“Truth…like art…is in the eye of the beholder.”
Not exactly sure how Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) works, but it does. It's not exactly a ‘whodunit’ since there is little doubt the film's protagonist, wealthy and flamboyant philanthropist/antique art dealer, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) murdered his gay hustler boy toy, Billy Hanson (Jude Law) in cold blood. It’s not entirely a thriller either, even though - as in the celebrated tradition of the novel by Syracuse native and magazine writer, John Berendt (based on actual events) – there remains plenty of moody southern American Gothic allure; the lush and steamy Savannah locale, malingering with a palpable disquiet and, at times, perversely tense ennui. The film has no climax to speak of - the machinations in Jim’s subsequent trial and exoneration (even though we already know he is guilty as sin) a foregone conclusion about midway through the screenplay, superbly consolidated by John Lee Hancock, although perhaps revealing just a tad too much long before the moot verdict is announced near the end of the film's 155 minute run time.
At best then, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an ensemble piece, very much cut from the same artistic cloth as a Robert Altman flick - its plot secondary to getting to know these vibrant characters who skulk about this moonlight and magnolia backdrop with their gentile drawl and aged bourbon firmly in hand. Action occurs almost incidentally, with a sort of languid cadence, and, only when absolutely necessary to move the audiences from one lurid vignette into the next – indeed, a very ‘southern’ approach to this material. And yet, from beginning to end, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is never anything less than riveting. In retrospect, what it has in spades is uncanny verisimilitude, thanks to Clint Eastwood's foresight in casting the real people written about in the novel as their own cameos in his film. Except for stars, John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jude Law and a few supporting players, Eastwood has invited virtually all of the gentry actually a part of this mystery, to partake of its reenactment; the one forgivable omission, the beloved British bulldog/mascot, Uga IV who, by the time Eastwood and his entourage came to town, was long since deceased, replaced by his successor, Uga V. Such cameos do more than merely provide charm, humor and sublime texture to these proceedings. They lend an air of verisimilitude impossible to top any other way.
Berendt’s novelization of the actual murder, which took place in the 1980s, alludes to the time-honored principles of black magic – or voodoo – ‘midnight’, believed to be the ephemeral grace period when forces of the supernatural can be manipulated either for good or evil; the garden, South Carolina’s Beaufort cemetery; a decaying oasis of moss-laden statuary and architecturally spellbinding mausoleums, where spiritualist, Minerva (Irma P. Hall) practices incantations over the grave of her late husband, Dr. Buzzard, presumably to ensure a successful resolution to Jim William’s trial for murder. “I was seduced by Savanah,” Berendt openly admits, “I didn’t choose it, it chose me. I was absolutely overcome by its spectacular beauty; eighteenth century and nineteenth century Victorian mansions. I loved the stories. I loved the people. But it’s about a very strange circumstance. In the movie, John Cusack plays me, so it is suggested, come to write a piece for Town and Country magazine, which I had never written for. But ultimately, I thought Clint Eastwood did a marvelous job with it, and I must say that many of my friends have gone there since, to visit the locales as depicted in the film; not one of them disappointed by what they’ve seen.”
Berendt’s prose – a page-turner, unprecedentedly on the New York Time’s Best Seller List for 216 weeks (that’s four years!!!), rearranges certain events in the actual crime of passion, loosely classified as non-fiction or ‘faction’ – a hybrid originally popularized by Truman Capote and later, Norman Mailer. John Lee Hancock’s screenplay is fairly faithful to both the structure and dialogue of the book. Yet it is Eastwood’s meticulous craftsmanship, his unfailing persistence and ability to meander through these cultured private courtyards and byways, allowing his audience to discover the mounting tension as our every man, Yankee freelance writer, John Kelso (John Cusack) does, that lends Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil its genuinely disturbing air as a haunting cinematic experience. Initially, not all of Savannah embraced the book’s popularity, certainly not Williams’ sister, Dorothy W. Kingery, who found something moderately distasteful in Berendt’s decision to periodically interrupt the severity of her brother’s story with interspersed lighter inserts devoted to the ‘crazy and colorful’ Southern folk long suspected of inhabiting the region. Upon publication, shopkeepers stocking Berendt’s novel discovered to their horror, their front windows and doors pelted and smeared with rotten eggs, apples and tomatoes. “In the south we’re raised not to tell family secrets,” gift shop owner, Deborah Sullivan explains, “But this one tells a lot of family secrets. It’s a true story and a compelling one – but I received threatening letters when I first decided to open my shop.” Publishing phenomena are rare. The last one to hit the South was arguably, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. But Berendt’s book proved another earth-shattering event from which, arguably, Savannah has yet to recover. Indeed, regional tourism has remained high since; the novel and movie’s popularity gradually gaining acceptance among the locals. “I had decided to carry 400 copies of the book when it was first published,” antique book seller, Ginger Duncan explained, “But by the end of the first year I was able to buy a brand new Buick with the proceeds I had made off the book.”
