One year ago, I introduced a planned series on “Essential Southerns: Hollywood’s Forgotten Genre.” As I worked on it, though, the series continued to grow and grow in size and scope. Eventually, I knew it had passed well beyond the bounds of a mere blog feature and threatened to overwhelm everything. If I were to publish all of it here, I would have to rename this “The Southern Film Blog.” Tempting . . . but not what I want this site to be. But I promised you a list of films last year, and I aim to deliver a list of films. So, here’s a little preview of my “Southern” project in 4 parts. Enjoy!
Easy Rider (1969)
Screenplay by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, & Terry Southern. Dir. Dennis Hopper.
Perf. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson.
What it’s about: With money in their pockets thanks to a drug run, a pair of free-spirited bikers set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, with some stops along the way. Enjoying the freedom of the open road, they meet a variety of people, including a rancher, a hitchhiker, and a whole hippie commune. Eventually they pick up a third and head deeper into the South, but soon run into trouble with the intolerant locals.
Why it’s essential: Easy Rider was the surprise hit of 1969. Actually, it was the surprise hit of the whole decade. Shot on a modest budget, the film was a massive success, earning about 115 times what it cost to make. Because of its immense popularity, influence, and the fact that it was produced outside of the Hollywood system, it is credited with a significant role in kick-starting the “New Hollywood” renaissance of American film that continued throughout the 1970s. Looking back, critics and scholars have consistently identified its release as a watershed moment in film and in the counterculture.
Warren French, writing in 1981, predicted that this new type of film, the “Southern,” populated by its own unique character types and featuring motor vehicles instead of horses, would eventually come to replace the “dying” Western genre. Oddly enough, Peter Fonda originally conceived of Easy Rider as a sort of modern Western, where he and Hopper would ride motorcycles rather than horses. Of course, it is telling that these characters ride off away from the sunset, not into it, and that they express admiration for the simple lifestyle of the West, but ultimately reject it.
The film’s major theme is the failure of American ideals. As the movie’s tagline explains, “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere . . .” Over a century after the Civil War, the South still seemed like the logical regional setting for a film about the death of the American dream, even for a film that was first envisioned as a Western. After the protagonists’ unconventional clothes and hair invite abuse from the locals in a small town, Jack Nicholson’s character observes that most Americans are afraid of freedom (non-conformity, in this case), for all their talk about it. That fear leads to intolerance, and ultimately to violence. The film describes this tragic cycle as an American malaise, but contextualizes it in exclusively Southern terms.
But is it worth watching? Watching Easy Rider, it’s easy to see why it is so frequently identified as a cultural touchstone. The infectious, hippie appeal is obvious: men flying freely down long, empty stretches of highway atop awesome-looking choppers, their travels accompanied by some of the best music of the decade. Jack Nicholson is also excellent in the role that launched his incredible career. Worthwhile for either cultural or entertainment value alone, the combination of both makes this a must-see.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Screenplay by Ethan & Joel Coen. Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen.
Perf. George Clooney, Jon Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson.
From epic poem The Odyssey (700s BC) by Homer.
What it’s about: Slick-talking Ulysses Everett McGill convinces fellow prisoners Pete and Delmar to escape from the chain-gang with him in pursuit of false promises of buried treasure. The three men embark on an epic odyssey across the Depression-Era South, in which they encounter all manner of strange characters and have many adventures.
Why it’s essential: Hardly anyone seemed to know quite what to make of the Coen Brothers’ comedic foray into the Deep South when it was released to mixed reviews at the turn-of-the-millennium. A couple of Oscar nominations aside, it got relatively little attention in the film world. In the music world, though, it caused quite a stir. The film’s brilliant soundtrack, produced by T-Bone Burnett, won three Grammys, including Album of the Year, and has been certified 8 times platinum to-date. It has since appeared on various lists of the greatest country albums of all time, and of the best and most important albums of its decade. Its success ignited a major revival in bluegrass music, and has been cited as a significant influence by bands like the hugely-popular Mumford & Sons.
Music aside, the brilliant conceit of transplanting Homer’s epic Odyssey from the Ancient Mediterranean to the equally weird and mythic world of 1930s Mississippi works in every possible way. The Coens spend the film weaving together Southern tropes and cinematic in-jokes, starting with the title (a sly reference to the classic Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels). Their heroes encounter a blind prophet, a gangster, a trio of seductresses that ply them with moonshine, a crooked Bible salesman, a couple of even crookeder politicians, a Ku Klux Klan rally, and more. Throughout it all, they are pursued relentlessly by a man who might be the law, or who might be the Devil himself.
