Bent : Movie of the year? … Savannah’s Dulled in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

A Spirit Bent

Is Not Broken

Get ready to be electrified! After almost 20 years, a harrowing, potent film has been made from the acclaimed, award-winning, groundbreaking 1979 play Bent , about Hitler’s savage persecution of gays in Nazi Berlin. It is not for squeamish Pollyannas, but it will grab serious filmgoers by the heart. This stirring work by Martin Sherman, the marvelous writer whose new play A Madhouse in Goa is currently dazzling New York audiences in an exemplary production with Judith Ivey, made a significant contribution to literature on the Holocaust. I first saw the great Ian McKellen in London, then Richard Gere in the Broadway production, and I was devastated both times. In this imaginatively directed (by illustrious British stage director Sean Mathias, making his screen debut) and sensitively rendered (by an excellent, dedicated cast) film adaptation, Bent is a blazing study of fascist repression and a love that conquers all obstacles, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

It’s really two movies. In the first half, you see Hitler’s purge of another group besides Jews in the decadent, glamorous midnight cabaret setting of prewar Berlin. Mick Jagger is truly astounding as a sultry-voiced bisexual drag queen named Greta who looks and sings like Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel . His club is the scene of sexual orgies, cocaine, cross-dressing, and strapping Aryan storm troopers who lead double lives. Among the customers are Max (Clive Owen), a broodingly handsome and sexually promiscuous playboy, and his weak, frail, dependent lover Rudy (Brian Webber), who are in trouble with the Gestapo after an affair with a soldier from Ernst Rohm’s SA unit during the historically infamous massacre known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” Ian McKellen, star of the original London production, now plays Max’s prissy-mouthed, frightened Uncle Freddie, who tries to get Max and Rudy out of Germany but fails. They flee with only the clothes on their backs, get themselves captured and on the train to Dachau, Max experiences the first of many traumatic debasements at the hands of a brutal Gestapo agent (Rupert Graves), including the fatal beating of Rudy, the boy he loves.

The second half shows the horrors of the concentration camp, where Max pretends to be a Jew to avoid wearing the dreaded pink triangle with which the Nazis identified and labeled homosexuals. Max survives by suspending himself from reality, repeating “This isn’t happening” again and again, and you can’t help but wonder how many innocent victims under German domination said the same thing. Determined to drive him insane, the sadistic guards assign Max the task of carrying big, heavy rocks from one side of a slag pit to the other side, all day long, then back again, with only three-minute “rest” intervals taken while standing at rigid attention. Despite his resolve, Max develops a bond with a fellow inmate (Lothaire Bluteau, the Canadian actor best known for his role in Jesus of Montreal ) and their demonstration of physical love-even though they are forbidden to touch-ends up being both their salvation and undoing.

It’s amazing how much terror and suspense Bent gets out of leather boots marching through wet leaves or winter scenes in the all-white rock pile, surrounded by electric fences. And the emotional subtext is overwhelming. This is one of the best films ever made about one of life’s most important lessons: You can break the body, but you cannot destroy the indomitable human spirit. It’s a lesson aggressors in war always learn too late. As Max comes to terms with his sexual identity and dons the badge of his humanity with pride and dignity, I predict many filmgoers will dissolve in tears. Bent is not depressing. It’s uplifting and life-affirming-a film of rare power, passion and cinematic brilliance. It sheds new light on the blackest chapter in the history of the civilized world, but at a time when so many are politically, emotionally and spiritually re-examining their own gender roles in society, it takes on fresh relevance, both topical and timeless.

Savannah Never

Looked So Dull

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , the publishing phenomenon by John Berendt, has been on the best-seller list for three years, captivated readers in 20 languages and attracted an invasion of tourists to Savannah, Ga. Once they get a look at the slick, sluggish bore Clint Eastwood has made, the tourists may head in the opposite direction, toward one of those signs that says “You Are Now Leaving the City Limits-Y’all Come Again!”

With its steamy gumbo of Southern gothic murder, sex and puttin’ on airs, they said this rich and sprawling Faulknerian saga could never be condensed into a cohesively satisfying movie. They were right. One of the most eagerly anticipated films of 1997 has been ambushed and has become one of the year’s biggest disappointments. John Cusack is all wrong as the Town and Country reporter who arrives in antebellum Savannah to write a simple 500-word piece about the annual Christmas bash thrown by Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), an eccentric antiques dealer and pillar of society who dresses in white linen, puffs cigarillos and talks like Tennessee Williams. He also has a violent hustler (Jude Law) for a secret lover. On the night of the party, he blows his boyfriend away and claims self-defense, and Mr. Cusack suspects there’s a juicier story than meets the eye, maybe even a book, lurking in the oleanders. That book turned out to be Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , and it is still being devoured by readers weaned on the magnolia-drenched decadence of Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor.

What made the book so appealing was not Jim Williams’ murder trial (there were actually four trials) as much as a collage of delicious oddballs who populated its pages, in one journalist’s words, “like Gone With the Wind stoned on mescaline”: a man walking an imaginary dog on a leash, a flaming drag queen, a society dowager whose husband shot himself while watching Gunsmoke , a weirdo covered with horseflies who carries around a vial of poison threatening to contaminate the water supply, and a bulldog named Uga who is the mascot of the University of Georgia’s football team. Mr. Eastwood has all but eradicated them, devoting most of the screen time to the superfluous self-worshipping drag queen Lady Chablis, played with annoying campiness by the real Lady Chablis, who has plenty of attitude and no acting talent whatsoever.

Too much time is spent on the murder trial, which is a big snooze, and on Mr. Cusack, who is sullen and humorless, jumping around nervously like a Method actor on too much caffeine. The real Jim Williams was one of the most controversial figures in Savannah, but in two and a half hours, Kevin Spacey has so little to do that the character never comes to life. The charm of the other characters has been decimated, downgrading an illustrious cast that includes Broadway legend Dorothy Loudon, Oscar-winning actress Kim Hunter (she could have taught them all a thing or two about Tennessee Williams country), exciting newcomer Jude Law and the fine Australian star Jack Thompson, to the status of walk-ons.

Neither Mr. Eastwood nor the screenwriter, John Lee Hancock, ever finds the secret to pulling all of these elements together. The brew they’ve distilled from this rich and resonant book is nothing more than flat beer. All that cotton-pickin’ decadence bears no cinematic fruit. The writer is supposed to be a Truman Capote type-a witty, sardonic observer recording all of these people and events through his unique vision, like a camera. In a blatant departure from the book that defies logic, Mr. Eastwood has invented a fictitious romance for the androgynous writer just to give Alison Eastwood, the director’s daughter, a job. It’s a subplot that has nothing to do with anything. And the cutesy-pie ending has to be a joke. Why would Lady Chablis end up with the Georgia football team’s bulldog?

One interesting thing: The murder takes place in the mansion that was the home of Savannah’s most illustrious citizen-songwriter Johnny Mercer-so Mr. Eastwood, a big jazz fan with good taste in music, uses all of those legendary Mercer gems as musical links to thread the disconnected, truncated segments of the film together. Trouble is, he’s chosen all the wrong recordings. K.D. Lang singing “Skylark” at the beginning and end is ridiculous, when the classic recordings by Ella Fitzgerald and Sylvia Syms would have been much more haunting. What a mess. This movie starts out lush, then falls apart fast, reducing a treasure of literary jewels to Woolworth clutter.