“Today Savannah is more aware of itself,” Berendt later commented, “…and more aware that the world is watching them which really hasn’t changed much around here except for the price tag of houses.” “I think most people have come to realize that the book is a real investment for Savannah,” the real Sonny Seiler (Jim Williams’ former attorney, who appears in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as the presiding judge) explained, “There are a few people who still 'scrumble' about it. I suppose it just depends on whose ox is in the ditch!” “It’s changed my life tremendously,” the transgender Lady Chablis Deveau (who plays herself in the movie) added, “I’ve met so many wonderful people since the book and the movie. You know, even before the book came out John (Berendt) told me ‘you’re going to be famous’…and he kept his word.”
“I came to the novel second best,” Eastwood would later confide, “Having read John Lee Hancock’s script first, and liking it very much. I thought - this is different. This is something I would like to try. Then I read the book and appreciated it even more because John (Hancock) had taken what was a very quirkily written and sometimes episodic story and managed to sort through and find a continuation of story; the characters all interwoven into the plotline, whereas in the novel some of them merely interweave with Savanah – creating mood and texture.” Eastwood would spend a great deal of his preproduction phase on Monterey Square; the historic eighteenth century promenade overlooking Mercer/Williams House, aptly named after its two most renown residents; composer, Johnny Mercer and, of course, Jim Williams, its most scandalized denizen. Resplendently sheathed in long billowy curtains of Spanish moss, Mercer/Williams House would prove equally a character as any of flesh and blood. Even so, Eastwood knew the success of his movie lay in discovering an actor who shared not only something of the physical stature of the real Jim Williams, but moreover, was able to convey a more intangible zest for inhabiting the part; body, mind and spirit. “Kevin had a certain resemblance to the real Jim Williams,” Eastwood admitted, “…and, of course, did his own intense research into the character. It was a tough role to play, because Williams was both very flamboyant, charismatic, and yet, with an air of mystery about him. And Kevin gave us all that and more.”
Indeed, Spacey’s central performance is the glue holding the picture together with a disconcerting significance. His incarnation of Jim Williams is part smooth operator/part charlatan, with a devilish twinkle of the bon vivant caught in his eye. Yet, Spacey’s demeanor equally bears a somewhat threatening sophistication; a formidable palette of insincere emotions, cheek and class for which the actor has proven time and again the inimitable ability to unearth pathos and sass with technical proficiency and immeasurable artistic panache. Two other outstanding performances mark the film’s assortment of larger-than-life caricatures; John Cusack, as Berendt’s amiable alter ego, come to call on an unsuspecting murder mystery about to unfold right before his eyes, and, Benjamin Edward Knox – better known throughout Savannah (and since the release of the movie, around the world) as The Lady Chablis; a drag entertainer, more overtly suggested as a transgender woman in the movie. “In the south,” Berendt admits, “People regard other people’s lives as works of art…and Chablis is quintessentially southern in this respect.” Chablis, in typically outspoken style, lobbied hard for the part, adding of Eastwood’s decision to cast her as herself in the movie, “Well…he was a hunk a’ man…and such a gentleman. He was quiet in a shy sort of way, and yet he was intimidating in a ‘Dirty Harry’ sort of way.”
Our story begins with voodoo spiritualist, Minerva (Irma P. Hall) seated on a park bench, observing an airplane flying overhead, carrying writer, John Kelso (John Cusack) to Savannah, almost as though she knows the reason for his arrival. Kelso has been assigned, at least so he believes, by his publisher to write a 500 word article for Town and Country on a Christmas party to take place at wealthy philanthropist, Jim Williams' heritage estate. What Kelso quickly learns is he has been summoned by Williams to write the piece for the magazine. Jim's interest in Kelso is never entirely disclosed, although Kelso does find a copy of the book he has written on one of the shelves in Jim's study. But Jim is a guarded man, most notably scrutinized under the watchful eye of his attorney, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson). The first 45min. or so of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in an infectious TripTik through the fictionalized Savannah: Eastwood, introducing us to assorted hams, eccentrics, exhibitionists and shameless self-promoters. Almost immediately, Kelso is smitten with the prospects of staying on to do a more intimate and detailed piece, informing his editor by telephone, “These people sound like they’re in Gone With the Wind!”
