The first time that Lucille (Melanie Griffith) hears the voice of a severed head – removed from the husband she has matter-of-factly murdered – it is a cute, magic realist joke, played for comedy and surprise.
The next time this voice appears, it is already a banal, droning irritation for Lucille – rendered casually, in long shot, with the dialogue between dead and living just nattering softly on the soundtrack.
The art and craft of Crazy in Alabama – an outstanding directorial debut for Antonio Banderas – is caught in the interplay of these two moments. The trailer for this movie evokes the expectation of a mushy, overly sentimental tale about an eccentric family, in the tradition of Steel Magnolias (1989) or The Evening Star (1996). But this film bends its given formula completely out of shape.
Lucille's story – her bid for stardom in Hollywood as an expression of her immense desire for freedom – is only one half of the movie. Quite unrelated to it, for a long time, is a second story – one involving the involvement of young Peejoe (Lucas Black) in everyday, small-town struggles for civil rights.
As Banderas cannily alternates these threads, the common points uniting them proliferate: in both, someone is murdered; someone gets their face plastered all over the mass media; people cross social lines and enter places and lifestyles previously closed to them. Themes of liberty, responsibility, abuse of power delicately form in the comparison. One has rarely seen a modernist structure delivered with such seeming effortlessness and lightheartedness.
Banderas has worked for many fine directors, but it clear that he has learnt most from the great Pedro Almodóvar. Like his mentor, Banderas is unafraid to wring tears and lessons from the most outrageous and fanciful plot events.
Like Almodóvar, Banderas can move in mere seconds from hilarity to wistfulness. And he is already expert at using all the resources of film language – music, sound effects, framing, decor – to concentrate our attention on what is always most moving and telling in a scene.
It is a tremendous showcase for Griffith, a part allowing her to refer to classic actresses (Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday) and their screen personae in a theatrical, multi-layered, completely entertaining way.
The role of Lucille is quietly ambiguous: we wonder how nutty she really is, and we fear for her children, left in someone else's care far from the glamour of Tinsel Town. But – as in a classic '50s comedy – we can never really doubt her essential goodness, even if she is a domestic killer.
Griffith is the undisputed star of this show, but Banderas – again emulating Almodóvar's democratic generosity – lets many of his cast fly high with similar displays of histrionics. Cathy Moriarty's small, loud role as a harassed housewife is priceless, and Rod Steiger, making a welcome comeback, is so supremely funny as a judge in the courtroom finale that he can bring an audience to tears.
Crazy in Alabama strays perilously close to Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog ) territory – that precarious mixture of whimsy, tragedy and spirited showbiz that can so easily plunge from high-wire laughter to mawkish bathos.
But, to my mind, Banderas is already a more accomplished and daring filmmaker than the overrated Hallström. This is a wonderful movie that promises a great directorial career.
© Adrian Martin December 1999