Published November 1, 1997
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, directed by Clint Eastwood from John Berendt’s best seller stars John Cusack as John Kelso, a journalist sent to Savannah by Town and Country magazine to cover one of the highlights of the social season there, a Christmas party given by Mr Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). But Williams, a homosexual, chooses the night of his party to kill his rough-trade paramour, a dangerous lunatic called Billy (Jude Law), and Kelso finds himself covering the subsequent, sensational murder trial as he falls in love with a Savannah clearly overripe with professional Southerners and other poseurs. Chief among these is Gentleman Jim, who shamlessly shows off his wealth, his connoisseurship and his camp sophistication, but he is surrounded by a phalanx of lovable eccentrics whose assiduous posing is just too arch for words.
I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. The essential thing about eccentrics is that they must not know they are eccentrics. Their entertainment value depends entirely, it seems to me, on their complete unconsciousness that they are anything but normal. But the Savannah eccentrics are not only self-conscious, they constantly parading their eccentricities before us—like the man walking his phantom dog or the man who keeps horseflies on threads buzzing around his head or the man pretending to be a woman called Lady Chablis (herself)—and asking to be admired for them. The whole movie proclaims its fakery proudly, as if it were a virtue.
And, indeed, it is a virtue, at least to Mr Eastwood and his screenwriter, John Lee Hancock. For there is (wouldn’t you know it?) a moral to the story of Gentleman Jim’s plugging of his catamite amidst the splendid antiques and paintings he collects. It is the philosophy of jesting Pilate, who asked “What is truth?” Only here there is no jesting. Clint points the .44 magnum of his moral relativity at us and asks us to make his day by timidly venturing to suggest what might be the “truth” about—well, anything, up to and including Jim’s shooting of young Billy in the library.
The emblematic presence of the film is the drag queen Lady Chabilis who speaks about “my T”—i.e. the truth that he/she is “hiding my candy” and is really a man called Frank—as a shameful and totally unnecessary secret, and who provides the deciding evidence that springs Jim from the clutches of the law. Irma P. Hall, as voodoo lady Minerva, restates the same moral in slightly different terms: “Dere ain’t no answers,” she says to John Kelso with a deep chuckle. “You come a long way to learn that.” Presumably she exempts from this general denial of answers her own voodoo principles, of which she is enormously proud. Finally, Jim himself sums it all up in his final words to Kelso—while “Dream” by Johnny Mercer, scion of Savannah aristocracy, is being played on the piano—“Truth, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.”
Like Bruce Willis’s Gatling gun in The Jackal, this very large-calibre statement blows away an awful lot more than it needs to in order to destroy its target, which that much-blasted figure of intolerance towards homosexuality. But when you think about it, the film engages in a bit of gay-bashing of its own if it has to assert that everything must be tolerated if gays must be. Or at least everything except black people dressing up in white tie and tails and dancing a minuet, a spectacle of which Eastwood allows himself to make merciless fun. Jim’s trial is sold to us as being not about murder at all but about tolerance of the “gay lifestyle”—since expert legal opinion holds that the jury will only convict because they are disgusted by Jim’s relationship with the victim. “Objectively speaking, it looks like they’re going to hang a guy for his sexuality.” But Jim needn’t have worried. Eccentric Savannah comes through for him in the end. Too bad it doesn’t for us.