Go Ahead, Make Me Gay

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
area theaters

AS LITERATURE, JOHN Berendt's truth-is-stranger-than-fiction bestseller seldom reaches beyond a guidebook's gee-whiz voyeurism: Look ma! I went down to Georgia and hung out with a black drag queen, a voodoo sorceress, and a wealthy homosexual murderer! Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil unfolds like Lifestyles of the Queer and Dangerous, providing readers the opportunity to simultaneously snicker and thrill. Clint Eastwood's film version may change a number of details, but it sticks to the book's touristy tone like grease on grits. If anything, the movie gapes and japes even more frenetically.

No doubt some of that freak show feeling stems from Hollywood's tendency to foreshorten characters, explaining them less through complex histories than present appearances. But screenwriter John Lee Hancock's decision to bring the author John Berendt into the frame and make him a character (called John Kelso and played by John Cusack) is also to blame. Eastwood spotlights Cusack's winsome bag of ticks--stalled open mouth, wide-eyed naïveté, slow double take--to show how a straight man (pun intended) properly responds to these Southern oddballs; with every dumbfounded reaction shot, both Cusack and Eastwood came off a bit more churlish.

And nervous. By my estimation, the deepest mystery of the book is not whether Savannah society "bachelor" Jim Williams killed his hustler lover in self-defense. It is the figure of Berendt, who takes notes through black-tie parties, drag shows, cotillion balls, and sex-drenched after-hours soirees without allowing even a hint of his personal predilections to color between the lines. Given Berendt's carefulness, his end-book acknowledgement of a male friend's "support and encouragement," and (sorry) his interest in interior decoration, I finally figured that the boy had to be bent. Eastwood and Hancock must've worried about just such an impression, because not only do they grant "Kelso" a girlfriend (played by Eastwood's daughter Alison), they give him a chance to declare, vociferously, "I'm straight!"

This outburst occurs in the midst of persistent advances by the inestimable drag queen Lady Chablis (playing herself, with bells on). In the book, she has a hunky lover and only teases Berendt. Neither, by Berendt's account, does Jim Williams come on to him, as he seems to with Kelso in an otherwise inexplicable post-party scene early on in the movie. What the filmmakers have done, faced with Berendt's threateningly democratic racial and sexual melange, is make a straight white guy the focus of all desire. As far as I can tell, the climax of this curiously flat narrative arrives when Kelso finally glimpses Williams's duplicity and runs, his faith broken, into the round arms of Alison Eastwood's Mandy. They might as well have named this movie Kelso's Choice.

Which is funny, because beyond his sincerity and his heterosexuality, Kelso hardly exists. He's an absence, really, defined only by his assumed "normality." Pushing him to the hub of the story means: 1) everyone else--everyone with flair!--gets pushed to the side; 2) little tension exists between the characters; and 3) we're left with a very blank, unaffecting (and long!) film. Kevin Spacey's Jim Williams exudes an immediate, syrupy menace, but the role has no arc to it. Spacey gamely plays along, all smug mug and cigar smoke, but midway through I got the feeling I was trapped at a party with a geek who was scared of setting aside his Clark Gable imitation. In the role of his low-life lover, Jude Law screeches and howls (in an undependable Southern accent) but shows no evidence of the cat-scratch fever that would make him worth the effort.

Otherwise, Alison Eastwood is blandly beautiful, and Irma P. Hall, as the toothless, voodoo bag lady, a cliche (probably not her fault). The only character that disputes Kelso's claim to the center is the calmly outrageous Lady Chablis. More than a decade after first meeting Berendt, the drag queen's face has hardened into a mask of amusement; her raucous spirit speaks now through her taut body and taunting voice. Perhaps because she already mocks herself, Chablis maintains a forceful dignity--even while director Eastwood continually shadows her funniest lines with the disgusted reactions of onlookers (letting us have our cake and barf it too!).

In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Eastwood suggested that the good ol' boys who embraced "Go ahead, make my day" as their mantra would have a tough time with the Lady Chablis. I'm not so sure of that. Drag queens are harmlessly comic these days; heck, they want to look like women! More alarming is the gay man who fits in and looks normal, yet dares to point his "gun" at a good ol' boy. Such things may be legal, Clint's movie admits (playing to us liberals), but in the end (hey, guys!) a higher judgment just might prevail. By the time Cusack's Kelso flips a sardonically queenish "Let's go, girl!" to Mandy, and they walk off heteroactively into the sunset, the laughs of the gay men next to me at the screening had gone hollow. Ever feel like you've been appropriated?

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