You’re 29 years old (give or take). A few years ago, you were just a small town girl from Mississippi a-majorin’ in theatre at a prestigious, private university in a tony enclave near Big D. Now, your first full-length, professionally produced play has made the leap to Broadway, dazzled critics and audiences alike, and captured the Pulitzer Prize. Did I mention that you’re only 29 years old, and that this is your first full length professionally produced play?
The playwright is none other than SMU alumna Beth Henley, and the play is Crimes of the Heart, the darkly comic yet somehow still life-affirming saga of the troubled McGrath sisters: Lenny (Lenora), Meg, and Babe. When the play begins, childlike Babe has just shot her older politico husband, thereby prompting lonely eldest sister Lenny to reach out to estranged middle sister Meg to come back home. Seems Meg’s been out in Hollywood trying to make it as a singer but not having much luck, which, for her, is par for the course. Meg’s life has been seemingly cursed ever since she found her mother’s dead body oh-so-many years ago, the victim of an apparent murder-suicide. You see, Mrs. McGrath not only hanged herself, she hanged the family’s old yellow cat along with her. The girls, whose dad skipped town years earlier, leading to the mother’s eventual mental unrest, were raised by their granddaddy–now deathly ill himself–and he might not have done such a bang up job: Meg has spent a lifetime trying to suppress her feelings by courting as much pain as possible; Lenny is so self-conscious about her own body that she’s allowed herself to become an old woman well before her time–she’s actually only 30, but her sensibility is that of a woman well-past retirement age; finally, Babe was barely past her high school majorette phase when she jumped at the chance to wed a powerful wealthy man. Only later did she realize that she was out of her league in a loveless marriage. Unfortunately, Babe’s temporary solution leads to an even bigger dilemma, and that’s where the story begins.
There’s no doubt that Crimes of the Heart made Beth Henley a darling of the theater world. Besides winning the Pulitzer, it was nominated for a bunch of Tony awards, including Best Play–and two nods for Best Featured Actress: Mia Dillon (Babe) and Mary Beth Hurt (Meg); the cast also included Dallas’s own Peter MacNicol as Babe’s earnest young attorney. Later, future Oscar winner Holly Hunter would make her Broadway debut when she stepped into the role of Meg…but more about Hunter later. Eventually, Crimes of the Heart was made into an Oscar nominated film starring a trio of powerhouse talents: Diane Keaton (Lenny), Jessica Lange (Meg), and Sissy Spacek (Babe), all of whom were previous Oscar winners. Spacek secured another nod as did Dallas’s own Tess Harper in the role of Chick, the sisters’ prissy, meddlesome cousin. Henley wrote the screenplay and earned a Oscar nod for her efforts as well. She also worked with no less than rock star-turned-director David Byrne on the screenplay for 1986’s True Stories, which was filmed in and around the Dallas area.
Of course, the trouble with starting your career at the absolute pinnacle is that there really isn’t anywhere else to go but down, and that’s exactly what happened to Henley with her next Broadway play, The Wake of Jamey Foster, which opened in October of 1982. Despite a cast of such reliable talents as Hunter, Anthony Heald, Patricia Richardson (another SMU alumna), Belita Moreno (SMU again), and the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (another Dallasite, as well as an SMU grad and occasional Henley collaborator), the play received scathing reviews and closed after only 12 performances. That’s apparently the problem with success that comes too early–but not necessarily too easily–in a career: everyone starts waiting, almost eagerly, for the other shoe not to just drop, but to plummet.
Henley managed to recover ever so slightly with her next venture, The Miss Firecracker Contest, which never made it to Broadway but instead enjoyed a modest run off-Broadway beginning in 1984. It also helped put Holly Hunter on the map. The Miss Firecracker Contest, with Hunter as a young woman hell-bent on rehabilitating her tarnished reputation by becoming a beauty queen, closed in 1985; by 1987, Hunter, who’d only had tiny parts in a few films, was starring in both Raising Arizona and Broadcast News. She received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in the latter. She followed Broadcast News with the film version of The Miss Firecracker Contest, simply retitled Miss Firecracker (1989). The movie was also future Oscar winner Tim Robbins’s next gig after bolstering his rep with a knock-out performance, so to speak, in 1988’s Bull Durham. Miss Firecracker was also the premiere offering from Corsair Pictures, which was the short-lived production arm of the former United Artists theater chain (which has since morphed into Regal Cinemas, but I digress). I would say that most people have not heard of Miss Firecracker, with Hunter’s…crackerjack performance, which is too bad. I’ll always have a soft-spot for Crimes of the Heart, mainly because I’m such a huge fan of all three leading actresses, but Miss Firecracker gets to me on a gut-level. It’s one of the best movies that almost nobody has ever heard of, let alone seen.
Hunter plays Carnelle Scott, a small town misfit scraping by, so to speak, at the local catfish farm–that is until her tardiness gets her dismissed in the first several minutes of the movie. Carnelle is an orphan who was raised by her aunt, but now the aunt too has passed away, and Carnelle lives alone in a ramshackle Victorian home that has seen better days. Carnelle has also seen better days. When she was a child, Carnelle suffered from ringworm and used to cover her head with a cap covered in yellow feathers. She also idolized her two older cousins: Delmount (Robbins), the would-be philosopher with a self-defeating violent streak that’s somehow manifested in an unruly head of hair, and Elaine (Mary Steenburgen), perhaps the most legendarily beautiful woman to ever wear the crown of Miss Firecracker, the queen of the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration. These many years later, with Elaine and Delmount long gone, and Carnelle all too aware that she’s about to be too old to enter a beauty pageant, she decides to make her move. If nothing else, she wants to prove to the townspeople that she’s no longer the promiscuous tart she had been a few years earlier. Plus, almost more than anything, she hopes that some of her cousin’s luster will rub off on her in the form of the beautiful red evening gown that helped the latter on her way to victory several years earlier. Seeing Elaine in her pageant finery waving at an adoring crowd from high atop a parade float is one of Carnelle’s most cherished childhood memories–in a childhood, don’t forget, without a lot to cherish. As it turns out, Elaine comes back home to give a speech at the pageant although she also has other things on her mind; likewise, Delmount, who’s also only been scraping by, returns home with a plan to change his destiny and, perhaps, to help Carnelle change hers as well.
I think Hunter’s particular greatness in this role is how she truly understands that Carnelle is on a journey. See, Henley is a tricky writer. She’s from the South, of course, and she pokes fun at the South, so the task for any actor is to find the truth that’s often buried deep down in the characters in order to keep them from spilling over into mere camp–or even banally inspirational. The movie was shot in the summer of 1988 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Hunter was exactly 30 years old at the time, and while 30 is hardly over the hill, Hunter is quite effective at registering someone much, much younger. Carnelle’s exact age is never mentioned in the movie though Henley’s notes in the published edition of the play puts her at 24. Nonetheless, there are times when Hunter’s awkward body language–it helps, of course, that’s she’s super petite (5’2″)–and her wide open face suggest someone even younger than that: a person who’s perhaps chronologically a young adult but who’s still very much a lost, abandoned, and even naive child–even with her somewhat checkered past. Carnelle looks up to Elaine with nothing but profound and unabashed admiration. At other times, such as when she’s surrounded by a flurry of activity at the pageant’s headquarters, Carnelle looks like a kid in the world’s biggest toy/candy store. She can hardly believe it’s all really happening for her. In one other sequence, she turns misty-eyed watching another contestant’s talent act. That’s the part of Carnelle that wants to be loved, and she sees in other people’s beauty what she can’t see in herself. No playwright can get all of that on the page. Oh sure, the details for such are all in the blueprint, the raw text, but it takes the subtlies of acting to manifest it so sublimely for the audience’s pleasure.
