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'Crimes of the Heart'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 12, 1986


Bruce Beresford
Diane Keaton;
Jessica Lange;
Sissy Spacek;
Sam Shepard;
Tess Harper;
David Carpenter;
Hurd Hatfield
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"CRIMES of the Heart" is "Hannah and Her Sisters" with a southern accent, a lilting gingerbread gothic with Diane Keaton, Sissie Spacek and Jessica Lange ding-a-linging harmoniously as Dixieland belles. The Oscar-winning actresses make fine confederates -- their gracious collaboration propelling this happy adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

"Crimes," with its quirky heroines and off-center sentiment, is an ultra-feminine portrait that traces the filigree of family ties. The MaGrath sisters are Mississippi-bred eccentrics -- magnolia-petal pretty and mad as Maggie on catnip. They're failed coquettes raised by their tyrannical Old Granddaddy ever since Momma hanged herself and the family cat. A history like that would send a Yankee to the couch. But for southerners, it's business as usual.

And now there's a new scandal: The youngest MaGrath, Babe Botrelle, shoots her husband Zachary down, then makes herself a pitcher of lemonade before calling the doctor. "I didn't like his stinking looks," she explains to her sisters Lenny and Meg, who help her make bail.

Wide-eyed and unruly, Sissie Spacek nearly steals the show as the impulsive Babe, putting peanuts in her cok'cola as she tells about an affair with a 15-year-old black boy. "I am amazed, Babe. I am completely amazed. I didn't even know you were a liberal," says middle sister Meg.

Lange, leggy and languid, plays the egocentric Meg, whose singing career ended in a small nervous breakdown. Broke and beautiful, she buses home for Hazelhurst, past shotgun shacks and trailer parks and on to clapboard houses with screened-in porches and wicker chairs. Inside one, the eldest sister sticks a candle on a chocolate chip cookie and sings happy birthday to herself. As the frumpy Lenny, Keaton eases smoothly from New York neurotic to southern eccentric, a reluctant wallflower stymied by, of all things, her shriveled ovary.

Early on, poor Lenny learns that Babe shot Zachary in the liver, that Old Granddaddy's near death and that her horse Billy Boy has been struck by lightning. This -- and all the sugar the MaGraths consume -- keeps the lot in a state of constant crisis and tests their will to endure.

Playwright Beth Henley has no dire message for us, but her adaptation is nicely restructured, glib as all get-out and character-wise. The medium frees her characters from a single set, allowing glimpses of the faded gentility of Hazelhurst.

Among the supporting players, Sam Shepard stands out as Meg's slow-talking, snaggle-toothed and downright irresistible old beau. Tess Harper of "Tender Mercies" is bodacious in a supporting role as cousin Chick, a Junior League juggernaut who threatens the kids, "You want me to jerk you bald? I'm gonna call Santa Claus and tell him to come down the chimney and eat you both up."

The powerhouse performances are directed by Bruce Beresford, who maintains balance among the actresses and keeps a lovely tone and smooth pace. As with his critically acclaimed "Tender Mercies," the Australian director again looks at American types with a fresh eye. We are spared the hoop skirts and bad accents, the fainting spells and mint juleps. CRIMES OF THE HEART (PG-13) -- At area theaters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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