Film: A flick through the Good and Evil book
Mark Cook visits Savannah, Georgia, whose eccentrics and scandalous past have brought Clint Eastwood to town
Friday 03 April 1998
The Book, to the gracious (if occasionally loony) people of Savannah, is John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a combination of true crime thriller and travelogue, based on the town, its history and its gorgeous eccentrics. Published in 1994, it is now a film being directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Spacey.
Berendt is happy (he must have thought he had died and gone to publishing heaven when he stumbled on the town) and so is Savannah, which saw tourism double when the book came out. Coachloads still throng to a town where the film cameras had hitherto only visited to shoot Tom Hanks at the bus stop with his box of chocolates in Forrest Gump.
The events of the book are the alleged killing by a suave, nouveau riche art collector and bon viveur of his rebellious boyfriend (in the film, Hollywood Brit babe Jude Law, all tattoos and attitude) and the subsequent trial. Add to that an exotic cocktail of sex, voodoo and booze seething beneath Southern gentility, and you can understand one character's description of Savannah as "Gone With the Wind on mescaline".
Central to the story is the accused, Jim Williams, played by Spacey. The body was found in the Mercer House, an imposing, terracotta-coloured. two-storey building at one end of a square, the former home of songwriter Johnny Mercer, whose works provide the film's soundtrack.
The central character is the accused, Jim Williams, played by Kevin Spacey complete with tuxedo and Southern twang like an oh-so-cool, gay Rhet Butler.
Then there is the The Lady Chablis. Please note the use of the definite article to describe this indefinite article, a black drag queen (born Frank Deveaux). She is a woman with that little bit extra, a grande dame who could shrivel Coronation Street's transsexual Hayley with a bat of her monstrous lashes.
The Lady herself plays the film role, and she will forgive me if I say she is not in the first flush of youth. She has cheekbones under which you could shelter a small tribe in an equatorial downpour and a waist that Scarlett O'Hara would have stamped a foot for. Indeed, she emulates that heroine in one of the best scenes by turning up to a ball in a most unsuitable dress. While other ladies dance and curtsey in white, she shimmies and shakes her not inconsiderable booty in a revealing blue number.
Chablis has been canny enough to slide on to the Berendt bandwagon with an autobiography, a colourful tale of a life eked out in grotty drag bars, plus some helpful homespun styling hints and recipes.
Regrettably, the Lady herself had skipped town when I finally made my own Berendt-inspired pilgrimage; she was presumably resting after the exertions of working New Year's Eve at the night-club she has put on the map.
The cobbled river area, with a view across the water to South Carolina, is based around old cotton warehouses - Savannah was once the world's foremost cotton port. It is all T-shirt shops and eateries and the concrete hulk of a chain hotel. Where was the charm and romance - and all those nutters, like the seedy serial squatter and the man who has flies on a lead, of the novel?
Fear not. Cross the main road and in a matter of minutes streets open up into wonderful squares full of huge oaks from which Spanish moss (it's not Spanish, and it's not moss) drapes elegantly. Even in the steely light of a cloudy early January, the sense of profusion is overpowering. You can feel the laid-back atmosphere to which, in its two-and-three-quarter- hour length, Eastwood's film has succumbed all too easily.
Savannah, says Berendt, a New Yorker and columnist in Esquire magazine, is a hotbed of gossip, feeding on the eccentrics who live there. Loopiness is cultivated and appreciated. But Southern gentility demanded that Williams was ostracised during his trial for giving public voice to the love that dare not speak its name, and when he gave evidence of his closeted lifestyle Momma sat outside the courtroom.
That such eccentricity and eclecticism should arise from such a place is perhaps explained by the fact that Savannah has encompassed America's first Sunday school, the first orphanage, the first golf course, the first black Baptist congregation. It was also home to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and the woman who founded the Girl Scouts of the USA, and America's third-oldest synagogue. It also boasts the country's second biggest St Patrick's Day parade after New York.
So has Savannah got sussed to its uniqueness, and spoiled like some over- indulged Southern Belle? Last word to Berendt, in his preface: "Savannah's head has not been turned ... The city remains as gracious as ever to its visitors, but it continues to be steadfastly impervious to outside influence.
"There may be more tourists spending more money in Savannah ... but eventually they do what tourists always do: they go home. And that suits Savannah just fine."
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