Set in Louisiana: Top 40 Movies, 1938- Present

Peter Athas reviews 81 years of Louisiana's best films.

I’m back with a non-Carnival related piece. It is, however, inspired by the theme of this year’s Bacchus parade: Starring Louisiana. It was their best theme in years and got me pondering movies that were set in the Gret Stet of Louisiana. Hence this top 40 list.

I’m a big fan of Vulture’s lists and decided it was high time to do my own. I learned to my chagrin how hard compiling and writing such a list is. This article has taken much longer than expected but it was worth the struggle.

This top 40 list reflects my own taste and excludes some interesting and even worthwhile movies. Since snark is my calling card, there are some films included that I do not like. The list is light on plot summaries because I know how people on the internet are about spoilers. I don’t want too many people yelling at me on Twitter or Facebook. If you’re on Reddit, yell away. I won’t hear you.

I’m passing on several noteworthy films that were fleetingly set in Louisiana such as Easy Riderand Green Book. I’m also skipping some fine films that were filmed but not set here such as the Coen Brothers masterpiece Miller’s Crossing as well as Green Book.

I’m bypassing television series set in the Gret Stet of Louisiana because that’s outside my self-imposed remit. At some point, I need to write about David Simon’s Treme and its impact on how recent transplants view New Orleans. I’m also terribly fond of HBO’s gory vampire camp fest, True Blood. As to NCIS: New Orleans I love Scott Bakula and hate the rest of the show. NCIS agents are not action heroes.  My Uncle Lou was NCIS and he never once drew his weapon let alone discharged it.

Back to the list, it’s in reverse order and includes my ratings based on the classic 4-star format. None of this 5 star tomfoolery for me. I used Ed and Susan Poole’s Louisiana Film History as my primary source for setting and film location information. That’s right, book research. I filled in the blanks in consultation with Mr. Google. I’ve also hyper-linked some names to their IMDb pages because I realize that not everyone is familiar with such offscreen film greats as with Bernard Hermann, Paul Schrader, or Anthony Mann.

Additionally, I link to previews at the end of each piece. I decided to spare my editor the aggravation of cutting and pasting them. My Krewe du Vieux photo essay was a pain in the ass to process and I didn’t want to put Lamar through that again.

Each entry contains a mini-essay; some concise and others meandering in nature. What’s a little meandering among friends?

One more thing. I’m a tough grader so I expect y’all will disagree with many of the rankings and ratings. It’s meant to provoke argument and discussion. But if you want to yell at me, please see the movie first.

40. Cat People (1982) This cheesy remake of the 1942 Val Lewton psychological thriller starred Natassia Kinksi and Malcolm McDowell.  It was directed by Paul Schrader who wrote the screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull but was still an incoherent mess.

The best thing about this overly literal remake were the shots of the Audubon Zoo before it moved away from cages to compounds.

Cat People is a dog. I can hear it bark at my house upriver from the Zoo.

RATING: 2 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans.

FILMED: New Orleans and Slidell.

TRAILER.

39.  Blaze (1989) I was excited when I heard about this biopic of Earl Long’s late in life fling with exotic dancer Blaze Starr. It was writer-director Ron Shelton’s first movie after Bull Durham. It starred one of my all-time favorite movie stars, Paul Newman. What could possibly go wrong? Everything.

The movie is played strictly for laughs. Newman gets Earl Long all wrong by playing him as a cartoonish buffoon instead of the consequential figure that he was.

RATING: 2 stars.

SETTING: Winnfield, LA, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.

FILMED: Winnfield, State Capitol in Red Stick, and the French Quarter.

TRAILER.

38Band Of Angels (1957) is an unimpressive movie with an impressive pedigree. It was based on a book by Robert Penn Warren, directed by Raoul Walsh who directed such Warner Brothers classic as The Roaring TwentiesHigh Sierra, and White Heat all of which were gritty gangster films. A costume drama such as Band Of Angels was not in Walsh’s wheelhouse. It was set on a plantation in antebellum Louisiana and told the story of a “tragic mulatto” played by Yvonne DeCarlo.

Clark Gable is the male lead. The producers hoped the casting would evoke memories of Gone With The Wind, instead the movie bombed and survives mostly as a curio of pre-Civil Rights revolution racial attitudes.

RATING: 2 stars.

SETTING: Louisiana plantation country.

FILMED: Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation in Geismar, Baton Rouge, Clinton and along the banks of the Big Muddy.

TRAILER.

37. Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) is a little movie based on two novels by Alexandria’s own Rebecca Wells. The cast is stellar featuring Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, and James Garner. But it’s a slight and forgettable film. That’s why this blurb is so short. Perhaps I should call it concise instead.

I just forgot what I wrote…

RATING: 2 stars.

SETTING:  Central Louisiana and New York City.

FILMED: North Carolina.

36. The Pelican Brief (1993) Based on the best-selling book by John Grisham, this legal thriller had a lot going for it. There was star power aplenty with Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, and Sam Shepard in the cast. It was directed by Alan J. Pakula of All The President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice fame but it feels flat and lifeless.

Julia Roberts played a Tulane Law School student; my alma mater. It was nothing like that whatsoever, but movies rarely imitate life. It was a big hit at the box office but not very memorable.

RATING: 2 ½ stars.

SETTING: New Orleans.

FILMED: Room 102 of Jones Hall, then the home of Tulane Law School, Igor’s on St. Charles Avenue, the French Quarter and Spanish Plaza. Some of the interior scenes were filmed in Los Angeles.

TRAILER.

35. The Big Easy (1987) Dennis Quaid plays an NOPD detective with the wrong accent. It’s straight out of Cajun Country and Remy McSwain is supposed to be a third generation New Orleans cop. They say cher more than anyone who has ever lived in New Orleans.

It’s a pity that the ridiculous accents undermine what is otherwise a decent movie. Leading lady Ellen Barkin and Quaid have sizzling chemistry but New Orleanians cannot get past the accents, cher.

The movie also gave New Orleans a new nickname, which nobody here uses except for recent transplants, cher.

RATING: 2 ½ stars, cher.

SETTING: New Orleans.

FILMED: The Big Easy, I mean, New Orleans.

TRAILER.

34. Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012) This Gret Stet take on magic realism was highly touted when it was released. I wanted to like it but found it confusing and pretentious. The critics loved it and it was nominated for 4 Oscars including best picture.

The best thing about the movie was an excellent Oscar nominated performance by Quvenzahde Wallis who was 9 years old when the film was made.

This is the rating I expect the most disagreement with. Bring it on, y’all.

RATING: 2 ½ stars.

SETTING: Bathtub, Louisiana. I am not making this up, but the filmmakers did. That’s why I called it Gret Stet magic realism.

FILMED: Terrebonne Parish.

TRAILER.

33, Interview With The Vampire (1994) Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles are one of my guilty pleasures as a reader. I had high hopes for the film version because it was directed by the great Neil Jordan whose movie The Crying Game was a sensation in 1992, but it was something of a mish-mash. 

Tom Cruise’s performance as Lestat took hamming it up to a whole new level. I believe he’s still chewing the scenery somewhere, perhaps at the Church of Scientology’s HQ.

RATING: 2 ½ stars

SETTING: New Orleans, San Francisco, Paris, and London

FILMED: In various locations in South Louisiana including Hahnville, Vacherie, and New Orleans. Many interiors were shot at Pinewood Studios in London.

TRAILER.

32. JFK (1991) Oliver Stone’s take on Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination is beautifully made but heavy-handed and overloaded with every conspiracy theory known to Grassy Knoll obsessives. It’s cinematically exciting but gets so many things wrong: Jim Garrison was a hard-drinking D.A. suspected of being on the take from the Marcello family instead of a noble hero as portrayed by Kevin Costner.

I’m not going into all of Stone’s conclusion jumping because I’m writing a list, not a book. Suffice it to say, a fine cast is wasted in this epic mess. It was nominated for a raft of Oscars including Best Picture and Director but didn’t win any major awards.

RATING: 2 ½ stars.

