A hustler’s murky killing. A drag queen. A bulldog named Uga. A voodoo priestess…. This is not Dirty Harry country.
Clint Eastwood saunters into the dressing room of a Southern cabaret called Club One. He takes a look around. He needs to shoot a scene here, but the place hasn’t been swept and vacuumed from the night before. He wants his crew to gussy it up for the camera.
Quietly, the Man With No Name casts an eye on the backstage boudoir of a female impersonator who calls herself The Lady Chablis. He sees an ashtray full of cigarette butts — a mountain of them, all stained with scarlet lipstick. He sees walls plastered with underwear ads and snapshots of chiseled Hollywood hunks. And, underneath the makeup table, he sees a shoe. A gold, stiletto-heeled pump. Size 12.
Eastwood stares at the mess and turns to his crew. Suddenly he’s changed his mind about the dressing room. ”Whatever you do,” he says, ”don’t let ‘em clean it up.”
You’d think Dirty Harry might want to do a little dusting and scrubbing when it comes to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. John Berendt’s tale of lust, death, and gossip in Savannah, Ga. — locals just call it The Book — must be the loopiest piece of true crime ever to charm its way into a 173-week cocktail party on the New York Times best-seller list.
Like Savannah itself, a place where you have to slow down the car to steer through a moss-draped square every couple of blocks, The Book is a path composed of detours and tangents. It’s got a hermit who attaches a small circus of horseflies to his coat. An antiques dealer with a jones for Nazi tchotchkes. A bulldog who dresses up in a tuxedo. And a female impersonator, The Lady Chablis, who pretends to be pregnant. There is a plot — back in 1981, the antiques dealer, a society swell named Jim Williams, shot his redneck lover with a German Luger pistol — but it kicks in around page 169. When screenwriter John Lee Hancock first got a chance to mold Midnight into a movie script, he turned it down. ”I thought, This is an impossible adaptation,” he remembers. ”Why would I put myself through this?”
And yet Hancock is here in Savannah, and so is Eastwood, and so is the bulldog. It’s a sticky June day at Armstrong House, a majestic vanilla cake of a building at the corner of Gaston and Bull streets, and Uga — the University of Georgia mascot — ”the most famous animal in Georgia,” as Berendt calls him — pants patiently in his trailer, one of those plastic cages that pets use to fly the friendly skies. Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, the movie’s stars, are shooting a scene in a crimson-and-white, floor-to-ceiling shrine to their canine colleague. There are Uga bookends, Uga statues, Uga puppy pictures; the shelves glimmer with ceramic bulldogs, bronze bulldogs, cartoon bulldogs, and a little embroidered placard that says ”Every dog will have his day.”
Consider the scene a cat-and-dog test of wills. Spacey plays Williams, a Southern smoothie who puffs on King Edward cigarillos with a kind of feline grace. Cusack, 31, is a jumpy Manhattan newshound named John Kelso — a stand-in for Berendt’s spectral narrator and a foil for the two and a half hours of weirdness that unwind around him. ”It’s almost like you’re a point guard,” Cusack says. ”You’re dishing off assists and lobbing off alley-oops to people. If you understand basketball, people appreciate a good point guard. It might not be the flashiest role, but you can’t get along without one.” Take this scene, for example: