The outrageous Mississippi-Gothic McGrath sisters of “Crimes of the Heart” (selected theaters) are subject to bad days. Runs in the family. During one of their mother’s bad days, when she was a vixenly 32-year-old and Poppa had left her, she hanged herself. What made it hit National Enquirer-like tabloids was that she hanged the family’s yellow cat too.
A run of bad days seems to dog her three beautiful daughters as well. Meg (Jessica Lange) who gave up nightclub singing to pursue a desultory Hollywood career and “ way too many men,” has bad days. Lenny (Diane Keaton), eldest of the three and painfully aware of it on this, her birthday, specializes in them. And certainly Babe (Sissy Spacek), sunniest and ditziest of them all, was having a bad day when she shot her husband, the state senator, last week. (Missed the heart, plugged him in the stomach.)
Actually, “Crimes of the Heart” feels like a bad day all by itself, when in fact it’s only a bad hour and 45 minutes. It is excruciating: a combination of Beth Henley’s insistently eccentric screenplay, Bruce Beresford’s frenzied direction and the sight of three singular talents on an acting roller coaster with no one riding the brakes.
Playwright Henley, who scooped up a passel of awards with “Crimes” in 1981, including a Pulitzer, has a way of flingin’ her characters’ bizarre actions at you until your head whirls. Since it was her first play, her amiability far outweighed her sense of construction. Pieces of exposition were dragged onto the scene like small dead animals and dropped there for us to trip over. Since it was also set in deep Eudora Welty country, you made affectionate allowances for characters who spoke in long, run-on sentences, and for enough quirks and subplots for a Faulkner novel and three Tennessee Williams plays.
But Henley is five years more experienced now. The play is--theoretically--a motion picture and no one has done a thing to fix its awkward design. Actually, it isn’t a movie; it’s still a stage play; you can feel each of the three acts no matter how dizzyingly Beresford whirls his camera around.
Keaton’s Lenny is the first McGrath we meet, apparently moving her things out of her family house, under the stern eye of her mother. Actually, it’s only one of the film’s rampant confusions: It is Babe’s belongings she is collecting, to take to her on her release from jail. The mother is Babe’s mother-in-law, and the disapproval is penetrating.
Lange’s Meg will be stepping down from her bus soon. Her bleached blond shag, her tight skirt and high-heeled magenta shoes are pure honky-tonk angel, not what their disapproving cousin Chick (Tess Harper) calls “cheap Christmas trash.”
Soon all three are back in “Old Grandaddy’s” house, where they had come as little girls after their mother’s notorious suicide. Old Grandaddy (Hurd Hatfield) is in the hospital, mortally ill. Babe’s husband is in pain but on the mend. Chick, small-minded and nasty, is next door. And Doc (Sam Shepard), the vet who used to be Meg’s lover before he married a Yankee and had two kids, is mooning around, hoping for a glimpse of Meg.
Omitted from this quick introduction is the fact that Lenny, a sort of demi-virgin, feels her life is blighted by her “shrunken ovary”; that Babe’s passion for ice-cold lemonade caused her to drink three glasses after she had shot her husband and before she called the hospital and that Doc limps from an encounter with Meg during hurricane Camille.
There is a way to play characters as self-consciously wacky as these, and that is with the greatest lightness. You feel these lovely actresses working to create the pulls, the loyalties and the jealousies that arise from close sisters. But someone keeps underlining the action for us, jabbing us in the ribs to punctuate every laugh. We need a gentle watercolor; we get a brash cartoon. And on top of that, ruinously intrusive music by the usually meticulous Georges Delerue.
Somehow Spacek, with the most fey role and the most outrageous physical action, comes through unscathed. Just how is one of the miracles of cinema. Lange, whose character got the best of everything when they were children (“12 golden jingle bells on her skirt”), has no trouble making Meg sexy and selfish, but somewhat more difficulty making her particularly likable or at hinting at the desperation under Meg’s brashness with men.
And Keaton, whose trouble begins with a Southern accent and spreads like kudzu to every facet of her performance, has been absolutely sold down the river into giving a performance that is all darting mannerisms and neurasthenic twitches. That we do care about Lenny is a tribute to the innate Keaton warmth.
Shepard, wearing glasses and playing sort of an “aw shucks” doofuss, is entirely adequate to the role. Of all the women, it is the fine Tess Harper who should sue. Wound up even higher than Keaton, she has the additional burden of a camera lens peering into her face for every overblown moment.
What remains puzzling is how Beresford, whose look at the South in “Tender Mercies” was restrained and appropriate, got so derailed here. Whether it was the guidance of the producers (Freddy Fields and Burt Sugarman), or the releasing organization (De Laurentiis), or whether he simply is out of his element in Southern Gothic comedy, the result is one of the great crimes of the art.