‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ Was Way Ahead of Its Time

Jude Law and Kevin Spacey in ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ (1997)/Photo © Warner Bros, 1997

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” John Berendt’s 1994 portrait of 1980s Savannah, Georgia, has always been wrapped in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction fog. Part Joseph Mitchell-style essays, part true crime whodunnit, part supernatural thriller, and 100 percent fact, it focuses on the intensely colorful characters of the region, including the Lady Chablis, a transwoman performer; Serena Dawes, an once-renowned beauty flaunting green talons and silver pistols; pesticide inventor Luther Driggers, who threatened to poison the town water supply every day; a voodoo high priestess known as “Minerva”; and Jim Williams, a self-made millionaire who was tried a record-breaking four times for killing a local male hustler before being acquitted and dying soon after of a heart attack. A former New York Magazine editor and GQ writer, Berendt knew to tell these stories in unadorned language and then drop the mic. The result was an instant bestseller – so much so that everyone was agog to see the Clint Eastwood adaptation featuring real-life residents alongside Hollywood actors. The film turns 20 this month, and some of the synchronicity surrounding this anniversary only compounds the story’s truth-is-stranger-than-fiction mythos.

Berendt himself, though openly gay in real life, is played as an aw-shucks straight man by John Cusack. Sure, to have the obsessive oddball of some key 80s and 90s rom-coms be so overshadowed by the local eccentrics helps compound a “New York is boring compared to this town” allure. But too much emphasis is placed on a character who, when pinkwashed, no longer makes much sense, especially when coupled up with the director’s blank slate of a daughter, Allison Eastwood. (She barely acted again.)

The author moseys into town to write a Town and Country article about Williams’ legendary Christmas shindig, and is soon dropping his jaw over a man walking a leash without a dog, the gun-brandishing society ladies chattering blithely about how their husbands offed themselves (mostly 25s, apparently), and Williams himself, who practically licks his chops as he chooses a tuxedo for Berendt to wear. “44 looooong, I presume,” the host purrs.

Which brings us to the elephant on the screen. A thirty-something Kevin Spacey plays fifty-something Williams, and he oozes the closeted antique dealer’s reptilian, predatory charm with an accuracy that now reads as taunting, if not preternatural. For on the night of the party, Williams is arrested for shooting Billy, his young part-time employee with whom he has a fraught sexual relationship, and his chief defense is to come out as a homosexual in an effort to argue the indictment is borne of homophobia. (Williams argues he shot Billy out of self-defense; Berendt believes this is a falsehood.)

Sound familiar? By the time “Midnight” was filmed, Spacey’s alleged sexual assault of 14-year-old Mark Rapp had taken place more than a decade before. From the number of accusations now being leveled against him, it’s unlikely Spacey ever feared repercussions. But choosing to play this part still reads as flagrant nose-thumbing.

When Williams enlists Minerva’s voodoo to protect him, Eastwood takes his cues from Berendt and never editorializes on its efficacy. Granted, the older woman is used as a problematic “magical black person” cinematic device, but the director doesn’t shy away from the uncanny karmic timing of Williams’ death, going so far as to depict the ghost of Billy lying alongside the dying Williams. (Eastwood’s super-weird relationship to the supernatural could fill a whole book; ever see his Matt Damon-as-a-psychic vehicle “Hereafter”?) In terms of karmic timing, it is equally uncanny that this film is turning 20 just as Spacey is finally paying the piper – not only for his crimes against under-age men, but for finally coming out in what’s read as a manipulative attempt to pull focus from these crimes.

In one of his first U.S. roles, Jude Law plays Billy, and his hammier-than-thou bisexual bad boy, complete with a syrupy drawl and 1950s-Hollywood swagger, is modeled on James Dean to pleasing effect. (Law was awfully easy on the eyes back then.) But upon the hustler’s death, the town kooks are mostly eclipsed by a standard(ish) procedural to the disappointment of readers eager to see the book’s distinctive characters and landmarks breathed to life. I say “mostly” because nothing, and I mean nothing, could eclipse the Lady Chablis playing herself.

In the 1990s, simply being transgender was treated as such an oddity – such a party trick, such a terrible secret – that it could function as a huge plot twist, as in 1992’s “The Crying Game,” which won a best-original-screenplay Oscar essentially for the reveal that girlfriend Dil was biologically male. Into all this hushed-voice sanctimony sailed the Lady herself, busting up everyone and everything with one-liners delivered in a low lilt. With her willowy waist and gossamer-thin wrists and ankles, she was as striking as her crimson hats and mermaid-blue sequins – not to mention her truth bombs.

In a reversion to the film’s antecedent, John only stirs to life when Chablis sashays her perfect bottom in front of him, tossing lines over her shoulder like, “What is a white boy like you driving a big ole brother’s jive-ass ship?” When John first meets her – “A cool white wine for a cool black girl” – she conveys more subtext in the long stare she fixes upon him than Eastwood has managed before or since. And when she speaks fluently and calmly of her gender identification and hormone treatments, you get the sense she’s improvising nearly all her dialogue. There would be no “tragic transsexual” mishegos for this girl. “These folks think they’re using the Doll but the Doll is using them,” she says. “This is my coming out party,” Ostensibly she’s discussing testifying in Williams’ trial, but she may as well be speaking about her inclusion in the movie.

Though she died last year, Chablis’ signature phrase – “two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it”- is still used today, and it applies to the hot mess that is this film. A sort of double time capsule in which the storied history of Savannah is captured right along the storied hypocrisy of Tinseltown, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” pales in contrast to the book and the town itself. But the region’s mystical power reaches us (and Kevin Spacey) through time and space just the same. You did not mess with the Lady Chablis, and you do not mess with Savannah.