Hunter is quite amazing at times. At one point, Carnelle is certain she has flubbed the preliminary round of judging, thereby curtailing any actual involvement in the pageant, and her heartbreak is devastating and genuine–look at the bulging, straining muscles in her neck as she wails on and on about her disappointment. This isn’t an actress who’s pretending or just going through the motions. No, every fiber of her being is fully in the moment, at one with the character’s suffering–however comic it might seem from the outside looking in, at a safe remove. (Of course, her guilelessness practically obliterates that remove.) Carnelle’s despair is soon dispelled–another sterling moment–and, soon, she’s pageant-bound. (Though some of my friends and I have often wondered if Carnelle’s entry to the next level of the pageant is not motivated in part by a desire by the officials to maintain the peace with cousin Elaine.) At any rate, Carnelle soon gets her big chance to impress the audience (both in the pageant and those watching the movie) and the judges with what is called a “marching tap dance routine to the Star Spangled Banner,” and it’s a doozy, I assure you, with Hunter rising to the nearly impossible challenge of actually going through the motions of the choreography but also “selling” the idea that this is something genuinely artistic and beautiful rather than flat-out ridiculous–and she does all that. By the end of the routine, she’s positively radiant.
I won’t give away too much more–as in whether or not Carnelle wins the pageant–but I will reiterate that Carnelle is on a journey, and she has to have the full experience of the pageant in order to grow into who she truly is. It is in these scenes that Hunter astonishes as she continually plumbs the depth of her character’s core. There’s a feistiness, sure, but there’s also strength, determination, a surprising amount of tenderness, and, yes, grace.
There are three main supporting characters, but let’s start with the two that are closest to Carnelle, at least by blood, and they are Elaine and Delmount. Mary Steenburgen brings Carnelle’s snooty cousin Elaine to brilliant life, which probably isn’t as easy as Steenburgen makes it look; good acting never is. Now, some people might argue that as Streenburgen plays her, Elaine is much too much a phony, but I think that’s something easily explained–and absolutely right. Of course, Elaine is a phony, a pretentious snot with a Southern accent as thick and sweet as molasses–but rather than make her a mere bitch, Steenburgen pulls back Elaine’s facade just enough for the audience to get a glimpse of her soul: her every word and every gesture are calculated to a fare-thee-well, so watching her as she tries to navigate one awkward encounter after another is delightful. It’s all a performance with Elaine, an effect. That much is obvious. What I get out of it is that Elaine has been raised to be a people-pleaser, and that training likely figured into her pageant success and her seemingly perfect marriage–but where has all that dutiful daughter/beauty queen/wife stuff left Elaine? Is there a part of herself she can hold onto when she thinks no one is looking? Steenburgen rises to the challenge of going where Henley leads her in order to show that Elaine is only human. Of course, practically the only person in the community that is not enthralled with Elaine is her brother Delmount. In this piece as well as in Crimes of the Hearts, a recurring theme in Henley’s work is that even when siblings grow into otherwise mature adults with rich and varied experiences, they lapse into their old established childish behavioral patterns when they’re forced into close quarters. In this, Steenburgen and Robbins are right on target. They seem to be having fun portraying mutual antagonism, which is really the point. If Delmount and Elaine didn’t get some psychological satisfaction out of their petty skirmishes, they wouldn’t keep them going, would they? I’ve always thought Robbins’s appeal in his early comic roles is that for the longest time, he had a baby face, doughy and unformed, atop a fully adult body–at 6’5′, he is reportedly the tallest ever Academy Award winner. Of course, those twinkly blue eyes add immeasurably to his charm. This man-child quality is perfect for Delmount, a grown man who talks a good game but still has nightmares, no doubt from watching his own strong-willed mother literally morph into some kind of beast before finally passing away. For Delmount, love comes in unexpected ways, and it allows him to relax for awhile.
