Monday, May 7, 2012

"Midnight In The Garden Of Good & Evil"...Small World, Small Savannah...

(Photo:  Lisa Erin Brown)
Savannah, Georgia.  Quaint, historical, and southern.  It can also be described as 'enchanting', but in a moody mystical sense.  At the end of November I will have lived here 4 years.  Doesn't feel like it has been that long.  At all.

I had visited Savannah a few times when I was a kid.  Family vacations.  I also visited the town's famous 'River Street', when I attended college in Statesboro. If you didn't want to party on the Georgia Southern campus, Savannah was the 'go-to' place.

I have a few Savannah based memories from those past visits.  However, after 1997, when/if Savannah came up in conversation, the immediate reference point most people threw out was a movie, "Midnight In The Garden of Good & Evil".  Based on the book of the same name (penned by John Berendt), the movie showed viewers a different side to the one usually seen by tourists.  Based around an actual murder trial from the early-1980's, it would show a quirky world inhabited by a cast of characters who were/are indeed "characters".

My boyfriend grew up here. In Savannah.  One night we were channel surfing, and we came across an airing of the film.  As I remember, Glenn hadn't seen it in it's entirety, so we tuned in.  The first thing I would learn was that "Midnight In The Garden of Good & Evil" the movie, is referred to as 'the movie' among Savannah's citizens.  Same goes for 'the book'.  I had seen the movie a few times since it's release, but with Glenn's familiarity with a number of the characters, it was like watching it for the first time.

A tidbit regarding the statue that has become a recognizable symbol for the film.  Owned by the Trosdale family, the "Bird Girl" could be found in the historic and beautiful Bonaventure Cemetery.  As a regular cemetery photographer, I have visited the Bonaventure many times.  Unfortunately, the "Bird Girl" (named "Little Wendy" by the family) was removed not long after release of the film.  Traffic to the statue's site increased (I have heard that there was fear of statue theft), so the family moved her out.  'She' can now be publicly viewed at the 'Academy of Arts & Sciences' here in Savannah.

("Jim Williams"~ Kevin Spacey; "Billy Hanson" ~ Jude Law)
The Clint Eastwood directed film is more than worth the watch.  Especially with the knowledge that the cast are based on actual people.  In some cases, the actual people are playing themselves.  As I already mentioned, the movie is based on the murder trial (actually there were 4 trials in total) of Jim Williams, a well to do antiques dealer and historical benefactor.  He restored a number of buildings in Savannah, including the Mercer House where he lived up until his death.  The murder at the core of the film was the shooting death of Billy Hanson (the name of the real victim was Danny Hansford).  Williams had pulled the trigger.

(Left:  Jim Williams; Right:  Kevin Spacey)
Kevin Spacey plays the charming and slightly sinister, Jim Williams.  Spacey plays Williams with an air of "I know something you don't know".  The type of person one believes, but there is always a tiny question mark attached.

(Left:  Jude Law; Right:  Danny Hansford)
Jude Law plays the victim, Billy Hanson (the name used in the film).  Law portrays a young man who is definitely from the wrong side of the tracks, and wields a nasty temper.  The key character who acts as the 'thread' of the film is John Kelso, a writer portrayed by John Cusack.  I have not read the book yet (it's on my list), but I am assuming that Kelso is the reflection of Berendt, the book's author.

(Emma Kelly)
Williams has a holiday party every year that is the talk of Savannah.  'Town & Country Magazine' had wanted to cover the affair for years.  Williams finally gives in, but with a catch.  He gets to pick the articles writer.  Enter virtually unknown author, John Kelso...his book hardly sold, but Williams had read it. The party is Kelso's introduction to the world of Savannah, but post party as he is getting ready to leave, the unplanned murder happens.  Deciding to stick around for awhile to work on a book about the case, Kelso embarks on a pseudo-odyssey that unfolds into a writer's dream.

(Chablis Deveau)
This is where the ensemble starts to present its many parts.  I would learn that the older woman playing the piano at Williams holiday soiree is Emma Kelly, 'Lady of 6,000 Songs'.  The Emma in the film is the real McCoy.  Playing Jim's holiday party is something she did every year.  Emma received her nickname from Savannah son, Johnny Mercer.  Mercer challenged her to play any song he named...and she did.  He estimated she probably knew 6,000 songs just from memory.  Ms. Kelly passed away in 2001.

Chablis Deveau, a.k.a. the Lady Chablis, is also the real deal.  By far my favorite character of the film, she steals every scene she is in.  Glenn (my boyfriend) had run sound/lights for her a number of times when he was a teenager.  Chablis still performs here in town.  I need to keep an eye out for her future shows.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a big fan of drag queens.  Chablis helped pave the way for the queens of today.  I look forward to one day checking out her show.

