Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Help," The Oscars & Movies Set in the South

On Oscar night, I doubt The Help will win Best Picture. It was a page-turner of a book and, all told, a pretty good movie, one I'm sure I'll watch again at some point. For whatever reason, though, it's not among my most favorite movies set in the South.

If there were an Oscar for Best Southern Picture of All Time, I'd nominate the following:

* A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Tennessee Williams (playwright) and Elia Kazan (director) were a combustible combination on Broadway, and this film (set in the French Quarter of New Orleans) captures their powerful collaboration at its best. Although this famous play's subject matter was slightly white-washed to suit Hollywood censors, there's no denying the sweaty, claustrophobic, jazzy, sexy, raw-nerves aura of this movie. Sixty years later, Marlon Brando is still magnetic (and mega hunky, even by today's standards). Vivien Leigh is a bit campy at times ("Stella, run out and get me a lemon Coke with chipped ice"). But oh man, that final scene? I can see it anytime in my head without having to watch the movie. If you love this movie, read When Blanche Met Brando, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of the play and film. 

Big Fish (2003) One of my favorite Tim Burton movies, it's an ode to Southern Gothic storytelling--which is usually long on entertainment value and imagery and mostly devoid of actual facts. The large cast includes Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, and Jessica Lange, all at their best. Warning: The final moments pack an emotional wallop. 

Loggerheads (2005) A little-known gem I caught at a San Francisco film festival, Loggerheads tells three different but interlocking stories, all set in North Carolina. Tess Harper, Bonnie Hunt, and Michael Learned are among the strong cast. The stories involve a young gay man who loves loggerhead turtles and his adoptive and birth mothers. I'd tell you more, but I think this movie is best experienced without a lot of upfront explanation and backstory. 

* Junebug (2005) This independent feature filmed in North Carolina gets the local atmosphere and accents right--there's even a mention of Cheerwine, as I recall. Plus it co-stars a charming Amy Adams in her breakout role. 
* Body Heat (1981) This is the kind of sexy film noir thriller Hollywood would have made in the 1940s had it not been for all that tedious, Hays Office/studio censorship. Set in Florida during a heat wave, this movie isn't particularly Southern in flavor (other than all the sweat). But it's a hugely entertaining showcase for Kathleen Turner as the ultimate femme fatale and William Hurt as her not-so-bright man toy.

* The Little Foxes (1941). No one did evil better than Bette Davis, and she was rarely better than when she was directed by William Wyler, who directed this film adaptation of the Lillian Hellman Deep South melodrama of greed. If nothing else, this movie is a showcase for black-and-white "deep focus" cinematography. Need an example? Watch the scene in which Bette, in the foreground, waits expectantly as her dying husband, in the background, crawls up the steps to retrieve the vital medication she has cruelly denied him. Both the foreground and background subjects are in clear focus--something you just don't see in color films. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer, also did the camera work for a little movie you may have heard of called Citizen Kane. BTW, as much as I love Bette Davis in the role, Tallulah Bankhead originated the part on stage and was said to be a sensation. Would she have overpowered the screen? Maybe. I'd still like to have seen her do the role. 

And the Oscar goes to: A Streetcar Named Desire. It's still a knockout of a movie.

Others that could have been contenders (to paraphrase Marlon Brando): 

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). I didn't add this to the main list because a) it's such an obvious candidate and b) it's rather schmaltzy and sentimental. Even so, it's funny, touching, and absorbing. It stars Jessica Tandy, always a treat to watch and Kathy Bates, in one of her first great performances ("I'm older and have more insurance!").

* Steel Magnolias (1989) Sally Field in the cemetery scene is reason enough to watch. 

* Norma Rae (1979) Once again, I loved Sally Field, especially when she stood on top of a table holding that "Union" sign. She had some great lines, too. When Rob Leibman, as a Yankee unionizer, trips and falls onto a cow pie and is all undone, Sally just sighs and says reassuringly: "It's only grass and water."

Others I used to love but frankly, my dear, I'm kinda tired of: 

* To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) I know, this is practically everyone's favorite Southern movie. I loved it as a kid and for many years after. And I still find it admirable and nicely acted. But here's a little secret: The book is even better. And if you think you don't need to read it because you've seen the movie 12,000 times, think again.

* Gone With the Wind (1939) I'm sure if someone sat me down in a movie theater and this movie began to unspool, I'd find it difficult to leave. But left to my own devices, I'm not ready to devote another four hours of my life to this film anytime soon. Then again, I can't resist Mammy, especially when she accuses Scarlett for waiting for Ashley Wilkes "just like a spid-ah."

Which movies would you nominate for Best Southern Picture of All Time, and why? I'd love to know. 