After Elaine and Delmount, the third key supporting character is Carnelle’s seamstress, a sweet young woman from impoverished conditions (“She lives down by the river”) who, incredibly, began sewing outfits for frogs–as opposed to expensive dolls–when she was just a child. Besides this particular quirk, Popeye has a medical condition that, as her nickname suggests, causes her eyes to bulge out just a bit–and that’s just one part of her affliction. Don’t worry. I won’t spoil the surprises in her story. She gets a chance to explain the whole thing to Delmount in one of the movie’s best scenes. Now there’s, for lack of a better word, a twist to all of this. Director Thomas Schlamme saw fit to cast the great Alfre Woodard in the role. Woodard, for the uninitiated, is African-American. Henley did not write the character with any specific race or ethnicity in mind. Indeed, a Latina, Belita Moreno, played the role off-Broadway, but that was simply incidental. Another friend of mine, a white actress if there ever were one, played the part several years ago (a few years after the movie) in a local production–not that there’s anything wrong with that. By the way, some of my best friends are white. Why am I mentioning this? Well, it’s because I love Woodard, and I think she is marvelous in this role. Her Popeye is such a sweet presence, and her budding romance with Delmount is one of the movie’s many delights. The problem is that because Popeye is a little naive, ditsy even (dare I say childlike), and has, you know, those big bulging eyes, some critics originally lambasted Schlamme and/or Woodard and/or Henley for verging perilously close to the old “pickaninny” caricature of black females not unlike, say, Butterfly McQueen’s portrayal of silly, mouthy, slow-witted “Prissy” in Gone with the Wind. Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it, but I think Woodard just shines in the role. It’s certainly not her fault that the role is written the way it is, right? My friend played the role much differently than Woodard’s approach, but she couldn’t change the essence of the character: an earnest country bumpkin. Woodard, with her, yes, soulful eyes, beautiful smile, and overall savvy as an actress, makes the role her own–and something far more resonant than a simple stock character. (Personally, I was horrified by the pickaninny-ish caricature of former Secretary-of-State Condolezza Rice served by Thandie Newton–via director Oliver Stone–in W, the 2008 biopic of then prez, George W. Bush.) Plus, it would be ridiculous to make a movie about life in small town Mississippi without a single person of color in a major role. Not only that, Henley’s approach has always been equal opportunity in that she manages to poke fun at almost everyone, black/white, young/old, whatever; the other pageant contestants are a pretty motley bunch, to be sure, with all kinds of oddball flourishes. It’s the job of the actors/actresses to humanize these characters, and that’s exactly what Woodard does. Popeye isn’t a pickaninny; she’s just Popeye. Schlamme and Woodard take a risk here–not the least of which includes depicting an interracial couple, in the 1980s no less, without a single mention of race to be found between them.
The cast is rounded out by a handful of reliable character actors and a few eager newcomers. First is no less than Scott Glenn, almost unrecognizable as Mac Sam, Carnelle’s sometime squeeze, a carny operator plagued by a lifetime of health issues and rotten luck. He looks like a hippie burnout who never recovered from the 1960s, more dead than alive, actually, yet Glenn invests the character with such tenderness. It’s not a big role, not a flashy one, but Glenn makes a vivid impression. This is the same tough guy that was so riveting as the baddie in Urban Cowboy (drawing comparisons to Clint Eastwood, as I recall); one of his next screen appearances–after Miss Firecracker–was as button-down FBI investigator Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs. What a smart actor.
Next, the late Trey Wilson has a ball playing “Mr. Benjamin Draper,” one of the pageant’s most visible movers and shakers. Draper is the proverbial big fish in a small pond, and anyone who has seen Wilson in his colorful roles in Raising Arizona and Bull Durham knows that the man has no qualms about portraying a buffoon though he’s capable of much more than that, presenting Draper as a lovesick Southern gentleman still nursing a boyhood crush. Of course, Wilson didn’t invent the character. Henley was there to provide the blueprint, but, again, it’s up to Wilson to take Henley’s conceits and find a way to make them endearing to/for audiences, and he does so in fleeting moments with telling gestures; meanwhile, Texas’s own Ann Wedgeworth (a Dallas transplant by way of Abilene) pops up for a few scenes as the pageant’s Mother Hen, the woman whose job it is to mentor the eager, if unformed, hopefuls in their pursuit of that certain Firecracker “spark.” Never mind that Miss Blue seems a bit frazzled, worse for wear, herself. She’s like one of Tennessee Williams’s faded Southern belles with all of the tics and none of the baggage. Wedgeworth has played eccentric characters such as this one on more than one occasion–she had a small role in the same year’s Steel Magnolias–but, of course, directors hire her because she’s good at what she does, and her mere presence–the recognizability of her face if not her name–creates a sense of expectation about a character before the actress even opens her mouth–though her distinctive twang just sweetens the pot. Amy Wright, who’d just been seen as William Hurt’s late blooming sister, Rose, in The Accidental Tourist (1988), is a hoot as one of the town’s leading busybodies, Missy Mahoney; she and her sister Tessy, played by future Tony nominee, Veanne Cox, will likely one day inherit the title of the town’s oddball spinsters. These two are so superficially interchangeable that townspeople can’t tell them apart, referring to each of them only as “Mahoney girl,” at one time or another, yet their temperaments are quite different. Missy is a stuffy prude while Tessa is still at the giggly schoolgirl age. Ever-reliable character actor Bert Remsen drops in for a brief bit as Delmount’s particularly gruff and nasty immediate supervisor at his already unpleasant job. Look carefully as well, and you’ll see Houston’s Greg Germann, years before he hit it relatively big as Ally McBeal’s ex-husband, and, yes, that’s no less than Brent Spiner (as “Data” on TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation at the time of this film) clocking-in for barely more than a walk-on as a preacher. Angela Turner, a leggy blonde, plays Caroline Jefferson, the allegedly prettiest girl in town. She has all the right stuff, that one, though Henley has given her a quirk or two as well. Finally, gorgeous Lori Hayes scores in the smallish role of a Sally Chin, a contestant who performs her talent act with considerable aplomb and actually looks stunning while doing so.
