Immortal New Orleans

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 3, 2005

Down there at the edge of the continent, lodged on melty, unsubstantial land, lush and Frenchy, all undulacious with the cascades of flesh and the jewellike glisten of a sweat track down a dancing gal's downy back, tropical, fragrant, voodoo-y New Orleans, at least in certain imaginations, isn't a city but a joint, a joint where anything is possible.

That's why most folks went, and that's why the moviemakers went.

But not all of them. Sometimes you can learn about a place from the movies they don't make about it. For example, back in the 1950s when our cities regularly were being squished by reptilian, insectoid or off-planet life forms, virtually no monster movies were set in New Orleans. No Tyrannosaurus r's tripped the light fantastic down the sidewalks of New Orleans. The reason why is obvious: A 27-foot-tall carnivore on Bourbon Street -- who would notice? Some old boy would just say to Mr. Tyrant Lizard King, hey bro, take a load off, have an absinthe or seven. And that dinosaur would think it over, then belly up to the bar and ask the man to start pouring.

Or you can learn about a place from the movies that everybody thinks were set there, but weren't. Here's one that boasts the appropriate stations of the cross for the bayou burg: easy sex, treachery, a languid woman whose clever, sultry ways could be taken as a symbol of the city, a gullible male whose idiocies could be taken as a symbol of the Johns who visit the city, a dark plot involving murder, betrayal, palm trees, sweat and heavy breathing. How New Orleans is that? No wonder everybody "remembers" when William Hurt and Kathleen Turner went drinking on Bourbon, remembers the sultry smell of cigarettes in that place off Basin, remembers the tawdry, neon-tainted dawn as they picked their way back to the mansion after plotting the perfect murder of her hubby. Too bad it was set in Florida and it was called "Body Heat."

Yes sir. That's New Orleans even if it's not New Orleans. And from the movies, we've all inherited our own public New Orleans. Anything goes, all the time. You could link it to the legendary metroplexes in the history of decadence: Paris in the '20s, Hollywood in the '30s, Rome in the '50s, San Francisco in the '70s and . . . New Orleans 24-7.

And of course it's the city where the sex is soft and graspable and an alcoholic blur mandatory and everybody's got his hand out for a few extra nickels and the rules don't really apply to us but only to them, crime isn't far behind and so the city has a kind of parallel history of movie violence and predation; something in the imagination gets buzzy at the confluence of flesh and death and corruption.

"The Big Easy" is almost a clinical study of the New Orleans effect. In it, Ellen Barkin, as a newly appointed prosecutor, brings a prim, single-minded sense of New England mission to a city whose idea of mission is primarily as a not-very-interesting sexual position. Dennis Quaid, as a police detective, personifies the city gestalt: laid-back, corrupt, with a Cheshire grin and an unflappable sense of self-entitlement. She tries to bust him on a corruption charge -- he's guilty, guilty, guilty -- but he squirms out of it. Don't sweat the small stuff, the movie argues; then it watches as she yields to his charms (and the city's), and gives up her Type A dedication; now she sweats only the big stuff, which turns out to be a murder-for-profit plot centered in the police department, and in fighting that, Quaid is professional, heroic and upstanding.

Clint Eastwood was a New Orleans detective in one of his lesser pix, 1984's "Tightrope." This is the one where the killer wears a mask and at the end, when he takes it off, he's nobody who's been in the picture before. How dumb is that? But that's not the point. The point is that director Richard Tuggle got a fine performance out of the city. Best touch, worthy of Orson Welles: The film climaxes in the warehouse where the Mardi Gras floats are stored, so we're treated to a chase and gunfight in a nightworld of laughing kings and hyenas 12 feet tall and leering like loons. And you walk out thinking not, wow, what a cool movie but, baby, I have to get me down there.

My favorite of the N'Awleens-as-bordello-of-the-soul-and-spirit movies isn't the one actually set in a N'Awleens bordello, the famous "Pretty Baby" with Brooke Shields's virginity offered to the highest bidder in a Storyville House of the Rising Sun under the stewardship of Louis Malle. No, my favorite would be the positively drippin' with decadence thang called "Angel Heart." Awful movie, unless you're a fan of decadence, which most people who travel to, dream about and yearn to visit New Orleans are. Director Alan Parker, formerly an ad guy, makes you experience New Orleans as if he's been hired by the Parish Association of Bordello Owners for the best 30-second brothel commercial ever made! Mr. Decadence himself, Mickey Rourke, plays a private eye hired by a devilish fellow (Robert De Niro) to find a missing person. Like "Pretty Baby," this movie endorses the same theme, the sexual exploitation of the young and beautiful. Here, it's Cosby kid Lisa Bonet, trying for a grown-up career but still suspiciously close to Doc Huxtable's warm hearth and heart. The movie had the weird vibration of child molestation, which may be why audiences decided to pass.

Politics figure in the Bayou City's movies as well. People seem to forget that Louisiana elected the most socialist of all major politicians in Gov. Huey Long -- they instead project on the sultriness of New Orleans a hothouse right-wing fervor. You're in a steamy, ferny, orchardy darkness where ghastly apparitions let their ids free to plan chicanery beyond calculation. No surprise then that for director Oliver Stone, New Orleans made a perfect launching zone for Jim Garrison's conspiracy theories, and in "JFK," Stone had great fun inventing Clay Shaw's town as a gay hatefest, where at cross-dressing parties all the conservative nightwings in their heels and garters plan the manipulations that will devastate the handsome head of our 35th president. Some say you can feel that in the air and Stone, no matter the ludicrous overreaches of his plot, clearly responds imaginatively to something in the air or water.

Then in "WUSA," based on the Robert Stone novel "Hall of Mirrors," no less a figure than Paul Newman (who would kissy-face a hot Baltimore stripper on Bourbon Street in "Blaze" while portraying Louisiana's then-governor Earl Long, Huey's brother) was adrift as the fascists plotted to take over . . . gee, whatever it is fascists plot to take over.

The best picture set in New Orleans, though, isn't what you'd think of as typical, perhaps making the point that as much fun as stereotypes can be to track, they usually don't add up to great art. That would be William Wyler's great "Jezebel" of 1938, where the city met her match. Not even the city's beauty, its drama, its mystery, its romance could stand up to a force of nature called Bette Davis. You don't think of it as a New Orleans movie because it wasn't. New Orleans was overpowered by Davis, pure and simple, and when she says, "What a dump," though it should be phonetically spelled "Wotta Duuu -- mmmmmpppp," it's a movie moment that will last longer than celluloid or civilization. Bette even managed to out-act and overpower a cholera plague in that one! Talk about your star power!

Another star who got maybe his best shot in the Big Easy was Elvis in "King Creole" in 1958. This was about the only time he worked for a decent director (Michael Curtiz; remember his little ditty called "Casablanca"?). It was also one of the few times Elvis made a decent movie, because Curtiz fills it with energy and the plot, from Harold Robbins's "A Stone for Danny Fisher") whirls it along. Great songs too. Sad, because when you see it, you think what might have been if Elvis had gotten a few breaks in his Hollywood years.

Of course I've left the most New Orleansy for last. You cannot think of -- who's that yelling "Stella" in the wings? -- New Orleans without thinking of Tennessee Williams and the movies drawn from his works that are set there. "A Streetcar Named Desire," the quintessential Williams-New Orleans classic, dominates the landscape here, with the tormented brutish Brando, the delicate yet self-destructive Vivien Leigh and the sense of New Orleans looming everywhere, pressing the jungle in him out to torment the angel in her. But that has been written about elsewhere at length. Instead, I choose as my all-time favorite whacked-out Big Easy/Tom Williams twisted-sister classic nothing less than the hideous, horrible, awful, grotesque, wonderful "Suddenly, Last Summer."

It's set in a mental institution, where rich, powerful, malevolent Katharine Hepburn -- maybe the most evil role of her long, distinguished career -- essentially bribes the docs to lobotomize her niece, played by Elizabeth Taylor, so as to wipe out the girl's memories of her darling cousin Sebastian's, er, eccentricities. (Was he a -- yes, but don't tell anyone, it's 1959, and certain things can't be even whispered!) Young doctor Montgomery Clift is the guy who has to make the decision, and the whole thing, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, is talky, yakky and yet somehow the pureed essence of New Orleans. Williams, of course, had a poet's gift and feel for language, and this movie is sustained by the onrushing density of its language (and the onrushing density of a flashback with Liz in a white bathing suit that set pulses blasting in that far-off year) and its strange sense of jungle savagery lurking in the most genteel of places.

Is this all gone now? Please no. The movies themselves make it a great town, a treasure of American pop culture, and I haven't begun to tell you about the weekend I spent there in 1992. Anyhow, someone once called Tombstone a town too tough to die, but it did, anyhow. One hopes that a similar rhythm could be applied to the Crescent City and that its prognosis will come true: New Orleans, the town too hot to die.


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