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50 Years of Merchant Ivory - Spotlight
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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991) was based on Carson McCullers' 1951 novella of a Southern woman whose husband returns from prison and disrupts the brief happiness she has found with her small café and her hunchbacked cousin. Edward Albee adapted the novella into a play, which debuted at the Martin Beck Theater in New York City on October 30, 1963. It starred Colleen Dewhurst as Miss Amelia and Michael Dunn as the diminutive and hunchbacked Lymon. The play won the 1964 Tony Award and Dunn would be nominated for Supporting Actor. This play was the basis for Michael Hirst's screenplay for the Merchant-Ivory film, directed by actor/author Simon Callow, who had worked as an actor in several Merchant-Ivory productions (most famously as The Rev. Mr. Beebe in A Room with a View, 1986); the cast includes Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine, Cork Hubbert and Rod Steiger.

The plot of the film is pure Southern Gothic. Georgian woman Amelia falls in love with her hunchbacked 4'11" cousin, Lymon, and opens a café while her husband of 10 days Marvin Macy (who she refused to sleep with) is in prison. When Macy returns, Lymon turns his affection to him and the two turn on Amelia, culminating in a bare-knuckled fist fight between Macy and Amelia. Carradine later said, "I haven't felt any inhibitions at all about fighting a woman. Perhaps it's because Vanessa is such a towering in terms of accomplishments; not to mention her physical stature. She's all woman."

Callow found the play "too talkative" and worked to cut dialogue as well as the role of the Narrator (played by Roscoe Lee Browne in the original stage production). Albee, while not directly involved in the production, did advise James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, "For the film to succeed to McCullers' intentions it must bring a mythic quality to the relationship. It is not the story of a shy, sexually repressed, mannish woman set on by a brutish punk. It is the story of two people who however unclearly to themselves they may comprehend it, are engaged in a bizarre 'grand passion' - the one real chance in their lives for something very special - the one opportunity for them both to fully realize themselves. It is this quality, this awareness which reaches toward the mythic, and makes what happens when Marvin Macy comes back so poignant, so inevitable, and the stuff of true tragedy. It is this which is missing from the screenplay. As it is now, a punk gets rejected and comes back and does his dirty work. That is not what McCullers intended, is not what I intended, and is not what the screenplay should be offering us."

Vanessa Redgrave proceeded to mold her own interpretation of the main character based on her instincts as an actress. "I thought I should make very simple, clear choices about how to play Miss Amelia," she wrote in her autobiography. "I discussed each choice with Simon Callow, our director. I had to make a choice about her appearance, and I am still not sure I made the right one. Carson McCullers specifically writes that Miss Amelia has dark hair, but I thought I should have as little disguise as possible in the part. Given the fact that I am blonde and basically fair, with blue eyes, I decided to go for looking like a real straw-headed Southerner...I thought that Miss Amelia should be presented like a cartoon image, looking the same way until something very significant happens in the story. When it does, she changes out of her dungarees and wears a red dress to mark the fact that she has become a woman. I wanted her to appear to have remained rather like a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy emotionally."

The Ballad of the Sad Café was filmed in and around Austin and Seguin, Texas and Redgrave recalled that producer Ismail Merchant was actively involved in the production, going to great lengths to find the most talented and knowledgeable people to work on the film. "For instance," Redgrave said, "George Burns, who lectured in the English department at Austin University, coached me for the Southern dialect and accent of Miss Amelia. Not only that, he knew how to wiggle and flap his ears, and he made an electrical device that, placed behind Cork Hubbert's ears, produced a wiggle for the camera that convinced all spectators that Cousin Lymon could flap his ears."

When The Ballad of the Sad Café was released in theatres, the critical reception was decidedly mixed, just as McCuller's original novella had divided reviewers over its reception. Vincent Canby of The New York Times was unenthusiastic. "From the moment Miss Amelia is discovered shelling peas, or doing some such down-home thing, and singing "Jimmy Crack Corn" in the accents of Ruritania's Deep South, The Ballad of the Sad Café is a seriously misguided hoot. Miss Redgrave was, is and will always remain one of the greatest actresses in what's generally referred to as the English-speaking theater. She is so great, in fact, that when she goes off the track, as she does here, she continues to barrel forward with the momentum of a transcontinental express train that will not be stopped. The spectacle takes the breath away. The Ballad of the Sad Café is that kind of movie. It's not silly as much as it's majestically wrongheaded. It's a movie in which all options have been considered at length before the worst possible choices have been made. But then The Ballad of the Sad Café is a heartless literary work."

The New Yorker reviewer of the film was less critical but still had reservations. "There are skillful and impressive moments in The Ballad of the Sad Café, but the movie [...] is awkward and puzzling, and given the nature of McCullers' material, I doubt whether any kind of treatment would have worked. [...] In his first film, Simon Callow, distinguished British actor and stage director, shows some talent with the camera but much of the movie has that frozen portentousness of a weightily unprofitable night in the theater." But there were positive responses as well. Joe Brown of The Washington Post called it "an exceedingly odd little film, but haunting in its way," and added that the film "is certainly beautiful in the Merchant-Ivory manner; the film can be seen as a painterly tableau vivant of the Deep South. And vivid images of Redgrave abound -- Miss Amelia wading through the midnight swamp to her still; the first shy almost-smile crossing her face as she watches Lymon charm the rubes." Roger Ebert also found it praiseworthy, noting "I suppose there was once a time when "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" was thought to contain truths about life as lived. I can no longer relate to it that way. It now plays more like a prose opera, in which jealousy and passion inflame the characters, who are trapped in the sins of the past. To see the movie for its story is an exercise in futility. But it works well as gesture and flamboyance, a stage for outsize tragic figures." Clearly this is a movie where you will need to decide for yourself.

Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: Simon Callow
Screenplay: Carson McCullers (novel); Edward Albee (play); Michael Hirst (writer)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Art Direction: Michael T. Roberts
Music: Richard Robbins
Film Editing: Andrew Marcus
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave (Miss Amelia), Keith Carradine (Marvin Macy), Cork Hubbert (Cousin Lymon), Rod Steiger (Rev. Willin), Austin Pendleton (Lawyer Taylor), Beth Dixon (Mary Hale), Lanny Flaherty (Merlie Ryan), Mert Hatfield (Stumpy McPhail), Earl Hindman (Henry Macy), Anne Pitoniak (Mrs. McPhail).

by Lorraine LoBianco

Canby, Vincent "Review/Film Festival; Vanessa Redgrave in a Cursed Triangle of Love and Hate", The New York Times 28 Mar 91
Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography (Random House)
Erskine, Thomas L., Welsch, James Michael, Tibbetts, John C. and Video Versions: Film Adaptations of Plays on Video
Gussow, Mel Edward Albee: A Singular Journey: A Biography
The Internet Movie Database
The New Yorker 27 May 91



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