As noted, Thomas Schlamme directs the film. His resume at the time consisted of TV work, and he has only directed one feature film since Miss Firecracker: 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer starring Mike Meyers and Nancy Travis (a dud). On the other hand, over the past two decades, Schlamme has distinguished himself as one of the most respected of all TV directors, having garnered scads of Emmy and DGA awards for his work on Tracey Takes On…, Sports Night, and, most famously, The West Wing (on which he also served as a co-producer). There’s no doubt that he knows how to bring out the best in his actors. On the other hand, the first chunk of the movie is mostly visually flat. It’s not horrible, but it’s not especially inspired either. Well, part of that is just the reality of having to film some of the earlier scenes in an old rundown Victorian house that is not especially photogenic. Of course, when Bruce Beresford shot Crimes of the Heart, he spruced up his location into Victorian gingerbread loveliness. Schlamme could have had his design team perform a similar makeover, but he didn’t, and his approach seems true to the material even if it doesn’t offer much in the way of eye candy. That noted, there is one interior shot that works like a charm for me, and that’s a closeup of Miss Popeye as she peers through the glass panel of the front door, a panel that is partially obscured from the inside by sheer drapery. The beauty of this image always takes me by surprise, and then I wonder how long it must have taken to light it. The movie becomes much more visually interesting once the action switches to the annual Fourth of July shindig, which, of course, includes the pageant. Schlamme and production designer Kristi Zea work together to create a county fair that’s colorful and exciting without lapsing too far into kitsch or caricature. It looks and feels like the real deal rather than a Hollywood manufactured set. Furthermore, as the festivities stretch from morning to night, Schlamme and cinematographer Arthur Albert create some movie magic, perfectly capturing the mystical quality of a lazy summer evening in the country: at once soothing and mysterious like the fabled “blue hour” of lore.
Again, as someone who has both read the play and seen it performed live, I have to say that the movie is actually an improvement on the original text. Of course, Henley does the usual job of “opening up” the story. The action in the stage version unfolds either in the old family home or backstage at the pageant. The movie takes place all over Yazoo City, Mississippi (a real town, btw) with plenty of pageant coverage both on and offstage–and those scenes are some of the movie’s most fun and/or memorable. Liberating the action in this way allows Henley to more fully develop things that were sketchy or only hinted at in the text–and that includes introducing a few new characters. Of course, sometimes writers and directors fail when they are too literal in their handling of an adaptation, forgetting the value in the power of suggestion. In Henley’s case, the approach works because it allows her to pare away some of the stagey, expository dialogue and instead frees her to focus on the visual element, showing her characters in the business of doing whatever is they’re doing without having to over-explain themselves. Henley has also, wisely, rethought much of the material, playing with chronology, lifting small snippets of dialogue from given passages and recontextualizing them, and, best of all, tinkering with some of the characters’ motivations, which gives the story some Tennessee Williams-style heft. (Yes, I have referenced Tennessee Williams twice in this piece though I fought myself over it.)