It goes without saying Clint Eastwood is a meticulous craftsman. No other director working in pictures today possesses the unbridled courage to simply amble through these warmly amusing southern addresses, introducing us to an ensemble of slick and stylish roués and oddballs, including nightclub owner, Joe Odem (Paul Hipp), Jim's slightly pert social secretary (Kim Hunter) and southern belle, Mandy Nicholls (Alison Eastwood – Clint’s daughter); a character created expressly as a love interest for Kelso and not originally in Berendt’s novel. But without a doubt the most captivating of the lot is The Lady Chablis (played to riotous free-spirited perfection by the real Chablis; inexplicably rechristened ‘Frank’ Deveau in the movie). Kelso first meets Chablis after Jim is arrested for the murder of Billy Hanson – a crude hustler, perhaps to have had a sexual liaison with Jim, now turned rancid. Tracking Chablis down via a bit of free-styled investigative research, determined to get the goods about her former association with Billy, Kelso is first given the cold shoulder by Chablis, then warmly embraced by this flamboyant class act who regards life as her own personal movie with herself in the starring role, and, who acts as something of the 'Greek chorus' in this film, providing a running commentary to fill in gaps in the back story. Through Chablis we discover Billy Hanson was "a good time not yet had by all".
In one of the film's most exuberant vignettes, Kelso is invited to attend a fund-raising cotillion that Chablis crashes, wearing an exquisite and show-stopping blue sequin dress, after having been told by Kelso she cannot come as his date. Alluding to her own promiscuity, while exposing the peccadilloes of another of the evening's honored guests, Chablis slickly seduces a young male party guest with whom she performs some rather risqué dance moves before being escorted by Kelso from the ballroom. Meanwhile, out on bond, Jim introduces Kelso to Minerva. On a thickly mist-laden evening, the three hold a séance over Billy's grave. Minerva implores Jim to ask for Billy's forgiveness; also, to confess he and Billy were actually lovers. "In order to understand the living you got to communicate with the dead!" Minerva tells him. The pervading eerie atmosphere is capped off by a haunting jab of dark pleasure. But Jim is suddenly wounded by the revelation and storms off. The next afternoon, Kelso tells Mandy he is concerned the police have bungled the crime scene. On a quest for the truth, Mandy helps Kelso sneak into the morgue to examine Billy's body. Kelso notes Billy's hands might not have been bagged properly, thus owing to the prosecution's claim there is no gun powder residue to support Jim's claim of self-defense; Billy, supposedly firing his gun first at Jim on the eve of the murder. This suspicion is confirmed after Kelso learns Nurse Sara Warren (Patrika Darbo) did, in fact, bag Billy's hands only after he was brought to the hospital, thus contradicting Det. Boone's (Leon Rippy) statement at trial; that he personally secured all aspects of the crime scene.
Ecstatic and still believing in Jim's innocence, Kelso rushes to reveal the evidence he has unearthed, only to have Jim confess to the contrary; first, that the statement he gave to police - and the story he continues to run with at trial - are a lie. Although Billy did - at least, by Jim's account - threaten him with violence, he did not draw a gun on him. Instead, Jim shot Billy once in the chest, then again in the back in cold blood. Disillusioned, Kelso allows Sonny to use the evidence of a botched police investigation to exonerate Jim. The victory, however, is bittersweet and very short lived. For upon returning home, Jim suffers a fatal heart attack in exactly the same place where he stood on the night of the murder - dropping to the floor and briefly hallucinating Billy's body lying next to him; curiously grinning as his supernatural day of reckoning draws near. After Jim's funeral, Kelso decides to remain in Savannah. The film closes with the suggestion he and Mandy are on their way to becoming seriously romantically involved.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is compelling in ways most movies made today are not. Its character-driven narrative harks all the way back to the huge ensemble set pieces Hollywood once cultivated most spectacularly in the 1930s with classics like Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). The picture greatly benefits from its infusion of the local gentry invited to play themselves. Evidently, participants were treated to the unanticipated rigors of making a movie; hours of waiting around for the cameras to roll and enduring the stifling heat in elegant evening attire without the benefit of air-conditioning. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil possesses some subtly nuanced performances; front and center - Kevin Spacey’s devious, yet courtly art lover, closeted beneath a thin veneer of faux respectability. John Cusack is an engaging hero; his best moments realized when the script takes its 'fish out of water' premise less seriously and to extremes - allowing the actor to camp it up and play to the irony of the situations thrust upon him. But Cusack also illustrates a profoundness for the drama; particularly his reactions to Jim’s confession of guilt; panged, with a modicum of repulsed disappointment, both in Jim and himself, for having been duped into believing in Jim’s false innocence from the outset.
