Have you ever had your image of something so irrevocably shaped that whenever you hear it mentioned, you immediately visualize it in a particular manner? I have discovered that this has happened to me with the city of Savannah, Georgia. Even though I have never been there, I have an indelible impression of its people and places carved into my mind.
Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil has shaped my image of Savannah to such an extent that visiting now may only disappoint. Since so many of the characters in both the book and movie of that title have either died or moved on it would be like a family reunion with all your favourite relatives not in attendance.
John Berendt wrote Midnight in 1994 as a recounting of how he came to be in Savannah in the eighties on a whim and ended up becoming so fascinated with the city visiting on and off for the next ten years. Part travelogue, part gossip column, part murder mystery, but mainly a lot of fun Midnight introduces us to a wide variety of characters, situations and places which if this were a work of fiction we would accuse the author of suffering from a surfeit of imagination.
While Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the book revolves around one incident, the murder of a hustler by his wealthy employer cum homosexual lover, the book spreads its net wider. What takes place in the span of a year in the movie are the events of around ten years in the life of Savannah. The murder and the ensuing trials act as a tailor’s dummy that Mr. Berendt can dress in the various colours and styles of Savannah.
Antique dealer and restorer Jim Williams (the accused murderer)’s circle of friends, acquaintances and enemies spreads into every nick and cranny of life in Savannah. From his lawyer Sonny, who represents Uga, the bulldog mascot of The Georgia Bulldogs football team, to The Lady Chablis, the cross dressing female impersonator, this group gives proof to the saying that variety is the spice of life.
Along for the ride are keen observers of life like Joe Orton, disbarred lawyer, fraudulent real estate developer, and musician. Then there is his on-again off-again fiancée Mandy, who controls the finances in an attempt to keep Joe’s creditors from eating up the profits of their bar, and Joe from writing any more bad checks.
Joe’s idea to recoup his losses by house-sitting for wealthy individuals who are on tours of Europe, then throwing open the doors of the same house for tours, quickly runs him afoul of the Historical Society of Savannah. Not only has he pissed them off for stealing their business but these houses have little or no historical value.
Then there’s Luther Diggs, who ties flies to his lapels by the means of strings, so that he walks around with them buzzing his head. Luther is just a little bitter for having his invention of the No-Pest Strip stolen by the company he worked for at the time. His tendency to drink heavily and get depressed while carrying a vial of pesticide he claims is potent enough to destroy Savannah if he were to only slip it into the water supply, understandably, has the good citizens worried.
But the book and the movie both centre around Jim Williams before, during and after his trial. His poor white trash beginnings can be ignored only so long as he behaves as he’s supposed to; even the fact that he’s homosexual is of no concern as long as he’s discreet. But putting four bullets from an antique Luger into your street-hustler boy friend is a little much even for Savannah’s jaded appetites.
Quickly dropped from the A-list, it’s no problem for John Berendt to get people to talk about Jim now that his prestige has wilted. Lee Adler, whom Jim had removed from the Historical Board for putting himself before the interests of the board, has no qualms about telling all of Jim’s nasty past: hanging swastikas from his balcony being one of the milder.
What Mr. Adler failed to mention about this incident was that it occurred during the use of the square in which Jim’s house is situated by a film company. Without getting permission from anyone but the city, not even a courtesy call to the home owners, they went ahead and converted the whole square into 19th century America—including dumping tons of dirt on the roads to cover all traces of asphalt. Jim waited until he knew his balcony would be in a shot, and just as they started to shoot, he unfurled the swastika.
The movie version, while leaving out such salacious details, manages to capture the essence of life in Savannah as depicted in the book. The cast includes John Cusack in the title role of John Kelso, based on John Berendt. Jim Williams is played by a wonderfully dapper Kevin Spacey, who once again proves that he could make listening to him read the phone book enjoyable. Paul Hipp, who had previously played Buddy Holly on Broadway, brings lawyer/piano player and bad check writer Joe Orton to life as a mixture of Jerry Lee Lewis and southern gentleman.
But the movie (and the book) is stolen by The Lady Chablis. Lip-synching show-girl, cross-dressing extravaganza, The Lady Chablis plays herself in the movie. There are almost no words to describe the Lady except that seeing is believing, and even then… well, let’s just say there’s more there than meets the eye. Her performance alone is worth the price of renting this movie.
Scratch beneath the surface of the fine veneer on an antique and you sometimes find wormwood. Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil proves that wormwood is a damn sight more fascinating than any pretty showpiece you’ll see in Christie’s catalogue. Let’s leave the last word to John Cusack’s character in describing the situation: “Forget New York, New York is boring. It’s like Gone With The Wind on mescaline down here, they’re all drunk and armed.”