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  1. Definitely Steel Magnolias, that move makes me laugh til my sides hurt and makes me cry buckets of tears. I love it. Sad to say I haven't seen your top three ever! I know, hard to believe, but I'm not a big movie watcher. But I'll put them on my list and try to watch them when I have time. I finally watched Moneyball today and I watched it only because my son said I wouldn't like it as I'm not a big fan of numbers and statistics, but he forgot I'm a huge fan of Brad Pitt! It was an amazing movie!

  2. "The Little Foxes", one of my all time favorite movies. I could watch that scene of Bette Davis watching Herbert Marshall having a heart attack anytime and savor it just as much as when I first saw it. Bette is one of those rare actors who can act just with their eyes and expression, no words necessary. Having said that, I bet Talluhah would also have been great in that scene. Of course there is also that other great Bette Davis movie "Jezebel". And who can forget "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte", not only for Bette but for the great supporting actors Agnes Moorehead, Victor Buono, Joseph Cotton and the deliciously evil Olivia DeHavilland with her oh so sugary sweet "Oh Charlotte!"

  3. I feel a southern movie night coming on.....

  4. Wellll, since you asked....
    1. Hush Hush Sweet Charollette (sp)..still frightens me to this day. What a cast!


    2."Rich In Love" with another incredible cast....Mr. Albert Finney does southern better than I do and I ain't a Brit.

    Ya'll have a Happy Oscar night...have fun, and thank you for a great post.


  5. Well, let's see, not naming anything you've already named, my top 5 are:

    1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: good acting (John Cusack & Kevin Spacey) and direction (Clint Eastwood); set in Savannah; full of delightful characters. This movie captures something of the South, full of mystery and intrigue and long, long traditions.

    2. Crimes of the Heart: wonderful acting by some amazing females (Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton). I love Baby asking "Would you like some lemonade?" after shooting her husband. A story of how these women learn to deal with being Southern women, what it means, and coming to terms with it that they can handle.

    3. Giant: epic movie about Texas. Amazing cast with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson about an amazing place. This is the movie that made me fall in love with Texas.

    4. The Last Picture Show also set in Texas, small-town Texas, which I think is akin to almost any Southern small town. Stars a young Cybil Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, and Jeff Bridges in this "coming-of-age" story.

    5. The Color Purple: amazing, amazing and great cast Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover. The story is one of those that traces a character in her struggles and in the end is still glad to be alive and to have been a survivor.

    I think my list could go on forever, so I'll just stop there. :)

  6. My personal favorite is Joan Crawford's "The Queen Bee." Joan is deliciously evil as Eva, the epitome of Southern grace, stinging all her victims. And as an added bonus, Joan delivers the best slap ever. You'll want to watch this one over and over.

  7. Great suggestions, everyone. I'd forgotten about "Queen Bee"--a real hoot. "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" is another goodie; it scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. Love that big flower pot, and Bette Davis in butt-length braids, brandishing a shotgun, yelling "Get awf mah property!"

  8. Oh, I think I would have to say "To Kill a Mockingbird" I absolutely loved the book and the movie. Gregory Peck as Atticus was my celebrity crush.

  9. How about "The Chase" (1966), with Marlon Brando as the sheriff chasing after Robert Redford in one of his early film roles as prison escapee Bubba Reeves. Also co-starring Jane Fonda.

    And I concur with IT about "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof." Equally as good is another Paul Newman film, Tennessee Williams' "The Long Hot Summer."

  10. 'Deliverance' is problematic. I know residents of Clayton, Georgia where the picture was shot, and they still haven't gotten over being depicted as depraved hillbilly rapists. The fact is, never on the silver screen has an actor nailed the 'Southern demeanor' like Jon Voight did in 'Deliverance'. Just the line of dialog preceding our band of canoeing Atlantans are ushered into the woods for the famous 'squeal like pig' scene: 'Now, hold on a minute gentlemen. What is it you REQUIRE of us?'
    Worst Movie Set in the South of All-time? 'Hurry Sundown' from 1967, with Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, and Faye Dunaway. Appalling in ways that defy comprehension.

  11. "...being ushered..."

  12. via K Hulse
    In no order:
    Ya Ya Sisterhood, Steel Magnolias, Shag, the Help, Gone with the Wind, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Man in the Moon, Giant, Dazed and Confused, Fried Green Tomatoes, Whip It...I could go on...Urban Cowboy, Place in the Heart, Where the Heart Is, A Time to Kill, To Kill a Mockingbird.

    My favorite: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

  13. Glad to see Loggerheads. Such a beautiful film with fine performances from Kip Pardue and Tess Harper (my two favourites from the cast).