Herein, we pause to offer sincere praise for the Lady Chablis, who left us much too soon at the age of 59 this September, 8. Chablis, who came to prominence via her riotous and unapologetic autobiography, ‘Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah’ would go on to reach international notoriety with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A natural in front of the camera, with charisma plus and the native gifts of an edgy and ebullient raconteur, Chablis’ bawdiness and brains make her a stunning edition to the film as no ‘actor’ could have brought such vivacity to the part. The chemistry between Chablis and John Cusack’s naïve Northerner is palpable and engaging. At times, it effortlessly toggles between the restless sort of traditional male buddy/buddy camaraderie we are used to seeing in the movies, and, a deliciously gender-bending bro-mantic chemistry. There is an air of sophistication to the ‘lady’ in question; friskiness too, arguably, derived from channeling her ‘male’ intuition, or perhaps, the realization she can take the best of both sexes to create a truly unique and fascinating personality all her own. I recall awakening Sept. 8th to read with great sadness the headlines Chablis had died; the profoundness of that emotion intensifying by revisiting her performance in this movie again last night. Drag performers are a dime a dozen. Many wear the clothes but not the mantle of quality essential to go beyond mere performance. The Lady Chablis was, and remains a true denizen of the art, the craft, and the illusion of life itself as a higher form of sheer artistry. In times yet to follow, the depth of her loss to the world of entertainment will likely diminish. Time, after all, marches forward and onto new things, while memory is left to fade. But there will never be another Lady Chablis.
Jack N. Green's evocative cinematography extols the moody elegance of Savannah - exploring its rich cultural history with a timely and genuine flair for its decadence. The final spark of creativity stems from Eastwood's insistence on using orchestrations written by legendary composer, Johnny Mercer as cues in service of the action. Mercer, a Savannah native whose former home became the setting for this real life murder mystery, wrote some of the most eloquent ballads. These, at intervals, come to epitomize Savannah's eclectic neighborhoods. Eastwood kicks off his picture with ‘Skylark’ – perhaps, Mercer’s most instantly recognizable and haunting melody, sung Acapella with sad-eyed restraint and a background of faint ill-willed wind about to blow through and disrupt the relative tranquility of these eccentrics. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is not so much an obvious triumph in Clint Eastwood's directorial canon as it remains a truly outstanding achievement of the 'little gem' class - extraordinarily meaty in its characterizations, if occasionally rather wafer-thin on plot, but with a monumentally compelling roster of players to distract and entertain.
Two grave sins have been rectified with the Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray release of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The first is for those eager to collect ‘all’ of Eastwood’s directorial masterworks created under the Warner studio banner. When Warner Home Video released its ‘Eastwood Collection’ in hi-def back in 2009 it unceremoniously failed to include Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, chiefly, I suspect, because as late as 2013 the studio was still resting on its laurels, repackaging the DVD with different cover art but the same utterly abysmal and severely flawed transfer created all the way back in 1997 at DVD’s infancy. It is not overstating the obvious to suggest that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on DVD was one of the worst examples of failed compression to come from a major studio; whole portions of the image suffering from tiling, severe edge enhancement, a lot of shimmering of fine details, and, a thoroughly digitized and pixelated image that in no way even made the attempt to replicate Jack N. Green’s lush and moody cinematography.
Well…you can officially retire that ole disc as a coaster for your drink, because Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on Blu-ray is one of the best looking hi-def offerings to come from WAC in 2016; and this, in a banner year for the archive, that has bestowed an embarrassment of riches on the movie collector. Prepare to be astonished, as they used to say, because what’s here is nothing short of gorgeous. Colors pop with renewed vibrancy. Flesh tones are extremely accurate. Greens in foliage are sumptuous. Chablis’ blue sequin gown sparkles with all the bedazzled excellence of a drag queen in her element and prime. Contrast is superb with no crushed blacks. Film grain is looking very indigenous to its source. It is more than gratifying to see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil looking this spectacular on home video: it is a revelation, and one surely to impress both the first time viewer, but also the ardent lover of this piece of cinema art who has since been cribbing their memories from the aforementioned careworn and dull DVD transfer of nearly 2 decades ago. The new DTS 5.1 audio is as much, if not more, a revelation with subtle nuances scattered, and, dialogue sounding crisp and natural. You are going to LOVE this disc. It’s that simple. The one miscalculation: the only extra feature is The Real People in the Garden; a rather short series of interviews in standard def, conducted with some of Savannah’s participating gentry. We would have preferred a new audio commentary from Eastwood and some more comprehensive extras; vintage ‘behind-the-scenes’ stuff must exist; but realistically, we are not going to poo-poo the extraordinary investment made by WAC to get the movie itself looking this darn good.
My admiration for WAC in the past is duly noted. So, for those regularly reading this blog, my gushing herein will come as no great surprise. But it bears mentioning again WAC’s output this year is running neck and neck with Sony Home Entertainment’s level and high standards in invested quality. Such attention to detail ought to always be acknowledged and praised, not only to draw attention to it for those considering a ‘blind purchase’ of their product, but equally to encourage the studio to continue the trend well into the future. So, to the good folks at WAC under George Feltenstein’s management, consider me both ‘impressed’ and extremely grateful. To everyone else, the message is more simply stated: buy this disc – a treasure forever. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)