Southern Belle Savannah

Adapting a book to the screen is always a risk, and adapting a successful book particularly so, especially if it is a nonfiction book and the story has already made news (or been the subject of gossip, which in this instance doesn’t seem to make much difference) long before the book was ever written. There will always be those who claim that you didn’t do the book justice, or that you didn’t do the real events justice, or both. But let’s face it, folks, the vast majority of us weren’t witnesses to Jim Williams’s record four trials, nor did we attend any of his famous Christmas parties, nor did or do we know Mr. Williams or any of the other inhabitants of Savannah featured so prominently here (even if Jerry Spence – not the attorney, the hairdresser appearing as himself in the movie – insists that ever since the publication of John Behrendt’s book people have been asking him to sign their copy). All that most of us did was read the book … yes, so did I, and I enjoyed it immensely. And maybe some have taken a trip to Savannah and gone on one of those Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil bus tours. (No, haven’t done that myself yet. Savannah’s on my list, though.)

Granted, condensing four trials into one, adding a fictional reporter (John Kelso alias John Cusack) as a stand-in for Mr. Berendt whose book is a first-person account, and making Mandy Nichols (director Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison) the reporter’s love interest, meant altering the facts as related in the book. But let’s not forget that the latter covers a period of eight-plus years and is jam-packed with a shooting, four trials, a host of social events and a cast of more memorable characters than many a novel; all of which is near impossible to transform into a movie if you neither want to skip over half the important details and move the action at breakneck speed, nor turn the project into a ten-part TV series. These changes were probably necessary byproducts of the screenwriting process. But the core elements of the story have been maintained, and apart from the relationship between Mandy and John Kelso / John Berendt, the cast of main characters strikes me as pretty faithful to the book.

Most importantly, the person at the center of the story: antiques dealer, art lover, restorer of historic mansions and sun of Savannah’s genteel society, Jim Williams, is exactly the kind of man you imagine after having read the book – portrayed by Kevin Spacey with all the charm, grace and slightly condescending noblesse you would expect from a textbook Southern gentleman, with that “coastal accent … soft and slurring, liquid of vowels, kind to consonants” as John Berendt writes, quoting Gone With the Wind; making you forget that neither did Mr. Williams actually come from “old money,” nor did Kevin Spacey grow up south of the Mason-Dixon line. And Savannah, of course, is Savannah … city of grand old mansions surrounding its 21 squares, cotillon balls (including a black one), a Married Women’s (Card) Club, lush vegetation, shady trees, Spanish moss and sultry heat radiating from the pages of John Berendt‘s book as much as it does from the movie screen in director Clint Eastwood’s interpretation. The movie was shot on location, including and in particular in and around Williams’s Mercer House, on Monterey Square and in Bonaventure and Beaufort Cemeteries; giving it that feeling of authenticity which is virtually impossible to replicate in a studio. In addition, almost all of the Savannah residents vital to the story readily participated in screen tests; with the glamorous Lady Chablis (in all her eccentricity more lady than many a born one, Southern or otherwise) emerging in a starring role and Williams’s attorney Sonny Seiler portraying the trial judge. Even bulldog Uga, the famed mascot of the University of Georgia’s football team, traditionally provided by the Seiler family and as important a member of Savannah society as all its human residents and as Patrick, the long-deceased dog still symbolically being walked by its former caregiver, was not left out … with the minor imperfection that because Uga IV, the star of the book and the real events it describes had already followed his ancestors Uga I – III to dog heaven when the movie was shot, he had to be portrayed by his son, Uga V. And more authenticity is added by the use of several songs written by Johnny Mercer, Savannah’s famous son and great-grandson of the general who built the mansion restored and inhabited by Jim Williams.

Clint Eastwood’s direction evokes an only marginally modernized version of the “old South” most of which could have come straight out of a book by Faulkner or Tennessee Williams; with an eye for the atmosphere and intricacies of the place and its people that comes as a surprise only to those who merely know the one-term mayor of Carmel, CA as Dirty Harry or the Man With No Name, not as the director of The Bridges of Madison County, like this movie a book adaptation (although set in quite a different environment). And in this approach, he proves as faithful to John Berendt‘s book as in the movie’s depiction of Jim Williams and his fellow Savannahians: What on the surface is the chronicle of the trial of a prominent and rather colorful member of society for the death of a wayward, hot-tempered street hustler who happened to be his sometime lover (and that of most of Savannah’s society, both male and female), is truly a complex, beautifully shot portrayal of the city itself and its people; like in the book, the events as such are merely a vehicle to put into pictures what Eastwood was interested in most. Yet, the movie should first and foremost be taken at face value; it is more than just another book adaptation and in its dignified beauty, easily stands on its own two feet.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1997)
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Executive Producer: Anita Zuckerman
  • Producer: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenplay: John Lee Hancock
  • Based on a book by: John Berendt
  • Music:  Lennie Niehaus
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Jack N. Green
  • John Cusack: John Kelso
  • Kevin Spacey: Jim Williams
  • Jude Law: Billy Hanson
  • Jack Thompson: Sonny Seiler
  • Irma P. Hall: Minerva
  • Alison Eastwood: Mandy Nicholls
  • Paul Hipp: Joe Odom
  • The Lady Chablis: Chablis Deveau
  • Geoffrey Lewis: Luther Driggers
  • Kim Hunter: Betty Harty
  • Dorothy Loudon: Serena Dawes
  • Anne Haney: Margaret Williams
  • Richard Herd: Henry Skerridge
  • Leon Rippy: Detective Boone
  • Terry Rhoads: Assistant D.A.
  • Michael O’Hagan: Geza von Habsburg
  • Bob Gunton: Finley Largent
  • Sonny Seiler: Judge White
  • Jerry Spence: Hairdresser


Major Awards

Society of Texas Film Critics Awards (1997)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – Also for “L.A. Confidential”.



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