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Romancing the South: Dixie Behind Some of Hollywood’s Best Work

March 5, 1992

--- ″There was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fiel (AP) _ -

″There was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South. ... Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow. ... Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave.″ - ″Gone With the Wind″ (1939).

--- By BOB THOMAS Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) - From ″Uncle Tom’s Cabin″ to ″Fried Green Tomatoes,″ American movies have enjoyed a steady romance with the South.

Is there another part of the country that has inspired more movies? The West, perhaps. But except for such rarities as ″Dances With Wolves″ and ″Silverado,″ the Western has disappeared as a film staple.

The latest example of the South’s appeal is ″Fried Green Tomatoes,″ a two-generation comedy-drama that has shown amazing staying power since its release in December. Kathy Bates, who stars in the film with Jessica Tandy, muses on why the South has produced so many movies:

″If I had to say why I think it is so, I think it has to do with the fact that Southerners are such great storytellers: Margaret Mitchell, of course. Horton Foote, Eudora Welty, and on and on and on, plus the fact that back up in the Appalachian hills they tell stories from generation to generation.

″There’s a picturesque quality to the South. Some parts of it appear not to have forgotten the Civil War. I went home last summer to Memphis, my hometown. There’s a different pace there. Seeing the Mississippi brought a tear to my eye. I like that place.″

Although born in London, Miss Tandy has created three memorable Southern ladies. She was the original Blanche DuBois opposite Marlon Brando in the Broadway version of ″A Streetcar Named Desire,″ and won a Tony award for her performance. Two years ago she won the Academy Award as best actress for her role as the aging matron in ″Driving Miss Daisy.″

″Those roles keep coming my way, and I’m glad they do,″ she says. ″They were all from completely different backgrounds. Blanche was an entirely different character from Miss Daisy, for instance, also of a different time.

″Miss Daisy comes from a completely different background from Ninny (‘Fried Green Tomatoes’). Ninny comes from a tiny little place called Whistle Stop; the very name lets you know that it is a very small community. Miss Daisy came from Atlanta and was in very different circumstances. They both are quite feisty ladies, very much alive and interested in life.

″Ninny I particularly loved because she has really nothing, but is such a positive character. She’s an entertainer, a storyteller, she’s not content to sit back and be in a rocking chair.″

Denzel Washington stars in another current movie about the South, ″Mississippi Masala,″ which concerns the bigotry involved when a black American and an eastern Indian woman fall in love.

His off-the-cuff response to the large number of Southern movies: ″It’s cheaper to shoot there,″ referring to the fact that producers can cut costs by filming in states with right-to-work laws.

Washington adds: ″Maybe we’re still reflecting on what we’ve done. The South is still a laboratory (for race relations).″

Others have observed that the South was on the losing side of the nation’s greatest drama, the Civil War, and the tragedy of that great conflict is more dramatic for the vanquished. Also the matter of white-black relationships, another great national drama, has continued from colonial times to the present day.

In ″Mississippi Masala,″ the color-caste system of Indian imigrants threatens two lovers.

Much of ″The Prince of Tides″ is set on the South Carolina coast and deals with the Southern gothic theme of a dysfunctional family. ″Cape Fear″ also is set in North Carolina and paints a horrific picture of a psychotic poor white Southerner.

Movies with Southern themes and locales frequently have been honored with Academy Awards. Best-picture Oscars include ″Gone With the Wind,″ ″All the King’s Men,″ ″In the Heat of the Night″ and ″Driving Miss Daisy.″

Among the award-winning performances: Bette Davis, ″Jezebel″; Vivien Leigh, ″Gone With the Wind″ and ″A Streetcar Named Desire″; Broderick Crawford, ″All the King’s Men″; Anna Magnani, ″The Rose Tattoo″; Gregory Peck, ″To Kill a Mockingbird″; Rod Steiger, ″In the Heat of the Night″; Sally Field, ″Norma Rae″; Sissy Spacek, ″Coal Miner’s Daughter″; Robert Duvall, ″Tender Mercies.″

If you want to include Texas in the South, you could add ″Giant″ (best picture); Patricia Neal, ″Hud″; Sally Field, ″Places in the Heart″; Geraldine Page, ″The Trip to Bountiful.″

Dixie provided film material as early as 1903 with the first of six silent versions of ″Uncle Tom’s Cabin.″ D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic ″Birth of a Nation,″ which portrayed the Southern side of the Civil War, became the most successful film of its era. It also was the most controversial, because of its portrayal of blacks and its championing of the Ku Klux Klan.

The talkies brought all-black films such as ″Hearts in Dixie″ and King Vidor’s ″Hallelujah,″ but their portrayals typified the stereotypes that would continue for decades.

Race relations provided strong drama, especially in the post-World War II era. Examples: ″Intruder in the Dust,″ ″The Defiant Ones,″ ″A Soldier’s Story″ and ″Mississippi Burning.″

New Orleans has been a favorite location for filmmakers, with such films as ″A Streetcar Names Desire,″ ″A Walk on the Wild Side,″ ″Pretty Baby,″ ″Blaze,″ ″The Big Easy″ and ″JFK.″

There’s something about family relationships that provide strong Southern dramas. ″The Little Foxes″ is based on the Lillian Hellman play about an unhappy family who scheme against one another during Reconstruction; ″Another Part of the Forest″ is almost a prequel to ″The Little Foxes″; ″Cat on a Hot Tin Roof″ is the Tennessee Williams’ melodrama of a dying patriarch and his two disappointing sons; ″The Sound and the Fury″ shows William Faulkner’s dying South; ″Tobacco Road″ is about a family of poor whites in Georgia.

Most movies with Southern themes are dramas or melodramas. Musicals are virtually nonexistent now, but once the South inspired such films as ″Show Boat″ (three versions), ″Louisiana Purchase″ (Bob Hope), ″Mississippi″ (Bing Crosby), ″Song of the South,″ ″Porgy and Bess,″ ″Nashville″ and ″King Creole″ (Elvis Presley).

The South supplied the background for Will Rogers’ last two films, ″In Old Kentucky″ and ″Steamboat Round the Bend,″ and also for the Buster Keaton classics, ″The General″ and ″Steamboat Bill.″ The Mississippi became a principal feature in the various versions of ″Tom Sawyer″ and ″Huckleberry Finn.″

Many Southern films are based on the works of Southern fiction writers. ″Deliverance,″ John Boorman’s horrific look at male bonding, was based on the novel by James Dickey. ″The Yearling,″ about a boy’s attachment to a deer, was based on the classic by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who left the Northeast to live and write in the South.

″The Member of the Wedding″ is Carson McCullers’ play and novel about an adolescent girl. And ″Summer and Smoke,″ the story of an unmarried woman’s unrequited love, was based on another Tennessee Williams’ play. Pat Conroy has received an Oscar nomination with Becky Johnston for the screenplay adaptation of his novel, ″The Prince of Tides.″

But ″Gone With the Wind,″ based on the Margaret Mitchell book, remains the most popular film treatment of the American South, and audiences continue to share the emotional tension between unforgettable characters struggling to survive war and love and change.

End Adv for Thurs AMs, March 5

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