SETTING: New Orleans, Washington DC, and Angola State Penitentiary.

FILMED: Mostly New Orleans. The prison scenes were filmed at Angola.

TRAILER.

31.  Girls Trip (2017) I’m not usually a fan of raunchy comedies but this movie is loaded withbig laughs. It’s the sort of movie that defies rigorous analysis but features fine performances by Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish as the girls on the trip.

I can just hear the pitch: The Hangover for black chicks. It works. It’s funny. It made me laugh. What more can you ask from a comedy?

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Essence Festival New Orleans. French Quarter.

FILMED: Same as above.

TRAILER.

30. Obsession (1976) This thriller was director Brian DePalma’s ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s the story of a rich New Orleanian’s creepy obsession with a woman who resembles his long-dead wife. 

Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujod excel in the lead roles, but I never confused him with Vertigo star Jimmy Stewart: good actor, not very charismatic.

The score is by Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator Bernard Hermann and is suspenseful and not remotely Naturally N’awlins.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans and Florence, Italy.

FILMED: Same as above.

TRAILER.

29. Steel Magnolias (1987) Robert Harling adapted his own play about a group of women who bond over beauty parlors and the death of one of the group’s daughters. It was directed  by Herbert Ross who specialized in putting plays on the big screen. It’s visually dull but the characters are feisty and fun.

I saw the play at Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter. I thought it was better than the movie BUT the film version has a deck of aces in the hole, a spectacular cast of actresses: Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, and Olympia Dukakis. And Dolly Parton brings her big personality and even bigger hair to the proceedings as beauty salon propriextrix, Truvy Jones.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Natchitoches, Louisiana.

FILMED: Same as above.

TRAILER.

28. Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) I love James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux novels. Burke writes crime fiction at its most literate and engaging. This Phil Joaonu directed film is pretty darn good in its own right. Dave is played by a young Alex Baldwin who was too cute at that point to play the alcoholic detective.

In 2009, another Burke-Robichaux book was adapted into a film. In The Electric Mist starred Tommy Lee Jones as Dave and was directed by Bernard Tavernier. This Franco-American production went straight to DVD in the US, which means it’s outside of my remit. It’s a pity: Tommy Lee was better suited to play Dave. It also gets 3 stars. Did you like how I snuck that one into the list? One might even call it importing an import.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans and surrounding parishes.

FILMED: Same as above. Some of the movie was shot at Nottoway Plantation.

TRAILER.

27Thunder Bay (1953) Most of the movies James Stewart and Anthony Mann teamed up on were dark and brooding noir Westerns shot in glorious black and white or muted color tones. Thunder Bay was filmed in Technicolor and tells the story of two oil company engineers (Stewart and Dan Dailey) who get into a dispute with some Louisiana shrimpers. The engineers are the heroes of the piece as they represent the forces of progress. Hey, it was released during the Eisenhower administration when what was “good for General Motors” was good for America.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Louisiana oil and shrimp country.

FILMED: Morgan City, Berwick, and New Orleans.

TRAILER.

26. The Drowning Pool (1975) is a shamus/private eye flick based on a novel by the great  Ross Macdonald. I’ve heard that the story was relocated from Southern California to Louisiana because director Stuart Rosenberg and star Paul Newman had such a good time filming WUSA in the Gret Stet in 1971. The food may have had something to do with it.

The Drowning Pool was something of a sequel as Newman reprised his role as Lew Harper. It’s a swell bit of mid-Seventies crime fiction with strong performances by Newman and his wife,Joanne Woodward. The accents of the locals are a bit too Bama but that’s how movie folk thought we spoke in the pre-Hollywood South era.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: South Louisiana.

FILMED: New Orleans, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, and Oaklawn Plantation in Franklin.

TRAILER.

25. Angel Heart (1986) This bit of voodoo mumbo jumbo is the sort of movie that I ordinarily hate. As I said earlier, I’m not a fan of magic realism on the big screen BUT director Alan Parker(The CommitmentsMidnight Express) elevates the material into something compulsively watchable. He even coaxed a good performance out of the usually hyper-hammy Mickey Rourke. And it never hurts to have Robert DeNiro in the cast.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Louisiana “voodoo” country. I am not making this up.

