Friday October 11, 1996
Piper Laurie lights up the screen as the shy and gentle Dolly Talbo in "The Grass Harp," Charles Matthau's loving film, from the Truman Capote novella, which boasts a large, starry supporting cast and an ingratiating sense of time and place.
Dolly and her younger sister Verena (Sissy Spacek) are spinsters living in a Queen Anne mansion in a small Southern town in 1935 when they take in their recently orphaned 11-year-old cousin Colin (Grayson Fricke). No two sisters could be more different.
Although almost pathologically shy, Dolly is warm and embracing on home ground--a bit of a mystic who brews and sells, via mail order, her own cure for dropsy whose recipe she learned from Gypsies. When not in the kitchen cooking or filling her home's dark interiors with flowers, Verena and the sisters' servant, Catherine (Nell Carter), are out in the fields, gathering all the natural ingredients for the cure. Colin is quickly caught up in Dolly and Catherine's abundant love. Dolly tells him about what she calls "the grass harp," the sound of wind rushing through Indian grass, which, according to her, whispers life's secrets.
Laurie makes Dolly a beautiful, radiant presence, her auburn hair a Pre-Raphaelite aureole. Yet for all her wisdom of the heart, Dolly is intimidated by the unattractively bespectacled Verena--a woman as severe as the marcelled waves of her hair.
A humorless, hardheaded businesswoman, Verena owns half the town. And when Verena sees that Dolly has begun to make enough money to have to pay income tax, she decides, without consulting her sister, to take out a patent on its formula and to start marketing it in a professional manner in order to maximize Dolly's income. For the first time in her life, however, Dolly digs in her heels.
"The Grass Harp" is a memory piece in which Dolly's modest rebellion casts her in the company of free spirits in a tiny little town where small-mindedness is as much a given as good-heartedness. Unwittingly, Dolly finds herself thrown into the process of self-discovery in which she is befriended by the retired Judge Charlie Cool (Walter Matthau), a courtly, reflective man who, in looking back, suspects that he was too often on the wrong side of the law and is unsure as to whether his late wife loved him. Matthau is as wonderful as Laurie and together they epitomize kindly Southern civility. By now it's 1940 and 16-year-old Colin, now played by a perfectly cast Edward Furlong, has been profoundly influenced by Dolly's spirit and love.
What an actor's movie "The Grass Harp" is. There really is a fallible, even vulnerable and caring human being lurking behind Verena's cast-iron facade, and Spacek, cast radically against type, reveals the inner woman in a superbly played scene. "The Grass Harp" is fair to Verena, a woman who zealously takes responsibility while Dolly, Catherine and Colin largely live in their own fantasy world. (Some enterprising exhibitor is going to double bill "The Grass Harp" with Brian De Palma's outrageous 1976 horror picture "Carrie," in which Laurie and Spacek played mother and daughter, respectively.)
Jack Lemmon turns up as a city slicker whom we can see is as phony as his bad hair color but whose ability to con Verena underlines her lack of worldliness. Mary Steenburgen plays an uninhibited tent-show evangelist whose mix of sex and religion has resulted in an improbable 15 children, and Roddy McDowall is a delight as the gossipy, prissy local barber. Scott Wilson, Charles Durning, Sean Patrick Flanery, Joe Don Baker, Mia Kirshner and Doris Roberts round out this first-rate ensemble.
A beguiling film in every way, "The Grass Harp" celebrates rebirth and renewal but within a tough-minded view of life that never allows it to lapse into a fairy tale. Lillian Gish was an unforgettable Dolly in a '50s TV production of "The Grass Harp," yet Laurie has been able to make Dolly all her own.
The Grass Harp, 1996. PG, for mild language and thematic elements. A Fine Line Features presentation. Producer-director Charles Matthau. Producer Jerry Tokofsky. Screenplay by Kirk Ellis, from the Truman Capote novella. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo. Editor Sidney Levin. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Music Patrick Williams. Production designer Paul Sylbert. Art directors Dan Jolley, Chris Gorak. Set designer Gorak. Set decorator Dan May. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Piper Laurie as Dolly Talbo. Walter Matthau as Judge Charlie Cool. Sissy Spacek as Verena Talbo. Jack Lemmon as Morris Ritz..Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times