20 Years After Midnight: A Look Back
Has it been that long? Twenty-three years ago, and then 20 years ago, like a heavyweight one-two punch combination, Savannah burst onto the national stage.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil–first came the book, then the movie. Suddenly Savannah had an image, a persona–cool, mysterious, exotic, maybe a little scary–but in a good way. Definitely not your cookie-cutter American town. Not an Omaha, Phoenix or Kalamazoo.
In its review of the book in 1994, The New York Times made the prophetic observation: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to call a travel agent and book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime.”
The book quickly hit the best-seller charts, encouraged informally by legendary publicist Bobby Zarem, a Savannah native.
But it took the 1997 movie, “dripping with Southern Gothic weirdness,” as film critic Roger Ebert put it, to imprint the city’s image on the minds of thousands, if not millions of future tourists.
“After 20 years, some would expect the Midnight fans to settle a bit, but every day our visitors are still seeking glimpses of the sights and characters that made the film and the Savannah area such a hit.”
Hubbard also noted that the film had served as a “catalyst” for additional movie filming in Savannah “by helping solidify our reputation as a town easy to shoot and work in.”
Midnight, the movie, did not enjoy the rave reviews given to the book by John Berendt. Newsweek’s critic, David Ansen, called it “Perry Mason on Valium.” But most who commented on the movie noted its evocation of Savannah’s atmosphere, its graveyards and spooky mansions amid the Spanish moss.
RIP Lady Chablis: Lady Chablis was the unabashed transgender woman in Savannah who became an icon after the Midnight book. She died last year at the age of 59 from pneumonia, but her legacy will continue to live on.
The tepid reviews may have contributed to the movie’s lackluster performance at the box office. Midnight was a bust by Hollywood standards, according to Box Office Mojo. With a production budget of $35 million, the movie racked up only $25 million in domestic box office receipts.
One thing critics did find to like about the movie was its score. Director Clint Eastwood, a longtime jazz devotee, populated Midnight solely with tunes by Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer.
The selection of Mercer might seem obvious, since much of the movie takes place in Mercer House, built by the songwriter’s grandfather, but many of the tunes selected are classics, including “Fools Rush In,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” Eastwood went on to produce a documentary on Mercer in 2009 entitled: Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me.
Minerva: Minerva was one of the most unforgettable characters in the Midnight book. She was a mysterious voodoo priestess. The unique character would cast spells across the graveyard.
Midnight, the book, for its part, set sales records. It spent 216 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, and author Berendt told the Savannah Morning News in 2014 his creation had sold some 2.7 million copies in hardback and more than 5 million copies overall worldwide. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995, and sales are still brisk in Savannah bookstores.
It would be hard to find many in Savannah’s business world who aren’t appreciative of the Midnight phenomenon.
Visit Savannah has said that in 1993, the year before the book was published, the city had 5 million visitors who spent $587 million during their stays. Two decades later, the number of visitors had jumped to 12.5 million and spending to $2.2 billion.
Was it Midnight the book? Midnight the movie? Or other factors?
There’s a line from Jim Williams that may address the question: “Truth, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.”
John Cusack as John Kelso: In the movie, John Cusack plays a journalist who is doing a story on Jim Williams for a magazine.
Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams: Kevin Spacey plays Jim Williams in the movie. Jim was tried four times for the murder of his assistant.