FILMED: New Orleans, Napoleonville, and Laurel Valley Plantation in Thibodaux.

TRAILER.

24. The Skeleton Key (2005) is another scary movie. This time it’s set in a spooky plantation manor house and directed by Iain Softley. Kate Hudson plays a young nurse hired as a caretaker of an elderly and infirm couple (Gena Rowlands and John Hurt.) Horror ensues as Kate makes the fatal mistake of using the skeleton key to enter the attic. Pro tip: Nothing good ever happens in an attic or a basement.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Spooky South Louisiana.

FILMED: Partially filmed at Bayou Gauche in New Orleans, and Felicity Plantation in Vacherie.

TRAILER.

23The Scoundrel’s Wife (2002) This little sleeper was made by Glen Pitre who made the much-better known movie that’s #22 on the list. It tells the little-known story of German submarine activity off the Gulf Coast during World War II and features a rare adult performance by child star Tatum O’Neill.

The Scoundrel’s Wife is a must-see movie for history buffs. It’s one of the least seen films on the list and I encourage everyone to check it out.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Lockport and Lafourche Parish.

FILMED: Same as above.

TRAILER.

22. Belizaire The Cajun (1986) is a sweeping historical film filmed in stages by writer-director Glenn Pitre who had difficulty securing financing. It doesn’t matter, it’s a fine piece of work that put stories about Southwest Louisiana on the cinematic map.

Pitre tells the story of Belizaire Breaux (Armand Assante) a village traiteur (healer) who gets caught up in a confrontation between Cajuns and Les Americains. Unlike that ode to progress, Thunder Bay, the locals are the heroes of the piece. Vive les Acadiens.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Antebellum Southwest Louisiana.

FILMED: Various locations in Cecelia, Henderson, and Lafayette.

TRAILER.

21. Jezebel (1938) This Bette Davis-Henry Fonda starrer has all the strengths and weaknesses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It was directed by the great William Wyler and is beautifully shot, staged, and costumed. BUT it’s laced with Lost Cause era racial attitudes and stereotypes, which might make it tough going for those of you who watch less TCM than I do.

Bette’s character, Miss Julie, is a stubborn, selfish Southern belle who disgraces herself by wearing red to a black and white themed society ball. I get the vapors just thinking about it. At the end of the movie, she redeems herself by going to Yellow Fever ridden New Orleans to nurse Henry Fonda. Henry always brought out the best in everyone.

Trivia time: It’s widely believed that Warners produced Jezebel as a consolation prize for Bette’s not being cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. It was a plum role that gained her a second Best Actress Oscar.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans and Louisiana plantation country.

FILMED: On the back lot of Warner Brothers Studio in Los Angeles.

TRAILER.

20. Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) The hagsplotiation/psycho biddy movie comes to the Gret Stet with this Southern Gothic melodrama. Director Robert Aldrich planned it as a follow-up to his monster hit, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. It was to re-team Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but the divas engaged in a series of battles, which Bette won, leading to Joan Crawford’s replacement by another grand dame, Olivia de Havilland. That aspect of the production is depicted in Ryan Murphy’s swell FX series, Feud, with Susan Sarandon as Bette, Jessica Lange as Joan, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia.

The movie itself is almost as much fun as the back story as it involves gaslighting, blackmail, and family betrayal. In addition to the stars, Golden Age actors Joseph Cotten and Mary Astor have juicy roles.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: Baton Rouge and Houmas House Plantation in Burnside, La.

FILMED:  Production started at Baton Rouge and Houmas House Plantation but moved to Los Angeles after Joan Crawford was fired.

TRAILER.

19. Johnny Angel (1945) is a nifty little film noir involving intrigue on and around the docks of New Orleans. George Raft and Claire Trevor lead a stellar cast though the dizzy twists and turns of this smart and energetic thriller.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans.

FILMED: On the studio back lot in Los Angeles.

TRAILER.

