Crimes of the Heart
written by Beth Henley
directed by Bruce Beresford
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

When Perseus went to slay the monster Medusa, advice and presents from Minerva and Mercury were not enough; he had to seek out the Graeae—three crones with but a single prized eye they shared between them, which Perseus snatched in order to force them to help him. They were helpless without it, bound inextricably to each other by their need for it and the bit of understanding it gave them of the world.

Not quite so wizened or foultempered, but equally bound to each other, are the three crazy MacGrath sisters. There’s Lenny, the old maid (played by Diane Keaton); Meg (Jessica Lange), the wild one, gone off to try to get herself a singing career in Los Angeles; and the youngest. Babe (Sissy Spacek), the lithe lady of the family, the one who married well, and the one who’s just shot her husband.

In the stomach, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. “I didn’t like his stinking looks,” she says, and clams up. Brought back together by the emergency of Babe’s arrest, the three sisters are incomplete without each other, each needing the support or needling (or both) of the others in order to come to terms with some small demons that threaten to turn her head or life inside out. Babe’s doing crazy things with a black boy, Meg with seemingly just about any boy, and Lenny’s feeling half mad because there’s no boy at all. Most of their trouble has its roots in a daddy who left them when they were small and in a mother who one day hanged herself and her cat right there in the very basement. Each in her funny way has come home to excise those ghosts—too many men and her mother’s death for Meg, a sour marriage for Babe, and for Lenny, the fear there’s no more to the future than the present.

Henley has a good ear for catching or recreating those moments when the sublime or deadly serious is torpedoed by the ridiculous. It’s the same urge we sometimes have to laugh out loud even though our best friend is in tears. In one scene, Meg trips in after a night out with Doc Porter (married to another woman now) to find her sisters at the kitchen table looking pretty blue. They try to get a word in edgewise to tell Meg that Grandpa’s worsened and may be about to make a final exit, but Meg whizzes on, wrapped up in her own business as usual, blithely making jokes about giving Grandpa a stroke by finally coming clean with the truth about her nonexistent screen career. Babe and Lenny, still trying to get through, dam the tide, set Meg down and tell her the news, finally start to giggle. Meg plows on, and before long her sisters are howling. After a long night at the hospital they’ve reached a level of tension that must find release in either laughter or tears, and for them it ends up being laughter —garish but correct. It’s dear, really, we like them so much for it, and after a minute everyone in the audience is hooting, too.

Lange is adequate and no more as Meg; Keaton endearing but too northern and dressed too much like a Southern variation on Annie Hall as Lenny. Spacek, the best actress of the three, does nicely as Babe; my only complaint is that I’ve heard that same exact Southern accent in Coal Miner’s Daughter and ‘Night, Mother. The speech coaches have yet to learn that there are as many Southern accents as there are hollers, practically, and that the really tricky thing about Southern speech is that some of it is so quaint and thick that if you put it on the screen nobody would believe it existed.

Very good is Tess Harper in her supporting role as bossy ol’ cousin Chick, smug and tart and just full of herself in a way that’s maddeningly well done. Also good is Sam Shepard as Doc Porter; oddly enough, in Crimes it’s these secondary characters and some of the throw-away lines that play better than the main themes or bigger stars.

“Oh, for a beaker full of the warm South,” wrote Keats. With another place in mind. But it still applies to “all the Souths” because the South (unlike the North) is a many that makes up a whole, a thousand real McCoy small towns in Alabama and a thousand others, the Souths of somebody’s imagination.

There are places and especially people even in the border states that are, like their accents, so quietly eccentric you couldn’t make up anything odder. When a movie is set in Mississippi, as Crimes of the Heart is, it actually doesn’t matter if the screenwriter or costumer or set designer get the details right. It’s a nice effort on their part if they do, of course, if only because they so rarely do, but talent and imagination have a way of making up for research, For Crimes of the Heart, accuracy or lack thereof is not the movie’s problem. Author Beth Henley is a transplanted Mississippian alive and well in L.A., and there’s a good bit to her characters that rings very true and very Southern, There’s also a certain slickness to the overall production and some of the performances that rings false—for Henley a few hits and for director Bruce Beresford a few misses.

But all in all the film is funny and worth seeing. Nevertheless, the problem with Crimes is that like the majority of successful plays (which is what it was originally) it’s a piece of writing utterly dependent on the production. To expect otherwise, granted, is to hold this nice, funny, solid play up to an improbable if not quite impossible standard. But a play should, ideally, be readable as well as actable, literature as well as drama, something complete on its own as well as something more than a vehicle for its actors. Oh well. “Nothing is certain about masterpieces,” said Stravinsky somewhere, “least of all whether there will be any.” It would be foolish to complain: as a vehicle Crimes works very well.