Best of all is the way that the Coens play with the often-blurred line between Southern fact and Southern fiction, taking historical characters and events and cultural constructions of “Southerness” and tossing it all into the soup together in their own unique way. By evoking the culture of the period so strongly, they end up giving us a pretty good feel for the period itself, all while juggling the film’s deliberately tongue-in-cheek tone and working in major plot points from The Odyssey. It is a thoroughly audacious undertaking carried out with consummate style. But that’s the Coen Brothers in a nutshell.
But is it worth watching? O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of those rare and wonderful movies that can be watched over and over and over again without getting old, and I have watched it, innumerable times. Sheer entertainment from start to finish, with hilarious performances, whip-smart writing, totally bizarre and unexpected goings-on of all kinds, and a just too-perfect soundtrack, there simply isn’t anything not to like. It may not be the Coen Brothers’ best film, or even my favorite of their films . . . But, really, it kind of is at the same time.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Dir. Elia Kazan.
Perf. Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter.
From play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams.
What it’s about: Fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois flees her Mississippi hometown in poverty and disgrace, hoping to find refuge in New Orleans with Stella, her newly-married sister. Instead, her aristocratic sensibilities are scandalized by her sister’s living conditions, and most of all by Stella’s brutish husband Stanley Kowalski. Blanche’s fragile mental state threatens to unravel under Stanley’s prying questions about her past and about the misfortune that brought her to his squalid apartment.
Why it’s essential: A Streetcar Named Desire made the careers of its author, Tennessee Williams, who won the Pulitzer for it, and its breakout star, Marlon Brando, with a highly-successful Broadway run in 1947. Both men, along with most of the Broadway cast, and director Elia Kazan, returned to fill the same roles for the tortured production of the 1951 film. I say “tortured,” though one would hardly know it to watch the movie now and reflect on its success. Streetcar won 4 Oscars, and was nominated for 12. It committed to film the definitive version of a raw, powerful drama that continues to appear regularly on stages across the nation today, and it remains a classic.
Nevertheless, its journey from stage to screen was torturous because its subject matter was so shocking and unprecedented. Critics and scholars frequently cite Streetcar as the first film exclusively for adults to be released under the strict guidelines of the infamous Production Code. Williams and Kazan fought censors and studio heads for years to see their vision brought faithfully to the screen, but they were ultimately stymied by the Catholic Legion of Decency, whose objections prompted the studio to secretly trim 5 minutes from the finished film. Decades later, that footage was restored, and today we can see this masterpiece in all its explosive glory. Marlon Brando, pioneer of the avant-garde school of Method acting, is full of raw, bestial energy, embodying the rough, urban modernity that threatens to crush the fragile, anachronistic idealism of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche.
A mere 12 years after she created the archetypal image of the antebellum Southern belle as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Leigh deconstructed that archetype as Blanche DuBois, Scarlett’s Gothic double. Where Scarlett is fiery and youthful, Blanche is meek, aging, and subject to headaches and fainting spells. Both women are survivors who seek to have their needs met primarily by manipulating the men around them. However, where Scarlett uses her sexuality and the chivalrous social codes of her day, Blanche has neither of those advantages to fall back on. Instead, she uses “manners” and “breeding” to attract men, but her appeals to chivalry fall largely on deaf ears in the modern South embodied by her brother-in-law Stanley. In the world of Streetcar, not only does Blanche’s South, the South of Gone with the Wind, no longer exist (if it ever did), but the New South is actively trampling what remains of the Old.
But is it worth watching? Reading A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s hard not to notice that the writing is a little too on-the-nose. The symbolism is obvious, and its quasi-allegorical themes threaten to overwhelm the actual narrative. In the film, all of that fades into the background, and there is nothing but the performances, the sultry New Orleans music, the grubby sets, the stark black-and-white cinematography. While the films more salacious elements seem positively tame now, there’s nothing tame about the way Brando tears up the screen. Leigh, Kim Hunter (as Stella), and Karl Malden (as Mitch) all won Oscars for their amazing performances, while Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart. He would go on to be nominated twice more before his first win, but it’s quite clear now that, as good as the rest of the cast is, Brando is head-and-shoulders above them.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Screenplay by Kasi Lemmons. Dir. Kasi Lemmons.
Perf. Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Meagan Good, Samuel L. Jackson.
What it’s about: Eve Batiste is the younger daughter of a respected doctor in an African-American community in 1960s Louisiana. She idolizes her father, but her idealism is shattered when she catches him in a compromising position with a family friend, igniting a sequence of dramatic events that will change her family forever over the course of a single summer.
Why it’s essential: Although it went completely (and bafflingly) unnoticed by most of the major awards shows in 1997, Eve’s Bayou won an armload of smaller awards, and was lavishly praised by critics. Roger Ebert named it the best film of the year, and more recently, TIME named it one of the 25 most important films on race. Not bad for a first time writer/director.
The movie is positively drenched in the spooky atmosphere of the Louisiana bayou, and makes excellent use of the narrative device of a child struggling to make sense of an adult world that she doesn’t fully understand. There are various Southern tropes in play here (buried secrets, voodoo curses, and a whole lot of Spanish moss), but they feel organic to the story, not like cliches or rote elements in a formula. Underneath it all is a haunting cinematic meditation on the ambiguous, constructed nature of human memory, and the role this inevitably plays in the drama of human relationships.
The characters in Eve’s Bayou witness events, overhear conversations, and repeat recollections. We see and hear what they do, often from multiple perspectives. This web of second-hand observation forms impressions that may or may not be correct. Throughout it all, Lemmons refuses to allow her audience the complacency of assuming the objectivity of what we can see, an extraordinarily difficult trick for a film to accomplish.
But is it worth watching? As the movie begins, an adult Eve intones in a quiet voice-over, “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” If you aren’t instantly hooked by that opening, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. The stellar cast all deliver riveting performances, and the film just sucks you in and never lets you go. To call it one of the greatest films of its kind is true, but a bit misleading, for it is truly one-of-a-kind.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Screenplay by Sidney Howard. Dir. Victor Fleming.
Perf. Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel.
From novel Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.
What it’s about: Spoiled, self-centered Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara sees her world turned upside-down during the destruction of the Civil War, and later, the turmoil of Reconstruction. In the midst of a brand-new social order, she does whatever is necessary to survive this sudden reversal of fortunes, getting by on her considerable charm and willingness to manipulate everyone around her. Rakish opportunist Rhett Butler is the one man who sees through her performance, sparking a tempestuous relationship.
Why it’s essential: Gone with the Wind is the title most likely to come to mind as the example of a Southern movie. Margaret Mitchell’s novel won a Pulitzer in the mid-1930s and became one of the best-selling American books of all time. Famed Hollywood producer David O. Selznick acquired the rights to film the novel before it was even published, and the production drew national attention. The film was the major motion picture event of 1939, winning 8 of its 13 Oscar nominations. One went to Hattie McDaniel, making her the first African American to win an Oscar, though she was segregated from the other attendees at the awards ceremony.
Mitchell’s novel has been criticized as an “encyclopedia of the plantation legend,” but it’s Selznick’s film that truly deserves that label. Mitchell’s novel contains all of the trappings of the Old-South-to-Reconstruction mythology, but it slips in ambiguities and subverts conventions throughout. The film version, looking to distill a thousand-page novel down to a “mere” four-hour film, stripped all of that ambiguity and subversion away, substituting widely-held contemporary beliefs about what the antebellum South was “really” like. Its immense, incomparable popularity has made it the standard by which all other depictions of the period are judged.
Running for years in some places, it remains the most successful film in movie history, with ticket sales in the hundreds of millions. It is one of only a few stories of its era to maintain an active fandom. Everything since either owes an obvious debt to Gone with the Wind, or is consciously attempting to answer it. It remains by far the most-cited cultural touchstone depicting plantation life, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. So, while Gone with the Wind certainly didn’t originate stereotypes of happy, singing slaves, noble, doomed Confederates, and Yankee abuse during Reconstruction, it is undoubtedly the most obvious culprit in their continued survival. But its level of influence is no fluke. Its story is powerful, populated with iconic characters, featuring all of the magic and opulence that the movies had at their disposal during the height of the studio era.
But is it worth watching? Gone with the Wind captured the imagination of an entire generation of filmgoers, but even though it still looms large in the cultural imagination, it no longer has the same power over modern audiences that it had in 1939. Still, everyone should see this movie, and if you actually do sit through all 238 minutes of the film’s epic running time, I think you’ll have experienced something that will not soon fade from memory. Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable delivered career-defining performances, and practically every second of the movie is a gorgeous and impressive product of its era, even when it is obviously being shot on a set. Watching Gone with the Wind will certainly transport you to another time, it just won’t be the 1860s.