Sunday, November 6, 2022

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

dir. Clint Eastwood

The fatal shooting of Danny Hansford by Jim Williams in Savannah in 1981 and the subsequent trials served as the basis of John Berendt’s best-selling book in 1994. Clint Eastwood filmed the story in real locations whenever possible, and even used some of the real local figures. Besides the Lady Chablis who played herself, Williams’ attorney, Sonny Seiler, played the judge.
I wanted to visit the locations from the movie when it came out in 1997 but was only able to do it 25 years later.

The film begins with a helicopter shot moving over the Wilmington River towards Bonaventure Cemetery. Then the camera zooms in on the songwriter Johnny Mercer’s grave. He was a Savannah native, and wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs. 14 of these songs are featured on the film soundtrack.

The Bird Girl statue – Section H, Confederate Drive, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia. Chicago sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson originally created the Bird Girl as a garden statue in 1936. It was purchased in 1938 by Lucy Boyd Trosdal for the family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery. The statue became famous due to Jack Leigh’s photograph that was featured on the cover of John Berendt’s book in 1994. The popularity of the book brought thousands of visitors to the cemetery. They were endangering the sanctity of the site, and the Trosdal family decided to remove the statue and loaned it to Telfair Museums for safekeeping. What is seen in the film is a fiberglass replica that was placed in a totally different location. The original location of the Bird Girl is shown on the enlarged photograph behind the statue at the Telfair Academy, 121 Barnard Street where it stands now.

Minerva on the bench – Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia.

John Kelso (John Cusack) arrives in Savannah – Savannah International Airport, Savannah, Georgia. The terminal was expanded and renovated in the early 2000s, and no longer looks the same. The airport was renamed to Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in 2003.

Jim Williams’ (Kevin Spacey) home – Mercer-Williams House, 429 Bull Street, Savannah, Georgia. The construction of the house began in 1860 for General Hugh Mercer (great-grandfather of the songwriter Johnny Mercer) but it was interrupted by the Civil War. It was completed around 1868 by the new owner, John R. Wilder. Despite the house name, no one from the Mercer family actually lived there. In 1969, preservationist and antique dealer Jim Williams bought the house, fully restored it, and made it his residence. The house is currently owned by Dorothy Williams Kingery, Jim Williams' sister, and is open to the public for tours though photography is not allowed inside. While Kingery permitted to film most of the movie scenes inside the house, she requested that the quarrel and shooting scenes would be done elsewhere. These were filmed on a studio set instead. The Christmas party scenes posed another problem, as the house contained many valuable pieces of art and furniture. Eastwood decided not to use extras, and instead invited the same locals that used to attend Williams’ parties.

Kelso walks past the house at 10 East Taylor Street, and then is being welcomed by Mrs. Baxter – 2 East Taylor Street, Savannah, Georgia. It’s the former home of Hugh Comer, who was the president of Central of Georgia Railroad in the 1880s. However, the interior scenes at Kelso’s carriage-house apartment were filmed on a studio set in Burbank, California. Window shots from inside the apartment were filmed across from the house on East Jones Street, used as the location for Joe Odom’s party (see the corresponding entry below.)

Sonny Seiler’s (Jack Thompson) office – 447 Bull Street, Savannah, Georgia. It was built in 1917-19 for magnate George Ferguson Armstrong. It was owned by the Armstrong family from 1919 to 1935. Afterwards, it became the campus of Armstrong Junior College. When the building came under threat of demolition in 1967, the Historic Savannah Foundation purchased the Armstrong House, and then sold it to preservationist and antique dealer Jim Williams who restored it. Eventually, it was sold to a major Savannah law firm as offices. In 2017, it was bought by the preservationist-hotelier Richard C. Kessler who commissioned a complete restoration of the property to make it look as close as possible to the original design.

Kelso and Williams see a man walking an imaginary dog – Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia. This 30-acre park and its beautiful fountain—modeled after then one at the Place de la Concorde in Paris—have been the filmmakers’ favorite for many years. Almost every major film shot in Savannah uses it as a backdrop.

Mandy (Alison Eastwood) brings Kelso to Joe Odom’s (Paul Hipp) party – 115 East Jones Street, Savannah, Georgia.

Lady Chablis’ house – 418 East Liberty Street, Savannah, Georgia.

The family clinic that Chablis visits – 311 Habersham Street, Savannah, Georgia.

Clary’s Cafe – 404 Abercorn Street, Savannah, Georgia.

Kelso and Williams join Minerva in her mysterious ceremony at the "colored folks cemetery" – Still searching for this location.

The flower shop where Mandy works – 6 East State Street, Savannah, Georgia. The shop has since closed, and the store front has been remodeled.

Kelso’s car won’t start, and Joe Odom offers him a carriage ride – East Taylor Lane at Bull Street, Savannah, Georgia.

The courthouse – Tomochichi Federal Building and United States Courthouse, 125 Bull Street, Savannah, Georgia.

The Married Women's Card Club – 126 East Gaston Street, Savannah, Georgia. Unfortunately, when I came there, the house was under renovation and was covered with scaffolding.

Kelso interviews a legal expert – Wright Square, Savannah, Georgia.

Churchill’s Pub – 9 Drayton Street, Savannah, Georgia. The pub was damaged in a fire several years after the filming and then closed. Another pub, The Fitzroy, opened there in 2018.

John and Mandy chatting – Crawford Square, Savannah, Georgia. The swing is no longer there but the gazebo still is.

Kelso and Minerva visit Billy’s grave – Still searching for this location. Danny Hansford, Billy’s real-life prototype, is buried at Greenwich Cemetery.

Jim Williams’ funeral – Section F, Bonaventure Cemetery, 330 Bonaventure Road, Savannah, Georgia. Williams is actually buried in Gordon, Georgia where he was born. The headstone shown later in the film was a studio prop.

Kelso meets Minerva at the cemetery gate – Bonaventure Way at Evergreen Circle, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia. This is not the real cemetery gate. There are actually two of them but this scene was filmed not far from where the Bird Girl replica was placed. The gate seen in the film is a studio creation, it looks very similar but it’s not exactly the same. The area along Bonaventure Way and Evergreen Circle has also changed. A picture of the real cemetery gated entrance is shown below.

Minerva going away – Bonaventure Way looking at St. Augustine Drive, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia

Kelso decides to stay in town and rents a house for six-months – 218 West Jones Street, Savannah, Georgia