Under the Microscope
by Glynn Wilson
Have you ever wondered why so many movies depicting the South also contain an underlying crazy theme?
I guess that’s what they think of us in New York and LA.
One of my favorites is Crazy in Alabama, featured on HBO recently. It’s a comedy-drama released in 1999 written by Mark Childress, based on his own 1993 novel of the same name. It stars Melanie Griffith as an abused wife who flees small town life in the South for California to become a movie star – with her dead husband Chester’s head in a hat box.
Meanwhile back in Alabama, her nephew, the story’s narrator, has to contend with a racially-motivated murder involving a corrupt sheriff during the Civil Rights Era.
It’s an interesting model for any would-be Southern writer thinking of trying to get New York editors interested in stories that will also play well on the big screen.
I’ve been mining the movie field of late thinking of stories to tell myself.
One of my favorite books written by a Southern author and then made into a movie is The Prince of Tides, based on a 1986 novel by Pat Conroy.
It tells the story of the narrator’s struggle to overcome the psychological damage inflicted by his dysfunctional childhood in South Carolina and stars Nick Nolte as a football coach and Barbra Streisand as a New York psychiatrist. While changes to the film upset some Conroy purists, it was a box office smash and put Streisand on the map as a director. It was also recently featured on HBO.
Conroy is probably the premier Southern author of the late 20th century whose work has been both financially successful and also acclaimed in literary circles, unlike John Grisham’s work, which is relegated to the legal thriller genre. In spite of the film’s flaws, The Prince of Tides does capture both the character of the South and New York in the introspective times of the 1980s, making it an irresistible tale that will last – like Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men.
But neither of those movies is what draws me to the keyboard tonight.
I doubt if it qualifies for the National Film Registry, but another innocent little tale caught my attention today. Sometimes when the cable offerings are weak, it’s worth stopping on the story of Doc Hollywood, or Dr. Ben Stone, played by Michael J. Fox, not my favorite actor by a long-shot.
|My first column mug shot: Hotter than MJF?
But in this one, which reminds me of a story from my own life, he plays a hotshot young doctor who longs to leave the drudgery of the emergency room and finally leaps at his chance at more money and less work on the West Coast. But along the way he gets off the Interstate and smashes his 1956 Porsche Roadster into a judge’s fence and is forced into community service at the small town of Grady, South Carolina’s general hospital.
There he meets and falls in love with an ambulance driver named Viloula but called “Lou,” sexy and smart and played by Julie Warner, who has in incredible nude scene emerging from one of Grady’s famous fishing lakes. The town is also known for its squash, which the mayor uses to explain a slice of life in his attempt to lure the doc to stay in town – as he bets him $10 that he will not score with Lou.
The story is perhaps just a bit too cute for serious movie critics. But it reminds me of a time when I was 23-years-old and just out of college working in a small town at my first professional newspaper reporting job.
It was 1984. The town was Bay Minette, Alabama. The paper was The Baldwin Times.
Upon graduating from the University of Alabama in Bear Bryant’s last year, I had lofty goals of one day working for a great newspaper like the New York Times. But in those days, the mobility of college students was far more limited than it is today.
I advised students at Loyola New Orleans from 2000-2002 who were able to make the leap to New York, DC and LA. But being poor and from Alabama during Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, and George Wallace’s last term as governor, some of the best opportunities to break into newspapering came working for weeklies in small towns across the South.
The movie about Grady reminds me of those times, not because the stories are totally similar, but because some of the experiences and emotions ring true of being a young person trying to decide whether to make a life in a small town, where the living can be easy but perhaps not so lucrative, or making a break for the big city life and the big time bucks.
I also have to laugh at all the machinations people in small Southern towns will go to trying to lure young professionals to stay. This kind of scene plays out, still, in many towns across the country, as the out migration of the young and educated continues apace today. It is as true of Alabama today as it was in 1984, I’m sure, and can lead to some incredibly funny stories.
There’s not enough space and time here to tell them all. Maybe one day if I get around to writing a memoir.
Let’s just say I had a number of experiences with young women there, like Lou, who either wanted to seduce me to stay in Bay Minette – or to hook up with someone who could get them out.
I’m thinking of one particular young woman now about my age at the time who openly displayed a crush on me. I won’t reveal her name. She may still be there – or maybe she got out.
One night she displayed this crush a little too openly at a Christmas party, held at the Holly Hills Country Club, when, after a few too many glasses of wine, she tripped on the hem of her long dress and fell right into my arms. It was a classic scene of a drunken Southern debutante right out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Tom Wolfe novel. As she fell toward me – and I still recall the scene in real-life slow motion, in part probably due to my own inebriation – the top of her bright red dress slipped down off her left breast, fully exposing the nipple for virtually everyone at the party to see.
It bordered on a scandal, since she also happened to be the chamber of commerce president’s daughter, making her the perfect ambassador to try grabbing me for life. Perhaps like Doc Hollywood I should have more actively pursued that road, but there were complications.
Now at 50, do I harbor any regrets about leaving small town life there?
Only one. And it happened many years later.
In 2002, back when it was announced that the Alabama governor’s race results came down to 3,000 votes in Bay Minette, I went back there from New Orleans for The New York Times – to investigate the election.
But when Siegelman conceded, I was pulled out of Bay Minette and sent back to New Orleans.
Knowing what I know now, since the Jill Simpson affidavit came to light, I wish I had stayed and worked my sources. I learned how to cover a courthouse and develop sources there, in that courthouse. It was the best school in the world for getting hands-on experience in that world, in more ways than one. Don’t even ask about the secretaries in those days.
But of course it takes time and money to really work a story like the election, just as it takes time and money to work up a full scale relationship with a fine smart woman – in a small town or anywhere else.
And in the news game, there ain’t never enough time – or money.
Life blogs on…
Now that I think about it, there’s plenty of craziness to go around and write about in this world. And it’s not all in the South.
I’m thinking now of a crazy New York editor, a woman, in part a figment of my imagination.
And I’m also thinking, if I had stayed in Bay Minette, either time, none of this would have ever happened – the good or the bad. Perhaps there is no stopping fate in any event – if there is such a thing.
I’m not convinced.
Life is not like a box of chocolates or cherries. It’s more like a full-blown meal.
How good it turns out to be any given time is complicated and turns on choices and chance, luck and timing.
It can be as scrumptious as the fried green tomatoes in mushroom sauce at Jacquimo’s in New Orleans, or as spare as the BLT at the drugstore in Bay Minette.
And I’m convinced, politics and government do matter – in all kinds of ways many people don’t even seem to fathom, certainly not in a crazy place like Alabama. Maybe you have to be a little crazy to try to break out – or to try making a difference here.
Maybe you have to be a little crazy to try making art – or a living – as a writer in this world, if you didn’t start out in it rich.
I can only wish good luck to the striking writers in New York and LA. I hope they win that fight to get part of the proceeds from sales on the Web Press. One of these days maybe I’ll get a share of my own in that world, after we get rid of George W. Bush.
I understand Childress did it while working a day gig at Southern Living, not exactly a bastion of great journalism.
Long live the movies…