18. Dark Waters (1944) I’d never seen this movie until recently. It’s best described as Southern Gothic film noir. The plot of this Andre de Toth helmed movie *may* have inspired Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte as its heroine (Merle Oberon) is being gaslit by some relatives in Bayou County. There’s a rare villainous performance by Thomas Mitchell and he tears into the role like a cat after a can of tuna. It’s a far cry from playing Scarlett’s dad, George Bailey’s uncle, or the cynical reporter in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Dark Waters is surprisingly enlightened for a film of this era. One of the heroes is Rex Ingramwho plays a dignified black man wrongfully fired by Merle Oberon’s kin. Comic relief is provided by a large, dancing, and eating Cajun family, the Boudreauxs. I’m unsure if Thibodeaux lived nearby but it wouldn’t surprise me none, cher.

RATING: 3 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans and Belleville, Louisiana.

FILMED: On the studio back lot in Los Angeles.

17. Pretty Baby (1978) This was one of the most controversial movies of its era as it featured beaucoup nudity as well as a teenage prostitute played by Brooke Shields. The controversy overlooked the tasteful direction of art house favorite Louis Malle.

Pretty Baby was inspired by the photographs of EJ Bellocq who chronicled life in New Orleans’ red light district, Storyville. Bellocq was portrayed by movie dynast Keith Carradine and Susan Sarandon plays the mother of the youthful hooker.

This movie wasn’t politically correct in its day and isn’t now. What it is is excellent. See it for yourself before yelling at me.

RATING: 3 1/2 stars.

SETTING: Storyville District, New Orleans.

FILMED: New Orleans. Bordello shots at the Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue.

TRAILER.

16. King Creole (1958) was Elvis Presley’s last movie before being inducted into the Army. It remains one of his finest films; much better than anything he did after his discharge. It was one of the few movies Elvis made with a first class director, Michael Curtiz, who won an Oscar for Casablanca. Here’s looking at you, King. 

RATING: 3 1/2 stars.

SETTING: French Quarter, New Orleans.

FILMED: Partially on location in New Orleans. Some interiors shot on studio back lot in Los Angeles.

TRAILER.

15. Eve’s Bayou (1997) This movie was much ballyhooed when it was released. Why? Almost everyone associated with the movie were African-American, which is rare now but even more noteworthy 22 years ago. It was written and directed by Kasi Lemons who proved that Southern Gothic melodrama is not just for white folks.

There’s a shocking crime committed late in the movie but it’s predominantly the story of an offbeat Creole family as seen through the eyes of its youngest child, Eve (Jurnee Smollet.) The family dynamics are fascinating and it’s great to see Samuel L. Jackson as a well-educated rascal, Dr. Louis Batiste. When this doctor pays a house call, there are extras for the women of the town if you catch my drift.

Eve’s Bayou was set during the segregation era and are there are NO white people in the cast, which is refreshing as well as true-to-life.

Music fans should play attention to a scene at the local watering hole: the bartender is played by the late, great Allen Toussaint.

RATING: 3 1/2 stars.

SETTING: Small town South Louisiana.

FILMED: Covington, Madisonville, and Napoleonville.

TRAILER.

14. Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008I was prepared to hate this movie and declined to see it on the big screen. Repeat after me: magic realism is not my thing. Additionally, it clocks in at 166 minutes.

I was wrong about this aging in reverse fantasy flick. David Fincher is an edgy director and kept the proceedings from getting too corny. 

The performances by Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett are excellent but Taraji P. Henson commits highway robbery and steals every scene she’s in. She was nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar but along with Pitt, Fincher, and the movie itself did not win. Bummer in reverse, man.

RATING: 3 1/2 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans.

FILMED:  Donaldsonville, LaPlace, Mandeville, Morgan City, and New Orleans.

TRAILER.

13. A Soldier’s Story (1984) During the war against Nazi racism, the United States Army was still racially segregated. This movie tells the story of the murder of an African-American sergeant (Adolph Caesar) in mysterious circumstances. Was it the Ku Klux Klan or someone else? I’m not talking, see the movie to find out. It’s an excellent use of 101 minutes of your life.

RATING: 3 ½ stars.

SETTING: Fort Neal, Louisiana.

FILMED:  Arkansas.

TRAILER.

12.  The Cincinnati Kid (1965) Steve McQueen plays the poker hustler title character in this drama set in the 1930’s. He’s come to New Orleans to make a killing and ends up in a game with Edward G. Robinson. Two of my favorite movie stars in the same cast, what’s not to love?

Norman Jewison, who also directed A Soldier’s Story, keeps the action moving and makes excellent use of the film’s setting. It opens with a jazz funeral at St. Louis Cemetery No.1. It’s New Orleans, doesn’t everyone have a jazz funeral? In the movies and on teevee they do.

RATING: 3 1/2 stars.

SETTING: Smoke filled rooms in New Orleans with an opening scene shot at St. Louis Cemetery No.1.

FILMED: New Orleans.

TRAILER.

PASSION FISH, from left: David Strathaim, Alfre Woodard, Mary McDonnell, 1992, © Miramax

11. Passion Fish (1992) Welcome to 4 star movie country. Passion Fish tells the story of a paralyzed soap opera star (Mary McDonnell) who returns to an empty family home in Louisiana to hide out and drink herself into a pain-relieving stupor. She mistreats a series of caregivers until a nurse named Chantelle finally gets through to her. This was the role that put Alfre Woodard on the map. There are also terrific performances by David Strathairn and Angela Basset.

Passion Fish was written and directed by the great John Sayles of Lone Star and Eight Men Outfame. He was nominated for an Oscar for best original screen play as was McDonnell for best actress but neither won. They wuz robbed as was Woodard who wasn’t even nominated.

TRAILER.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: Southwest Louisiana.

FILMED:   Elton, Gueydan, Jennings, Lake Arthur, and Lake Charles.

10. Dead Man Walking (1995) The previous movie was Passion Fish; this was a passion project. This “ripped from the headlines” movie was based on a book by anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean. The term “dead man walking” refers to what’s said when a death row inmate is on their way to execution.

Dead Man Walking was adapted for the big screen by writer-director  Tim Robbins  It’s not exactly light entertainment but it makes a cogent argument against capital punishment and in favor of mercy even when the convicted man is a low life scumbag such as Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn.) Susan Sarandon won the best actress Oscar for her performance as Sister Helen.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain, Baton Rouge, Angola State Penitentiary,

FILMED: Angola, Covington, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.

TRAILER.

9. The Man In The Moon (1991) This glorious coming-of-age movie was full of firsts and last. It was the film debut of Reese Witherspoon and the final outing for Robert Mulligan. Mulligan was what is known in Hollywood as a hyphenate: a producer, writer and director. As a director, he was best known for To Kill A MockingbirdInside Daisy Clover, and Summer of ’42. This is one of his lesser known gems.

The acting is uniformly superb with Sam Waterson and Tess Harper as young Reese’s parents. I recall leaving the movie theatre and saying to my wife, “That girl has something special. We need to remember her name.”

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: Rural Louisiana.

FILMED: Natchitoches, Pratt’s Bridge over Cain River, and Kisatchie National Forest.

TRAILER.

ANDIE MACDOWELL Film ‘SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE ; SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE’ (1989) Directed By STEVEN SODERBERGH 04 August 1989 TW270 August Allstar Collection/MIRAMAX **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Printed Editorial Use Only, NO online or internet use.

8. Sex Lies and Videotape (1989) is the debut feature film of Steven Soderbergh who has gone on to fame, fortune, and artistic renown including an Oscar as best director for Traffic. In that year, 2001, he was only the second director to be nominated for two pictures, Erin Brockovich, was the other. That puts him in elite company along with King Creole director Michael Curtiz.

Soderbergh set Sex Lies and Videotape in Baton Rouge because it’s where he grew up as an LSU faculty brat. It tells the bizarre and creepy story of a weirdo (James Spader) who films a man (Peter Gallagher) who is having an affair with his wife’s sister. The weirdo eventually befriends the wife who is played by Andie McDowell.

Like Pretty Baby, this movie is not politically correct in our era. Hell, it wasn’t in 1989 either. BUT it’s brilliant and remains my favorite Soderbergh movie. Repeat after me: don’t yell at me until you’ve seen it.

A quick story: My friends Scott and Ian lived on the block where much of the movie was shot. They got to know the cast and crew. They even went drinking with Soderbergh and Spader. Their verdict was that Spader was nothing like the creepy characters he’s played over the years. I’m relieved that he’s not like Allan Shore of The Practice and Boston Legal. That lawyer character was even creepier than the Sex, Lies, and Videotape peeper.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: Baton Rouge.

FILMED: Same as above.

TRAILER.

7. Sounder (1972) Director Martin Ritt was known for the liberal, humanitarian stance he took in movies such as The Front and Norma Rae. He was also a New Yorker who made many films set in the South such as The Long, Hot Summer, and Hud. Those two tendencies collided in Sounder.

I may not care for magic realism, but I have a weakness for coming of age movies. Sounder tells the story of young black man who was the son of sharecroppers during the Great Depression. He’s forced to grow up in a hurry after his father is jailed for stealing food to feed the family.

Ritt’s movies were always characterized by excellent acting and Sounder is no exception. It provided great roles for Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield and brought these two players to the attention of mainstream movie goers. Both were nominated for acting Oscars.

Another quick personal story: Al Bankston was an old friend of the family. He was the most liberal Baptist pastor I’ve ever heard of. He was theatrically inclined and played a racist cop in Sounder. And they say irony is dead: don’t believe it.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: Rural Louisiana.

FILMED: Mostly in East Feliciana and St. Helena Parishes.

TRAILER.

6. Suddenly Last Summer (1959) is one of those movies people either love or hate. I’m firmly in the first camp. It’s another weird family drama with tales of forbidden sexuality, violence, and even cannibalism.

Suddenly Last Summer was based on a play by Tennessee Williams and he received screenwriting credit along with Gore Vidal. Vidal maintained in his memoir, Palimpsest, that Williams didn’t help write the script, but producer Sam Spiegel used the playwright’s name as Oscar bait. It did not work.

The cast of the movie is as good as it gets: Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift starred; both women were nominated for best actress Oscars.

Warning: if you don’t care for movies that put the talk into talkies this may not be for you.

Another quick note. First Draft readers know that Gore Vidal is the writer who has influenced me the most. I’m thrilled to have a pretext to write about him at the Bayou Brief.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: Garden District, New Orleans. Tennessee Williams set the play at the Bultman Mansion/Funeral Home on St. Charles Avenue.

FILMED:  Shepperton Studios in the U.K. and Spain.

TRAILER.

5. All The King’s Men (1949) won the Oscar as best picture of 1949. It’s based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, so the producers knew they had something special on their hands. They delivered a stone-cold film classic.

All The King’s Men tells the story of a Huey Long style populist, Willie Stark, who rises to power and sells out his ideals along the way. It’s based on the Kingfish but Willie Stark is a much less sympathetic character than the real Huey. For example, Huey may have neglected his family, but he certainly didn’t scapegoat his son. Russell Long would, of course, serve as the senator from Louisiana for six terms.

The acting is stellar. Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge won Oscars but future film noir star John Ireland’s performance as Jack Burden is the heart and soul of the picture. He was nominated and lost as was director Robert Rossen. The Oscars getting things wrong is nothing new, y’all.

There was a remake of All The King’s Men released in 2006. Despite a cast including Sean Penn, Jude Law, and Kate Winslett, it’s a 2 star stinker. It’s strictly for people who refuse to watch black and white movies.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: A state very much like Louisiana,

FILMED: Various locations in California.

TRAILER.

4.  Panic In The Streets (1950). Speaking of glorious black and white, director Elia Kazan shot this movie on location in New Orleans. Kazan was one of the first Hollywood directors to insist on verisimilitude. And he nailed with this film noir gem.

