Week 25 — Mississippi
Week 25! Are we really half-done?
Reflection time: I don’t profess to be an expert in film. I’m just a normal guy who likes movies — and watches a lot of them … probably more than the average dude. In a lot of ways this project has been a personal journey for me.
So, I make no apologies for being unfamiliar with the work of Robert Altman — the American director who, according to the Wikipedians, rose to fame in the 1970s with films like MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, took his career underground after directing the mega-flop Popeye, only to have a mainstream resurgence in the early 1990s.
I saw Popeye as a kid. It didn’t leave a lasting impression. At one point, I also saw Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts — once again, it didn’t leave much of a lasting impression — in my defense, I had a really short attention span in high school when I saw it.
Altman, who died last year, had a fascinating career. After a stint in the Army, Altman’s entrance into filmmaking began when he co-wrote the script for 1948’s film noir, Bodyguard. After the film was a success, Altman attempted a career as a screenwriter. That didn’t pan out, so Altman turned to directing industrial shorts for Calvin Company in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri — basically, company training videos — before making a move to television. He returned to film with 1968’s Countdown and 1969’s A Day in the Park. Neither were successful.
Then, Altman was offered to direct an adaption of the novel MASH, a satire of the armed services set during the Korean War. This came after about a dozen other filmmakers turned the project down. Although the film’s production was tumultuous, MASH was a huge hit, perhaps due to the film’s irreverent tone toward the military coinciding with growing opposition to the Vietnam War, of which the United States was currently in the midst. Besides making a ton of money, MASH was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Altman’s profile as a filmmaker grew throughout the 1970s, until the Popeye debacle. That’s a whole long story that I will not get into at this time. Let’s just say, Altman dropped off the map throughout the 1980s. Then, in 1992, The Player — a satire of Hollywood — was released, and once again Altman was in the spotlight. (Self-absorbed Hollywood types can’t help but get behind a film about themselves.) Nonetheless, it was a good movie. For The Player, he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1993 for Best Director. Altman didn’t win, losing to Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven, which is actually forgivable.
Cookie’s Fortune, released seven years after The Player, is a low-key affair about how the lives of about a dozen people living in Holly Springs, a small town in Mississippi, are affected when one of the town’s elderly residents — the titular Cookie — commits suicide.
Despite the dark premise, the film is actually a fairly light comedy. Glenn Close and Julianne Moore play sisters Camille and Cora, Cookie’s nieces. Camille (Close) is the older of the two women and the town’s community theater director. Cora (Moore) is her younger, somewhat spacey sister. It’s Camille and Cora who discover Cookie dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The reason for the suicide is explained in both a suicide note found by Camille and Cora and in scenes earlier in the film: Cookie — played by Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal (Breakfast at Tifanny’s, Hud) — had seen her husband Buck pass away and was simply fed up with her widowed life.
Let the laughs begin, huh? In actuality, the discovery of Cookie’s body by Camille and Cora really does kick off the comedic elements of the film’s plot. Camille, remarking that only crazy people kill themselves and worried about her aunt’s reputation — or more likely the reputation of their family — conspires to make Cookie’s suicide look like a robbery, dragging poor clueless Cora into the scheme. Camille, with Cora, steal a few seemingly valuable objects, break some furniture and a window and throw Buck’s pistol, which was used in the suicide, into the bushes behind the house.
When the police arrive they buy into Camille’s set-up, but when it comes time to look for a suspect, they immediately turn to Cookie’s black handyman, Willis — played by Charles S. Dutton, who played the title character in the Fox TV series Roc. Fingerprints belonging to Willis, who lives with Cookie, are all over Buck’s pistol. It’s explained earlier in the film that Willis cleaned all of Buck’s guns the night before the shooting, which explains the fingerprints. Although Willis recounts this to the local law enforcement, he’s still held in custody.
With the exception of Camille, who continues with her ruse after Willis’s arrest, and Cora, who absent-mindedly follows her sister, nobody in the town wants to believe that Willis killed Cookie. Specifically, he’s got three people on his side: his fishing buddy and sheriff’s officer Lester Boyle (played by Ned Betty), Cora’s daughter Emma (played by Liv Tyler with really short hair) and Emma’s love interest Jason (played by Chris “Robin” O’Donnell). As out-of-town detectives attempt to solve the mysery of Cookie’s death, Lester, Emma, and Jason hang out with Willis in the jail cell where he’s being held.
Suffice it to say, there are more than a few twists and turns before the film reaches its conclusion. I have no plans to ruin these plot points, none of which are entirely unexpected to viewers paying close enough attention to the movie.
The fact is, like most of Altman’s (and most indie) films, Cookie’s Fortune is about the characters more than the story — although the story is definitely one that keeps you hanging on. Altman has said in interviews that he sees the screenplays he directs only as starting points. He gives plenty of room for his actors and actresses to improvise and “play.” Altman has said that sometimes his film’s plots are shaped by what happens on set. Although the characters in Cookie’s Fortune aren’t the most well-developed — we never get too far into their backgrounds — the quality of the acting in the film brings each and every one of them to life. There isn’t a bad actor in the bunch here. I specifically enjoyed the scenes with Streep and Moore, two of the finest American actresses living today. Of the two, Moore really shines as she’s playing against the type of “strong” characters she usually portrays.
In the filmography of Altman, Cookie’s Fortune isn’t the most heralded film but definitely worth checking out. Altman followed up Cookie’s Fortune with 2000’s Dr. T and The Women, building up to the second-biggest hit of his career after MASH, 2001’s Gosford Park. After Gosford Park would come 2003’s The Company and 2006’s A Prarie Home Companion, the same year he was given his honorary Academy Award. On this high note, he died in November 2006 of complications from leukemia at the age of 81, leaving behind an impressive body of work I look forward to exploring more in the future.
Maybe I’ll even give Popeye another chance.
Next week: BONUS COLUMN! Meet me in St. Louis!
Cookie’s Fortune on YouTube
Matt D.’s Top Five Creepy Small Towns of Cinema
4. Lumberton, North Carolina — From David Lynch’s Blue Velvet
3. Royston Vasey, Somewhere in Northern England — From the UK television series The League of Gentleman and its spin-off movie (Click here to add this to your Netflix Instant Watch queue!)
2. Hobbs End, New Hampshire — From John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness
1. Twin Peaks, Washington — From David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, the television series and Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the movie
Conclusion: Stephen King and David Lynch have cornered the market on small town creepiness.
What places would you add to this list? Leave me some feedback!