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COOKIE’S FORTUNE(director: Robert Altman; screenwriter: Anne Rapp; cinamatographer: Toyomichi Kurita; editor: Abraham Lim; cast: Glenn Close (Camille Dixon), Julianne Moore (Cora Duvall), Liv Tyler (Emma Duvall), Chris O’Donnell (Jason Brown), Charles S. Dutton (Willis Richland), Patricia Neal (Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt), Ned Beatty (Lester Boyle), Courtney B. Vance (Otis Tucker), Donald Moffat (Jack Palmer), Lyle Lovett (Manny Hood), Ruby Wilson (Josie Martin), Danny Darst (Billy), Matt Malloy (Eddie, the expert); Runtime: 117; October Films; 1999)
“Full of local flavor.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

When I look at the Deep South from my prospective of having grown up in the 1950s in the East, the first thing that comes to my mind is a history of racial problems. But obviously things have changed and Robert Altman’s gentle human interest film is about those changes.

In the sleepy town of Hollis Springs, Mississippi, much of the town is registered as a landmark in historical memories. Altman gently moves his camera across the various personalities who live there. It is as if each one is an archetype specially depicted for this comic/drama story, and the town stands out in the background as a simple reminder of the past.

Firstly we look in on the local police, the dreaded bigots from the days of segregation. We see them appear as forbearing as they always do, as they leave their stationhouse before going on patrol; but, we will see later on that this is an integrated force and a more amiable one.

Then the camera takes us to a black bar where we hear the melodically rich sounds of the blues being belted out in the wee morning hours, by a sultry singer named Josie (Ruby).

Then we switch over to where the white folks live, as they are putting on a rehearsal for an Oscar Wilde Easter play about John the Baptist, at the Presbyterian Church. The drama is being directed by the intractably arrogant Camille (Close) with her not too talented younger sister Cora (Moore) as the play’s star, who is being unduly manipulated by her. She is being coached for her lead role of Salome.

These two scenes contrast how the blacks and whites of Hollis Springs spend their evenings.

Next we follow Willis (Dutton) who is the soul of this film. Willis stands for trust and reconciliation with the past. Willis drunkenly walks out of the black bar and heads across town passing a van with the sleeping Emma (Liv) inside. She has just returned to town and is working for Manny (Lyle), gutting catfish. Willis acts like a Peeping Tom, hovering around her van.

Finally we see Willis break into the house of an old rich, white lady, Cookie, played with charm and crackling wit by veteran actress Patricia Neal — who rarely makes a film appearance anymore. We are at first horrified at what appears to be a burglary but it turns out these two are the best of friends, and he only came by to clean her guns at one in the morning, since he promised her he would do it that evening. Willis looks after her ever since her husband Buck died a few years ago; and, he also wants to tell her that her daughter (Emma) is back in town. We will later on learn, as it is one of the town’s well-kept secrets, that Emma is actually the 18-year-old daughter of Cora (Moore).

What Altman has done is paint a picture of the town, full of local flavor, trying to test us to see if we guessed right at what our first impressions of the locals were. Those of us who have not kept up with the changes in the South or have not been brought up there, might view things from an outdated way of seeing the new South.

Altman’s other aims are to uncover all the town’s little nasty secrets that are so easily hidden by its Southern hospitality and history of racism. Though, the tone of Altman’s film is always light and never very haunting. This is one of his mild films. Altman doesn’t penetrate deeper than the story itself takes us, even if it is tightly directed with no visible flaws in the story line. The film turns out to be as pleasing as the smell of magnolias in the spring. And, thereby, we are cheated into seeing something that could have been most revealing. Instead we are offered something that is really too bland and simplistic for its own good, even if it is a satisfying film. It is still most easily categorized into the “feel good” type of mold, something Altman might have winced at in his heyday of filmmaking in the ’70s.

The climactic scene revolves around Cookie’s desire to join her husband in the afterworld, since life has no meaning for her without him. Cookie is only living for her memories of him, therefore she shoots herself. Cookie leaves a suicide note for Willis but unfortunately her diabolical Aunt Camille, who comes over for a fruit bowl, finds her body and eats the suicide note. Camille also compulsively steals some worthless trinkets from the house and tells Cora, that this wasn’t a suicide only insane people kill themselves and no one in our family is insane. Camille then takes the gun out of Cookie’s hand and throws it into a flower bed, and has Cora call the police. Camille reminds her to tell them it was a robbery and murder. This will supposedly cover up the suicide to protect their cherished family name.

Unfortunately, the good-hearted Willis becomes a suspect because his fingerprints are all over the house and on all the guns. What is comical or tragic, depending on your perspective, is watching how the crime scene is being trampled on and the murder investigation is done in such an amateurish way that the investigators of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder in Boulder, Colorado, would look like Scotland Yard investigators in comparison to this sheriff’s department.

There is a love story played out between Emma and Jason (Chris). Jason is the junior member of the police department and their romance is a series of lustful encounters, that is mostly comical, adding some more local flavoring to the story.

The police don’t think Willis did it — but since they must hold him, they hold him in an unlocked cell and play board games with him — while he puts all his trust in them to uncover the truth. Now this is as far a cry from the old Mississippi as one can imagine, though there are still some lingering subtle racial prejudices to be spotted.

The best argument given for why Willis couldn’t have done the crime is given by Sheriff Lester (Ned): “Because I always go fishing with him.” Which, I guess, could best be understood as a very logical statement by those brought up in a small town.

The film’s decency shines through, making light of all the past racial injustices. Maybe things are getting better in the new South, at least that is the message we are left with, and I see no reason to be of a different opinion. But that last framed shot of the sheriff and Emma and the lawyer and Willis sitting on the dock fishing, was a little too rosy a picture for me to take in all at once.

Cookie’s Fortuneliterally turns out to be a revelation about the heritage and parenthood for the family members of Cookie Orcutt. Trying to come to terms with the past is something the South, as well as the rest of the country is still hopefully working on. Race relations might be the biggest problem Americans are still faced with, and finding a cordial way out of it is the aim of a lot of good folks.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”