Panic In The Streets tells the story of a public health crisis in New Orleans. A contagious disease is spreading down on the docks and a Navy doctor (Richard Widmark) is determined to stop it by tracking down the source of this malicious malady. The source is movie bad guy Jack Palance in his big screen debut. After seeing this, you’ll know why he was typecast as a villain.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans.

FILMED: Same as above.

TRAILER.

3. Down By Law (1986) is a quirky independent film set in New Orleans. It was one of the movies that established quirky independent director Jim Jarmusch as an artist to be reckoned with.

Down By Law features the misadventures of three misfits who have stumbled into a life of comic crime and meet in the Orleans Parish Prison. It was shot in black and white so it looks gritty but it’s one of the funniest movies on this list. I chuckle just thinking of the antics of Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni as the madcap misfits. It’s interesting casting all-around: two avant garde musicians, and an Italian comedian.

This movie inspired a catch phrase in my house. The American characters try to teach the Italian guy the expression, “good egg.” In Benigni’s hands it became, WE ARE A GOOD EGG. We say it to this day.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: New Orleans.

FILMED: New Orleans and Slidell.

TRAILER.

2. 12 Years A Slave (2013) It was a tough choosing which movie would top the list. 12 Years A Slave *is* a great movie that won a raft of Oscars including best picture BUT like Schindler’s List, it’s a great movie that I don’t want to see a second time. And I’ve seen many of the top 40 more than once.

The fact that 12 Years A Slave is too painful to see more than once is a mark of its quality. (Hell, I just compared Steve McQueen’s film to Spielberg’s masterpiece.) It tells the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a freedman who was sold down the river into slavery. He spends 12 years in hell, which in this case was in Louisiana.

You may be aware that there’s connection between the Bayou Brief and this great film. Our publisher Lamar White, Jr’s aunt was instrumental in publishing Northrup’s memoirs. I’ll let Lamar tell the story in his own words:

‘When I was in the fourth grade, along with my autographed textbook, Aunt Sue also gave me the first of many copies of the book 12 Years a Slave, and perhaps knowing that it was heavy reading for an elementary school student, she spoiled it and told me the story in her own words. Sue, a history professor, spent most of her career researching and editing 12 Years a Slave. Her name appears in bold block letters at the top of the book’s cover; the author’s name, Solomon Northup, appears in bolder letters below.

Sue loved telling Solomon Northup’s story. She knew it was riveting and important, and after first encountering the book when she was only twelve years old, she spent the next seventy-eight years of her life chasing it down. Sue’s children affectionately refer to Solomon as their “brother,” which seems appropriate. After all, they grew up with him’

That beats the hell out my stories about Scott, Ian, and Al. That’s all right, Lamar is one of those people who pops up at important moments and becomes part of the story.

RATING: 4 stars.

SETTING: Slave country, South Louisiana.

FILMED: New Orleans, Magnolia Plantation, Felicity Plantation, and Destrehan.

TRAILER.

1. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1948. Because of its New Orleans setting, Tennessee Williams has become an adopted native son in a city that doesn’t easily open its arms to transplants. In his case, he gave the city a literary, theatrical, and cinematic masterpiece to call its own. No wonder everyone is so eager to claim him.

The original film version of A Streetcar Named Desire was a heavily edited and toned-downversion of the groundbreaking play. It didn’t matter. It was still strong stuff for its day. Elia Kazan directed both the play and film, which is one reason it’s so powerful. Kazan knew how to convey the essence of Williams’ vision with a mixture of nuance and bluster.

Marlon Brando’s performance as poetic lout Stanley Kowalski influenced, for both good and ill, a generation of actors. He didn’t win the Oscar but castmates Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter did.

RATING4 stars.

SETTING: French Quarter and Marigny, New Orleans.

FILMED: A mixture of Hollywood studio interiors and location shots in New Orleans.

TRAILER.

We’ve come to the end of this top 40 list. I hope you enjoyed taking this long journey throughLouisiana’s cinematic history as much as I enjoyed writing it. In either case, we should close with a quote from Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” 

Replace strangers with readers and you have my credo as a writer. Thanks, y’all.