Based in the Big Easy
by John Farr
Three essential films set in New Orleans.
A Street Car Named Desire (1951)
Frayed Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in a seedy quarter of New Orleans, where she’s arranged to stay with her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and coarse, hulking brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Right from the start, Blanche and Stanley are at odds, as he sees through her high-mannered facade to the neurotic, vulnerable woman beneath. Tensions soon escalate, as Stanley sets out to confront Blanche about money and her unseemly past.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Brando’s force-of-nature performance in Kazan’s “Streetcar” – an electrifying mix of brute physicality and smoldering sexuality – made Stanley Kowalski’s infamous bellow a permanent part of pop culture and Brando a household name. But the undeniable strength of this film, adapted from the smash Broadway play by Tennessee Williams, is driven as much by the witty, vivid dialogue and ensemble acting as it is the lead actor’s Method work. Leigh, Hunter, Karl Malden, Ruby Bond, and Nick Dennis are all terrific, and Alex North’s atmospheric jazz score enhances the tense, combustible interplay. Winner of five Oscars, this “Streetcar” offers an incredible ride.
Dead Man Walking (1995)
When Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a Catholic nun and anti-death-penalty activist, receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), soon to be executed for the rape and murder of two teenage girls, she resolves to pay him a visit. Though Matthew is far from sympathetic, Sister Helen agrees to be his spiritual advisor and advocate, and lobbies for a new hearing on Matthew’s sentence.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s non-fiction book by actor/director Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” is an intense, harrowing account of one woman’s dogged attempt to assure spiritual (if not earthly) redemption for a condemned killer. Penn is ideally cast as the convict, but Susan Sarandon’s stripped-down performance as his spiritual guide is courageous, gut-wrenching work, fully meriting that year’s Oscar. Unavoidably depressing, “Dead Man Walking” is also very real, shedding light into spaces we could easily ignore, but shouldn’t.
When the Levees Broke (2006)
One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, director Spike Lee returned to make this definitive account of the tragedy and its aftermath, as well as the egregious failures of government officials who were slow to respond to the catastrophe. Told in the words of those who lived through the calamity, this film offers a devastating look at the ravaging of Crescent City by a monster storm, and the shocking indifference that caused impoverished, mostly African-American residents of the Ninth Ward to suffer the greatest indignities.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Originally aired on HBO, Lee’s marathon “Requiem in Four Acts” covers in grim, engrossing detail the storm, the surge over the levees and resultant flood, the looting, the mass flight to the Superdome, the interminable waiting for help, FEMA’s slow, infuriatingly feeble response, and finally the efforts underway to rebuild this historic city. It is very much an emotional portrait, not a dry recitation of facts, and to that end the film is built around punchy interviews with survivors, local politicians, and celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Wynton Marsalis, Douglas Brinkley, and others with a deep connection to New Orleans. With its lyrical imagery and bluesy vibe, “Levees” is a film to contemplate, both for its
justifiable outrage and its profound sense of lament.