During the 1989/90 awards season, Steenburgen was the only Miss Firecracker cast member to receive any kind of accolade: a Best Supporting Actress nomination per the Chicago Film Critics Association. Well, good for her. Steenburgen was actually having a good year in ’89, what with her fabulous performance in this film along with her role opposite Steve Martin in the more well-known, well-liked, Parenthood. [Steenburgen is a previous Best Supporting Actress winner for 1980’s Melvin and Howard.] I happen to think that Robbins, Woodard, Glenn, Steenburgen, natch, and, especially, Hunter all give award worthy performances in this film, but, of course, it’s no surprise that they were overlooked (Steenburgen’s one nod, aside). Okay, so, no Oscar nomination for Hunter. I get it, but what about a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy? Really? Well, no, of course not. Awards are tricky business. With so many films competing for attention, it often takes more than good work alone for a movie to be considered a worthy contender–and in 1989, Miss Firecracker was barely even a blip compared to the likes of Steel Magnolias and Driving Miss Daisy (also based on high profile plays about the South). This movie just wasn’t a hit, not even relative to its tiny budget. For me, the bigger mystery is how Miss Firecracker was allowed to fail in the first place. Again, it was Hunter’s follow-up to her Oscar nominated performance in the popular Broadcast News as well as Robbins’s first feature after his breakthrough in Bull Durham–not to mention the possible allure of Steenburgen, Glenn, and Woodard, hardly unknowns. More confusing is how the mighty United Artists theater chain dropped the ball with its own product. As noted, UA briefly got into–or back into–the production end of movies with Corsair Pictures, so it seems that with all the muscle of one of the biggest–if not the biggest–exhibitors behind it, the movie should not have lacked for anything in the way of distribution or marketing, two major hurdles for most “sensitive” low-budget films, but that was apparently not the case. Btw: this experiment did not last long, as Corsair only released a few more films before closing for good. The company might have fared a little better with Michael Caine in A Shock to the System. Well, there’s a reason why these monopolies were dismantled in the first place.
I, of course, was a UA employee for many years, and I sure did my part to help sell the movie as it was my theatre’s 1989 second quarter project picture. Indeed, this was one of the first big promotional campaigns on which I took a leading role. I worked every possible angle I could from arranging tie-ins with local businesses to decorating the lobby, etc. I’d seen the movie weeks in advance of its opening, and I loved it so much that I just wanted to do all I could to help it succeed. It was a tricky chapter in my own life, full of both old doubts and dreams of many new possibilities, and, similar to Carnelle, I just wanted to make my own mark in a business that I loved while I had the chance. To that end, I succeeded even if the movie did not, earning first place in our region, which meant a nice plaque and a cash bonus. By now, Miss Firecracker is more than 20 years old, and the play upon which it is based is almost 30 years old. Almost everyone has gone on to bigger and better things: Hunter triumphed in 1993’s The Piano, earning virtually every accolade available including an Oscar; Robbins went on to divide his time between acting and writing/directing. He won a Best Supporting Actor for the tragic–dark and tragic–Mystic River, but only after earning a Best Director nod for 1995’s fact-based Dead Man Walking (for which his then longtime lady-love Susan Sarandon won her Best Actress Oscar); Woodard, as noted in the sidebar, has primarily distinguished herself in television, as has director Thomas Sclamme. Steenburgen, who’d already won a Best Supporting Actress for Melvin and Howard (1980) long before Miss Firecracker, stays busy with television work also though she had a role in last summer’s smash hit, The Help.
Beth Henley still hones her craft in the wonderful world of theater though she has not had an official Broadway play in years and years. I often wonder if Henley was really writing about herself to a certain degree in Miss Firecracker. Is she Carnelle, the Mississippi girl who’s determined to get the heck out her small town and make it big, or is she more like Elaine, the girl who got out, hit it big, and then had to regroup when things got tough? Does it even matter anymore? In my book, she’ll always be a winner.
Thanks for your consideration…
Beth Henley at the Internet Broadway Database:
Beth Henley at the Internet Off-Broadway Database:
A review of Henley’s The Jacksonian in the LA Times: