Mary Steenburgen's exquisitely off-putting impression of the literary labor pains suffered and transcended by the late author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in "Cross Creek," opening today, was predicated upon the most devoted research and profound artistic reflection. However, Steenburgen and her indulgent director, Martin Ritt, have distorted the values expressed in the literary source at hand, a 1941 memoir in which Rawlings, best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of "The Yearling," gathered impressions of the teeming life surrounding her farm in north central Florida and wove them into a stirring testament to the life force in nature.
In this context it seems ironic that Rawlings should be identified as a frustrated writer of Gothic romances who discovers her true subjects, fictional and nonfictional, in the reality of a Florida backwater. The setting may be authentically pastoral and the period more or less convincingly dated, but the star carries herself like some strangely aloof, overbred lady of the manor.
Steenburgen is sometimes so oddly affected that she approaches props from the wrong way around: When typing, for example, she suggests that the keys must be clicking out a Chopin prelude at the very least. Leonard Rosenman's lush score rarely lets up, covering the presentation with an all-too-enraptured melodic sauce.
In the filmmakers' defense, they have not elected to dote upon an easily adaptable book. An episodic work of nonfiction, "Cross Creek" is not conventionally dramatized, and it represents an accumulated vision of natural history, the outgrowth of a residence of 12 or 13 years in a uniquely interesting community. Although the movie's overall time frame is difficult to judge, the Rawlings played by Steenburgen is essentially a newcomer to the region she's destined to adopt, and this woman may indeed have been on a shakier emotional footing than the established resident and successful writer of later years.
Nevertheless, the movie's priorities and leading performance remain out of whack. John Alonzo's location photography is often stunning, but the movie doesn't immerse you in the wonders of the bayou setting as richly or systematically as Rawlings' prose does. The heroine encounters people who will later be transformed into fictional characters in her work, specifically "Jacob's Ladder" and "The Yearling," which was filmed memorably by Clarence Brown in the mid-'40s and now gets an abbreviated reprise in "Cross Creek," with Rip Torn and Dana Hill assuming the original Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman Jr. roles.
Steenburgen's ethereal hauteur prevents one from believing that this particular literary aspirant would make much effort to find or recognize her subject in Cross Creek. In fact, it's difficult to understand what brought her to such a remote, rural setting in the first place.
At any rate, the most important items of business in the movie become (1) Will Marjorie finally be published? and (2) Will she unbend enough to accept the marriage proposal of Norton Baskin, the charming hotel proprietor who adores her and would never dream of interfering with her work? The answer to both questions is self-evident enough to eliminate these situations as pretexts for suspense, but the film is calculated to brazen out the pretense anyway. As the diffident, patient, soft-spoken Baskin, Peter Coyote enjoys a personal triumph. He's far and away the most attractive presence in the movie, so much so that the heroine's reluctance to warm to his overtures seems a ludicrous form of self-denial and defensiveness.