By Alan Hurst

You’ve gotta love streaming. You don’t realize what you have access to until you start venturing down one of the many rabbit holes supposedly organized by genre. That happened on the weekend when I found Crimes of the Heart (1986), Bruce Beresford’s film adaptation of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from the early 1980’s. I don’t think I had seen the film since the late 1980’s, and it was probably on VHS. Watching it again on the weekend was a pleasant reminder of the kind of thing we don’t see too often these days – a successful adaptation of a strong play, thoughtfully opened up for the big screen and featuring three terrific roles for actresses.

Leading the cast are Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek as three very different sisters (both in looks and character) who come together amid a couple of family related dramas.

Set in Mississippi – complete with all the southern and southern gothic stereotypes that represents – the film opens with Lenny (Diane Keaton) packing up some things for Babe (Sissy Spacek) who’s has been jailed for shooting her bullying lawyer husband. Lenny has reached out to their other sister Meg (Jessica Lange), who’s supposedly off in Hollywood pursuing a career as a singer, to come home to help deal with everything, including the illness of their Old Granddaddy (Hurd Hatfield). The three were raised by the old man after their father left and their mother subsequently hanged herself (along with the family cat).

Throughout the course of the film’s running time, secrets and disappointments are revealed at regular intervals, helping us fill in the pieces of their dysfunctional lives. We learn that wallflower Lenny’s awkwardness is tied to the ominous presence of a shrunken ovary that no one ever lets her forget. We learn that Meg’s singing career never got off the ground, felled by her partying ways and a nervous breakdown. And we learn that Babe – essentially the centre of the story since she’s the reason everyone’s back at the old homestead – has been abused for years at the hands of her husband whom she’s just shot and that she sought solace in the arms of a 15-year old black boy.

This is all pretty heady fare, but Henley (who adapted her own play) and Beresford really emphasize the absurdly comic potential of the story. Suicide, attempted murder, and mental illness do not automatically lend them selves to comedy, but you never get a chance to wallow in the seriousness too long before the quirky trio of Keaton, Lange and Spacek start spinning the dialogue in directions you truly don’t anticipate. These characters all feel just a little short of a full deck, but the actresses are completely charming as they navigate their way through their respective stories.

Lange’s Meg, despite the nervous breakdown, is probably the most realistic and grounded of the trio and therefore also the least interesting, but she brings an effective weariness to the character who’s a little sad, but also humanizing. Keaton’s Lenny is the oddest of the three, a character with no self confidence, who dresses for old lady comfort and is trying to resign herself to her future as a spinster. But her frustration with that bubbles up in wildly over the top ways that are at once funny and a little disturbing. When she finally gets some backbone later in the film, it’s very satisfying and allows Keaton to bring the character back to earth.

When the film was released Sissy Spacek got the lion’s share of the attention – a Best Actress Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe win and a New York Film Critics Award. I don’t think she’s any better than the other two actresses, but Babe is probably the most interesting character. What Spacek gets to do here is play the trophy wife, the pretty cheerleader who seems a little dim, but isn’t really. This wasn’t how we were used to seeing Spacek. Babe is ultimately the most tragic and determined of the three women and Spacek gives her a spaciness and resignation that is both very funny and touching.

Tess Harper also deserves a shout out for her performance as the shrewish cousin of the three sisters. She’s your worst nightmare – a direct descendent of every know-it-all, class-conscious relative you can imagine. She has a couple of great scenes where she swoops in to show her barely concealed contempt for her cousins, masked as it is behind a sickly-sweet southern drawl, condescending grin and some truly bitchy lines of dialogue. She’s the character who helps ignite Lenny’s confidence and when Keaton goes after Harper with a broom, it’s one of the film’s highlights. Harper received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination that year, as did Henley for her screenplay.

The other star of the movie is the family home, a multi level wood structure with faded paint – and balconies and porches at almost every corner. Beresford takes wonderful advantage of each nook and cranny. Most of the action takes place in and around the house, but with his fluid camera work you never feel confined. He also gets his camera into the oven for a scene of attempted suicide that would be shocking if it wasn’t so funny.

The juxtaposition of the dark and the comic here is perfectly balanced. There’s a nice tone of respect and affection for these characters – as damaged as all of them are. After watching it on the weekend it feels like one of the unsung gems of the 1980’s.

Leave a comment