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Whistling Dixie

There are some pretty good reasons why it took 44 years for Truman Capote's coming-of-age novel The Grass Harp to make its way to the movies. There are even better reasons why the movie's on-again, off-again release schedule has meandered across most of the last nine months.

First off, Capote's early book is the kind of pseudo-romantic Southern gothic stuff, touched with a hint of the grotesque, that was always better written by Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor. And from it, tyro director Charles Matthau--son of actor Walter--has made the kind of sappy movie that almost everyone has done better, the makers of Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes included.

The time is the late Thirties, and the obligatory sensitive boy here is one Collin Fenwick (Edward Furlong), suddenly orphaned and sent to live with his father's old-maid cousins. Verena Talbo (Sissy Spacek) is a pinched, parsimonious piece of work with a money-stuffed safe in her office. Her shy sister, Dolly (Piper Laurie), is a primitive mystic who's dreamed up her own bottled cure for dropsy and imagines in the rustling of meadow grasses the secret stories of lonely souls.

Papa Walter Matthau pops in as a retired old judge with regrets about his accomplishments, and Nell Carter is Catherine Creek, a wise black earth mother who feels the sting of Jim Crow.

When the film's eccentric outsiders--a recurrent theme in Capote, always an outsider himself--collide gently with the Establishment (Verena, a sanctimonious preacher and a sheriff) the outsiders rather unbelievably go to live together in a kids' treehouse. This little pioneer commune doesn't last long, but its rebellious cohesion is enough to start young Collin (read Truman) down the road to creative writing. And doomed cousin Dolly, who hears stories in the grass, remains forever his muse.

Young Matthau decorates this familiar tale of identities discovered with enough Alabama twilight and dripping Spanish moss, enough nosy small-town barbers and lash-batting belles, to supply Margaret Mitchell for a decade. There's even an itinerant evangelist named Sister Ida (Mary Steenburgen), who heats up her tent with a little cheesecake and has mothered a dozen illegitimate children.

All in all, y'all, Southern caricature has a field day here, right down to the moment when the tender young hero--sixteen now, tempered by life and conversant with death--traipses off to big, bad New York, presumably to write Breakfast at Tiffany's and become a dedicated social butterfly. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Give the cast credit for hard work--particularly Laurie. But bring along the Handi Wipes: There'll be plenty of schmaltz to clean up before you see the popcorn stand again.

--Gallo

The Grass Harp.
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis, from the novel by Truman Capote. Directed by Charles Matthau. With Edward Furlong, Nell Carter, Piper Laurie, Walter Matthau and Sissy Spacek.

 
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