Southern Movie #19: “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”

Though the subject is more passé since the legalization of same-sex marriage, mainstream acknowledgment of homosexuals, bisexuals, and drag queens was not common in the late 1990s. And that was what made this month’s Southern Movie shocking in its day. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is based on the book of the same name by John Berendt and set in then-present day Savannah, Georgia. The film follows the story of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), an exceptionally wealthy closeted gay man who kills his unseemly lover, Billy Hanson (Jude Law) during a passionate argument. The story is thus explored by New York writer John Kelso (John Cusack), who has come to Savannah to cover Williams’ infamous Christmas party for a lifestyle magazine.

From the film’s opening scene, we get the Hollywood version of scene-setting for Southern oddity and darkness. As a jetliner traverses the blue sky overhead and comes in to land, we briefly follow a large black woman with heavy braids and dark glasses as she first talks to a squirrel then begins to cackle wickedly at the sight of the incoming plane. This knowing laughter foreshadows her voodoo-priestess role in the story that will unfold. After she has gone from the shot, John Kelso arrives and tries to manage a ride from the airport, bumbling himself onto a tour bus driven by a black driver whose drawl is thick enough to be almost unintelligible. We know from the first few scenes that John Kelso is entering a place that he doesn’t understand.

But that won’t stop him. Kelso has come to write up Jim Williams’ Christmas party for Town & Country magazine, nothing major, just five hundred words or so, a society piece. As the nosy Yankee writer approaches the beautiful home where the party will take place, he encounters Billy, a Camaro-driving greaser with little more to say than a quintessential “Whaddaryoo lookin’ at?” But, no harm-no foul, and Kelso gets his bearings to write his piece. He first meets Sonny, Jim’s old-school Southern attorney, then Jim Williams himself, who invites Kelso to the private party the night before – to this one he must come as a gentleman, not as a reporter – but Kelso declines, so he can go to bed early.

However, the Savannah we get in this film is not so simple; as Kelso tries to get some rest, an unknown woman, a pretty blonde with a flirty demeanor, knocks on his door in the middle of the night first to ask for ice, then to invite him to a party nearby. Of course, he must say yes.

There, we meet yet-another cast of characters who will become a part of our story: Mandy, the pretty lounge singer, and Joe Odum, a disbarred lawyer-turned piano player with a little too much joi-de-vivre. John Kelso is invited sight-unseen to a cocktail party where he is a little overly embraced. By this point in the movie, the Southern charm is getting syrupy, what with the falling-over “where are my manners?” introductions and overly quippy dialogue. On his way out the door, he asks Mandy how she knew to about him, she simply replies, “Welcome to Savannah.” (I’ve been to Savannah a few times, and that never happened to me . . . )

So, it’s the night of the big party – Kelso’s assignment – and everyone is dressed up, in tuxedos and gowns, and all are glad to see each other. Jim Williams is as charming as he should be, moving easily through the room, greeting each guest. Then he takes Kelso upstairs to a little parlor to show him even more impressive items in the grand collection, including the dagger used to kill Rasputin. All is well . . . until Billy Hanson shows up, drunk and belligerent, bitching about having to come in the back entrance and asking for $20 to go and get drunker. When Jim refuses, Billy smashes a vodka bottle and threatens him— now, we get it. (Wealthy, debonair Jim and crass, greasy Billy are more than casual acquaintances.) The standoff relents, though, and the scene ends with Jim playing a massive pipe organ to piss off his neighbors braying dogs.

So, the party ends, and everyone leaves except John Kelso, who politely declines an offer to stick around, since he has an early flight back to New York. This brief assignment might have been little more than a landmark in an otherwise not-too-stellar career, but Kelso is awakened in the middle of the night by the flashing of police lights. He gets up and crosses the street to find a crowd gathered outside, among them Joe Odum, tray of hors d’oeuvres in hand, who informs him that Jim Williams has killed Billy Hanson.

Now, we have conflict. We had setting . . . and characters . . . and plot— now, we’ve got a problem: a rich socialite in an old Southern city has shot and killed his seedy gay lover. And because the central character is a writer (from out of town) we have a means for moving this roman a clef forward: John Kelso scraps the lifestyle-mag article, because he is going to write a book, one whose research he will navigate by aiding Sonny the attorney in establishing Jim’s defense.

The meat of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil centers on the complexities of being gay in the Deep South in the late twentieth century. Now that the nature of their relationship is out in the open, the question must be answered: did Jim Williams kill Billy Hanson in self defense, as he claimed to police, or out of anger and bitterness toward a lover who was difficult to live with? Living in vastly different worlds, Jim and Billy were unlikely partners, brought together – we find out – by Billy working for Jim’s antique furniture restoration enterprise. Yet, the immersion into that heavily veiled Southern gay culture doesn’t end there. In the research for his book, John Kelso meets The Lady Chablis, an audacious black drag queen whose former roommate was one of Billy’s lovers. He/She becomes Kelso’s own unlikely partner in his search for the facts.

Though Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil‘s plot centers on John Kelso’s research into Jim Williams’ murder trial, the larger issues at hand are the gay community in the South and its connections to upper-crust society. In a conversation at a cafe shortly after Jim’s arrest, Mandy says this to Kelso:

Jim’s friends knew he was gay. Secretly, they congratulated themselves on being so cosmopolitan. If they knew he was completely open with his sexuality, they’d have shunned him.

That sums it up. The South of the 1980s and 1990s very much embodied Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. As Kelso explores the private corners of Savannah’s local culture – attending a drag show on the one hand, and seeking out the hush-hush insights from the who’s-who on the other – he overturns the rocks that no one wants to look under. The film’s main plot seeks to show-not-tell us the dichotomies: society ladies playing cards in pastel suits and big hats versus a skinny black man talking sass in a sequined gown and too much make-up, African-American cotillions with their formal dances versus violent messy-haired bisexuals, locals who understand the need for discretion versus a Yankee outsider who is there to out their uncomfortable secrets.

The “research” portions of Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil constitute a messy mix of aw-shucks detective work, banter about how “out” a gay person can be, and the development of a love story between Mandy and Kelso. There are few surprises and lots of cardboard.

Ultimately, Jim Williams is found not-guilty of murder. Kelso’s writerly detective work uncovers more than a little “shoddy police work,” since both he and Williams’ cat had ambled un-accosted into the crime scene, and he unintentionally finds out at the hospital that Billy’s corpse had not been properly preserved for investigation. Yet, Kelso’s assistance to the defense attorney will hardly get him closer to the truth. After a glint of honesty during one jailhouse conversation, in which Jim forthrightly proclaims to Kelso that Billy’s gun had never fired, Jim’s self-preservation instincts kick right back in. John Kelso must write what he can write, because Jim will never confess openly to the crime he was cleared of. Not being in jail feels pretty good.

As Hollywood is wont to do, John Kelso’s adventures in this strange land culminate in a love story. As the film ends, Kelso has moved to Savannah and is involved with Mandy. Even in a story of gay murder, the boy-meets-girl plot line must rise to the top.

As Hollywood is also wont to do, the film adaptation of Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil takes liberties on the true story that forms its basis. Berendt’s book, which is listed on Amazon.com in the categories “Social Sciences” and “True Crime,” relays the actual story of socialite Jim Williams and the man he killed, Danny Hansford. Though the real killing took place in 1981, the movie has more of a 1990s feel, and in the real events, Williams underwent four murder trials. (In the movie, there is only one, right after which Williams dies.) The Georgia Encyclopedia’s entry on the book relays this:

The impact of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on Savannah has been greater than that of any other book in the city’s history. Written by John Berendt and published by RandomHouse in January 1994, the nonfiction narrative quickly became known locally as simply “The Book.” Since that time it has sold more than three million copies in 101 printings, has been translated into twenty-three languages and appeared in twenty-four foreign editions, and has brought hundreds of thousands of tourists to Savannah to visit this loveliest of crime scenes. The one point on which both critics and admirers agree is that, after Midnight in the Garden, Savannah’s clock will never be turned back.

However, the film adaptation . . . not so much. Even though it runs about two-and-a-half hours, the film’s handling of the disparate elements doesn’t go well. Southern storytelling is highly regarded for its ability to connect all of the far-flung pieces that must be in their right places, and this film doesn’t accomplish that. Though we get to encounter a black voodoo priestess who was the widow of the infamous Dr. Buzzard, a mild-mannered man who has horse-flies tied to himself by threads and who carries a vial of supposedly powerful poison, a lawyer who proudly owns the University of Georgia’s mascot bulldog, a bowler-wearing dog-walker who is paid to exercise an an empty collar and leash, and a drunken former lawyer who plays lounge piano . . . their presence in not connected effectively with the story being told in the film. Sure, the characters from the book may all be there, but the storytelling isn’t.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil seems to me like a mild effort at turning a good book into a good film. The problem is: it didn’t work. The elements are there – a successful book as a foundation, a good cast, a controversial and modern subject – but they don’t add up. Sometimes the most interesting stories have only one media through which they can be told, and for the story of Jim Williams and Danny Hansford, I think it was long-form nonfiction. Put plainly, you shouldn’t have to read the book to understand its film version; the film should stand on its own. About the actors, Kevin Spacey was in the midst of a great run of films at this time (Se7en and The Usual Suspects in 1995, American Beauty in 1999) and John Cusack was just shy of his big films (Being John Malkovich in 1999 and High Fidelity in 2000), but Midnight won’t be held up among those classics. Even good actors can’t carry bad scripts.

However, as a cultural document, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil‘s subject matter has relevance. Its release in 1997 constituted one of several films from that decade with cross-dressing or gender-bending central components: 1992’s The Crying Game, 1995’s To Wong Foo, and 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. These films were opening the eyes of mainstream America to LGBT life. For gay men in the South, like Williams and Hansford, there was an unforgiving tightrope to walk every minute of every day. Being openly gay, or even being outed as gay, meant real danger, as in the case of Billy Jack Gaither, who was killed in February 1999 in Alabama. So, though Midnight is only a mediocre film, its merit can be measured in other ways.

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