annual Christmas party given by sophisticated, urbane Jim Williams. In an old moneyed South, Old Savannah Experience TourKevin Spacey stars in the film as Jim Williams, a nouveau riche antiques dealer. Jim has restored many mansions in Savannah, including the famed Mercer House where he lives. He is an old-money poseur, with fake airs that spell lineage (“Yes, I am nouveau riche, but it’s the riche that counts.”). He holds court in his block-long mansion, and all the rich and famous come to call. Kevin Spacey, loquacious and bourbon smooth, with a clipped mustache and black eyes that twinkle below immaculate graying hair, makes Williams a charismatic dandy, but he also holds a glimmer of mystery in reserve.  He oozes charm and confidence from every pore. With a little black mustache and a sleek silk vest, he sets the gold standard for  attire in a fashion conscious city.
Grand Historic Savannah TourThe rich and famous of Savannah at his parties also have  their own stories. One pair of grande dames discuss what caliber of pistols  their husbands had used to commit suicide. He parades himself as a bachelor, and the book’s power derives, in part, from the way that his status — he’s a gay man in the closet, sleeping with a hot young stud — appears all the more exotic because of its clash against the tradition-laden backdrop of the aristocratic South.  Among the prime locations captured in Savanah, the piece de resistance is Mercer House, the imposing structure that is home to both a legendary Christmas party and a notorious murder.

As the central figure, Jim Williams is known to be gay, he does not speak of it in society.  But the Town and Country propriety in this den of gentility is shattered by the appearance of Billy Hanson (Jude Law), the tattooed hot-tempered reckless 20-year-old street hustler. Billy has no such compunctions. During Jim’s famous Christmas party,  Billy shows up and threatens Jim with a broken bottle. When Billy later turns up dead in Jim’s living room, Jim is arrested for the murder. He explains it as a necessary act of self-defense. The violent Historic Savannah Fountaindeath at Mercer House becomes the film’s central event. But the scandal of the shooting isn’t simply that it may have been murder. (Murder in Savannah, we’re told, is often swept under the rug.) It’s that the legal imbroglio threatens to drag Williams’ gayness out of the closet, and with it the delicate fabric of the town’s social hypocrisy.In a remark that covers Billy as well as the story’s other nasty secrets, Jim’s lawyer (Jack Thompson, playing his role with great gusto) puts it nicely: ”Savin’ face in the light of unpleasant circumstances is the Savannah way.”

After the party, John Kelso gets sucked into the event and decides to stay in Savannah to cover the trial. The bulk of the movie has John doing investigative research for his book and helping Jim. He encounters a variety of colorful locals, eccentric and otherwise, including black transvestite nightclub performer Lady Chablis (appearing as herself), financially challenged bon vivant Joe Odom (Paul Hipp), vocalist Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood), voodoo priestess Minerva (Irma P. Hall), and Williams’s deceptively powerful defense attorney Sonny Seiler (Australian actor Jack Thompson with a very convincing Southern accent). Kelso develops a romantic interest in Mandy while tracking the events that led up to the killing.

The great finale with a court-trial was a reminder of Perry Mason thrillers (and includes several actual references to Mason during the trial). As defense attorneys Sonny Seiler, Jack Thompson gives a relaxed performance as Jim’s smooth-talking Southern lawyer. A college football fan so loyal that he leaves at key points during the trial preparation to see his beloved Georgia Bulldogs play, he nevertheless, subtlety outfoxes the prosecution. “Truth is in the eye of the beholder,” Jim tells John. “You believe what you choose, and I’ll believe what I know.”

This is a film that revels in its ambiguity. Clint Eastwood directs in his leisurely, neo-classical style. The beauty of John Lee Hancock’s script is the fine line he walks between realism and parody. Ms. Eastwood, like her father, happens to turn up on the soundtrack singing soft renditions of Johnny Mercer songs, since the film relies charmingly on a Mercer score. Mr. Spacey can also be heard singing ”That Old Black Magic,” which sounds as if it should be Savannah’s favorite song.

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by John Lee Hancock, based on the book by John Berendt; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Mr. Eastwood and Arnold Stiefel; released by Warner Brothers. Running time: 135 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Kevin Spacey (Jim Williams), John Cusack (John Kelso), Jack Thompson (Sonny Seiler), Irma P. Hall (Minerva), Jude Law (Billy Hanson), Alison Eastwood (Mandy Nicholls), the Lady Chablis (herself) and Dorothy Loudon (Serena Dawes).

Filming started in spring 1997, and was shot in Savannah, Georgia. The film featured a cameo by Uga V, the English bulldog live mascot of the University of Georgia, playing his father, Uga IV. The Uga mascots live in Savannah between football games.

Integral to the film was the soundtrack which was released in 1997. It is dedicated to the music of Johnny Mercer, a Savannah native. The CD includes versions of songs heard in the film.

Track listing

No.

Title

Writer(s)

Performer

Length

1.
Skylark
Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer
k. d. lang
3:46
2.
Too Marvelous for Words
Richard Whiting, Mercer
Joe Williams
3:40
3.
Autumn Leaves
Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert, Mercer
Paula Cole
7:24
4.
Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)
Rube Bloom, Mercer
Rosemary Clooney
4:10
5.
Dream
Mercer
Brad Mehldau
5:10
6.
Days of Wine and Roses
Henry Mancini, Mercer
Cassandra Wilson
4:47
7.
That Old Black Magic
Harold Arlen, Mercer
Kevin Spacey
3:33
8.
Come Rain or Come Shine
Arlen, Mercer
Alison Eastwood
4:32
9.
Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive
Arlen, Mercer
Clint Eastwood
3:35
10.
This Time the Dream’s on Me
Arlen, Mercer
Alison Krauss
3:46
11.
Laura
David Raksin, Mercer
Kevin Mahogany
4:49
12.
Midnight Sun
Lionel Hampton, Sonny Burke, Mercer
Diana Krall
4:01
13.
I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)
Mercer
Joshua Redman
4:59
14.
I Wanna Be Around
Sadie Vimmerstedt, Mercer
Tony Bennett
2:10
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