Crimes of the Heart (1986): Beth Henley Play on Screen with All Star Cast–Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek

Eccentric personalities, situated in seemingly ordinary and plain locales, serve as the narrative premise of Bruce Beresford’s Crimes of the Heart, written by Beth Henley, based on her stage play, which offers vivid personalities in the shape of three Chekhovian sisters.

The sensibility of Crimes of the Heart remains theatrical despite attempts to open up the play.  You never find out how people live in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. And following the theatrical conventions of such intimate plays, each of the sisters gets one (or more) big emotional or confessional scenes.

Lenny MacGarth (Dianne Keaton), the oldest sister, is a modern version of the small-town spinster. Lenny’s problem (supposedly a secret), a shrunken ovary, which in past movies would have been a subject of gossip, is now discussed in the open, as if they were talking about her hairdo. Lenny loved Billy Boy, the horse, ever since she was a kid but now it has been struck by lightning. Hysterical, she throws a tantrum over a candy box that her sister Meg has opened and eaten. Lenny, the family’s black sheep, has grown bitter, but not entirely devoid of humor or self-awareness. The middle sister Meg MacGarth (Jessica Lange) is the small-town girl whose acting ambitions have carried her to Los Angeles. However, instead of working in the film industry, she is working for a dog food manufacturer. Her open secret is a nervous breakdown. Life in the Big City has made Meg harsh but she seems to be now in better control of her feelings. Meg’s character and homecoming provide the film’s few contrasts between Small-Town and the Big City.

Babe MacGarth (Sissy Spacek), the youngest and least bright of the three, likes to paint black dots on her toenails. Motivated by basic instincts, not reason, she has shot her husband in the stomach because she did not like “his stinking looks.” But after shooting him, Beth offers him, in the tradition of Southern hospitality a glass of iced lemonade. Babe is a child-bride–a bit like Tennessee Williams’s heroine in Baby Doll.

In line with many small-town protagonists, the three sisters have no parents; their mother committed suicide, taking the cat with her. The only family members are Old Granddaddy, now in the hospital suffering a stroke, and their cousin Chick Boyle (Tess Harper), a gossipy and shrewish woman who’s disliked by the trio of sisters.

Unlike other Southern heroines, neither Babe nor her sisters are sexually repressed or racially biased. Meg has had an affair with a married man (without being punished for it), and Babe with a fifteen-year black kid. The narrative spends much time with this family reunion, the sisters reminisce about their childhood, leaf through scrapbooks, share sexual secrets about their lovers. They are actually three faces of the same person, or three sides of femininity: shyness and asexuality (Lenny), ripeness and overt sexuality (Meg) and childishness and naive sexuality (Babe).

Under different circumstances, the naughtiness and crazed behavior of the sisters would be offensive, but here, as the title suggests, they are presented as all heart and feeling. The sisters’ eccentricities are genuine. For example, Babe is preoccupied with the media coverage of the case. Her frame of reference is her mother’s suicide, which received much attention in tabloids like the National Enquirer. Married to a prominent politician, she is now concerned that her story will be covered only locally.

The movie has a goofy kind of charm that at times borders on campiness, but fortunately the actresses do not succumb to the temptation.  Beresford may have been the wrong director for such wacky material (his serious dramas are better handled), though he cannot be blamed for a rather shallow script (based on a thin text that worked better on stage).

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 3

Actress: Sissy Spacek
Supporting Actress: Tess Harper
Screenplay (Adapted): Beth Henley

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1986, the winner of the Best Actress was Faye Dunaway for “Network,” Dianne Wiest won Supporting Actress for “Hannah and Her Sister,” and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala received the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “A Room With a View.”