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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

John Berendt's original 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a work of non-fiction told in novel form, ostensibly a portrait of the antebellum culture of Savannah, Georgia, as told by a visiting writer turned resident Berendt, that becomes a true-life crime story: a rich antique dealer and member of the city's social aristocracy, Jim Williams, was accused of murdering his younger lover, a male prostitute named Danny Hansford. The book, rich in atmosphere and filled with vivid characters and larger-than-life personalities, became a bestseller, remaining on The New York Times list for 216 weeks.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) was not a typical Clint Eastwood project. The book was a meandering portrait of a town and a culture with numerous diversions and supporting characters and a murder mystery weaving through the narrative, but it nonetheless intrigued the director. "This isn't the South the way it's portrayed most of the time, with an overabundance of clich├ęs," he explained. His intention was to show modern Savannah society as "sophisticated, cultured, intelligent, very much in the public view, people no one would ever think could be interested in sorcery."

It was Clint Eastwood's twentieth feature as a director but only his third directorial effort in which he did not appear on screen. John Cusack took the lead, playing a fictional replacement for the author, renamed Kelso for the film and given an active role in the story beyond mere observer. Kevin Spacey, fresh from an Oscar®-winning turn in The Usual Suspects (1994), brings an easy confidence and lived-in drawl to the charming, enigmatic Williams. The actor spent weeks researching the part in Savannah, talking to people who knew the real person and soaking up the atmosphere. Jude Law, whose star was on the rise (he appeared in Wilde and Gattaca the same year Midnight was released), is his lover and murder victim (renamed Billy Hanson for the film). Mandy, a minor character in the book, was changed and expanded for the film, transforming her into a flirtatious love interest for Kelso. The part was tailored for Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter, as a way to launch her fledgling acting career with a substantial role.

The original book, often described as a "non-fiction novel" in the manner of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, was not strictly reportage; Berendt rearranged events for dramatic effect. The screen adaptation by John Lee Hancock (who scripted A Perfect World [1993] for Eastwood) continued the process, paring away side stories and supporting characters to focus on Williams, and condensing his unprecedented four murder trials (a record number for the state of Georgia) into a single courtroom trial. But Eastwood made a concerted effort to capture the atmosphere that the book so vividly communicated by shooting on location and using locals as extras and in small roles. "I liked the atmosphere of Savannah.... It's a town with a tremendous history and an interesting social structure." He cast the real-life Lady Chablis, the preoperative transsexual woman and local drag queen who was such an integral part of the book, to play herself, and Sonny Seiler, the real-life attorney who represented Jim Williams in his trial, took the gavel as the judge on screen. (Australian actor Jack Thompson played Sonny for the film, appearing opposite his real-life counterpart in the courtroom scenes.) The movie recreates two of Jim Williams' legendary parties from the book and Eastwood invited many of the real-life partygoers to appear in these screen recreations.

One aspect which appealed directly to Eastwood's interests is that much of the story took place in Mercer House, the family mansion built by the grandfather of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer and purchased and restored by Jim Williams in 1968. Eastwood, an aficionado of jazz and the classic American songbook and a jazz pianist in his own right, was a longtime fan of Mercer (he later produced the 2009 documentary Johnny Mercer: The Dream's on Me). Eastwood was able to shoot on location at the mansion and he filled the soundtrack with Mercer songs, performed by such artists as Tony Bennett, k.d. lang, and Diana Krall, as well as Clint and Alison Eastwood themselves.

Film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel described Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as "the most languid film Clint ever made...." It ended up one of the few financial failures of the director's career, failing to even make back its negative cost on its theatrical release. And the film became embroiled in a minor controversy because of its poster, which featured an image of the "Bird Girl" sculpture at Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous when it was featured on the book cover on its original release. The sculpture became synonymous with the book and turned into a tourist attraction in Savannah. It was a logical defining image for the poster, but the studio was sued by the photographer, who maintained that their use of the image was nearly identical to his original photo. The suit was settled out of court.

Producers: Clint Eastwood, Arnold Stiefel
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: John Lee Hancock (screenplay); John Berendt (book)
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Art Direction: Jack G. Taylor, Jr.
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Film Editing: Joel Cox
Cast: John Cusack (John Kelso), Kevin Spacey (Jim Williams), Jack Thompson (Sonny Seiler), Irma P. Hall (Minerva), Jude Law (Billy Hanson), Alison Eastwood (Mandy Nicholls), Paul Hipp (Joe Odom), The Lady Chablis (Chablis Deveau), Dorothy Loudon (Serena Dawes), Anne Haney (Margaret Williams).

by Sean Axmaker

"American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood," Marc Eliot. Harmony, 2009.
"Eastwood: A Biography," Richard Schickel. Knopf, 1996
"Clint: A Retrospective," Richard Schickel. Sterling, 2010.



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