(Sonny Seiler & Uga)
Character actor, Jack Thompson, plays Savannah lawyer, Sonny Seiler. Sonny was actually Jim Williams' second attorney, working the case through trials 2, 3, and 4.  Interestingly enough, the real Sonny Seiler is in the movie as 'Judge White'. Wonder what that was like for Thompson, having the man he's portraying sitting on the other side of the room?  The Seiler of the film owns 'Uga' (pronounced 'Uh-guh'), the University of Georgia mascot.  In fact, Seiler owns the line of White English Bulldogs that have served as UGA's mascot since 1956.

Other characters...the Voo Doo woman, the "invisible dog" walker...all real people.  Watching 'the movie' again gave me a new appreciation for the eccentric town I live in.  Actually, there is a specific reason for my writing this post...a newspaper article Glenn pointed out to me.

(Dr. Metts)
As one of many American citizens that don't have the luxury of medical benefits, but who require check-ups and medications, I am thankful to have a medical clinic available to me.  I personally have a few conditions that I need medications for, but one of my conditions requires meds...if I don't take meds, I could die.  It almost claimed me once already.  Anyway, since moving to Savannah, I have been seeing my doctor for about 4 years now.  At 80 years old, I have best described Dr. Metts as being an "old country doctor".  Very laid back, but that works for me.  He listens to what I tell him in regards to how I have been since my last check-up.  That's huge.  I don't feel like I'm being glossed over.  I have no complaints about the care I have gotten from him, not even about the jokes he tells.  Here's an example:

A man answers his phone, and it's his doctor.  The doctor says, "Your test results are back.  I've got some bad news, and I've got some terrible news." The man says, "Okay, doc, give me the bad news first."  The doctor says, "You've only got 24 hours to live."  The man is stunned.  After a moment he asks, "And the terrible news?"  The doc says, "I forgot to call you yesterday."

Hot-cha!  "He'll be here all week, people!  Try the veal."  I dig old jokes, so it's okay...

Savannah is a well known town, but in the grand scheme it is rather small. There are days where something happens that reminds me of just how small. Enter the newspaper article.  I sit down next to Glenn on the sofa and he pokes his finger at the newspaper page in his hand.  Something about Dr. Metts.  It turns out that for the last 40 years, Dr. Metts has been the Chatham County coroner.  This year he is planning to run for re-election to the post.  Another 4 years.  He says he's in great health, and doesn't plan on going 'anywhere' any time soon.  (Actually, I was shocked when I found out he was 80.)  Now for his connection with the story in 'the book/movie'.  He was the coroner on the Williams trial.  According to the newspaper article, it was Dr. Metts who concluded that Williams shot Hansford out of anger, and then tried to make it look like self-defense.  (The online version of the article can be found here.) What are the odds?  I'm going to be paying him a visit in a couple of days. Maybe I'll ask him about it.  Interesting stuff...

As for the actual case, Jim Williams is the only person in Georgia history to be tried 4 times for the same crime.  As portrayed in the movie, in 1981 Williams shot Hansford in his home, Mercer House.  He was convicted a couple of times, but appeals were made; contradictory evidence got sentences over-turned, and new trial dates; a hung jury caused a mistrial in trial three; and in the fourth and final trial in Augusta, Georgia, 1989, the jury came back after one hour with 'not guilty'.  At the end of 'the movie', Williams has a heart attack and falls dead next to the spot where Hanson dies.  In reality?  It is true that Williams died six months after his 'not guilty' verdict.  He is said to have died from pneumonia and heart failure at the age of 59.  Some say he fell dead in his study in the exact spot he would have died if Hansford had shot him first.  The record says that he did die at home, but in the hallway outside of the study. Well, wherever Jim Williams died, it's a fascinating story.

"Midnight In The Garden of Good & Evil".  'The movie'.  Whatever you choose to call it, if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.  The flavor of Savannah is in there.  The people of Savannah are in there.  It's a fascinating case.


  1. This was really informative and so interesting. I am trying to learn more about Savannah. I will be relocating from NY to Savannah in July. Thanks for this cool history on the movie and its people. I must see it again now.

    1. I'm glad you found it interesting, Alma. Get ready for a shift. Even though I am from Georgia originally, I lived in Los Angeles for about 18 years. The slower paced south is a definite adjustment, but a nice one. :)

  2. What a fantastic insight - thanks, Lisa. We're two sides of the same coin (except I haven't made it to Savannah yet, but oh, I want to!) in that I have long loved Berendt's book but never seen the film. There's something about the book that is quite perfect: intriguing, beguiling, atmospheric...but now I know that the amazing Kevin Bacon plays Williams ( and wow, doesn't he look like him) I will have to make sure to find it.

    1. The movie has taken on a completely different life since I moved here. I suspect the book will, too. I had an appointment with Dr. Metts the other day, and I brought up the Williams case. He said the book is much better (which I think is usually the case). It was interesting getting a perspective from someone who was involved in the case.

  3. love this post lisa so awesomely written.