Reviewed by Allen Tullos
Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999, pp. 27-28
Cookie’s Fortune. Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay by Anne Rapp. Director of Photography Toyomichi Kurita. Music by David Stewart. October Films.
“Pride and Pretense are the jockeys of misfortune” warns the message-board outside the First Presbyterian Church of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Given the location of Cookie’s Fortune and its opening scenes, moviegoers are justified in wondering what has become of another familiar, page, rider–Prejudice. Put out to pasture with his stalking horse Doo-dah, if we are to take seriously filmmaker Robert Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp.
Appropriate to the 1990s’ mood of localism in politics and quiescence and retreat on the civil rights front, Altman’s newest project locates an idyllic Southern small town where racial history seems but a quaint complexity in a genealogy connecting everyone as family. “Which means I’m part black?” exclaims the hopeful, anti-belle Emma Duvall to her old friend, but newly discovered African-American cousin, Willis Richland. Well, maybe we won’t go that far just yet.
In its promising opening scene, Cookie’s Fortune plays upon our popular culture archive of situations charged with racial expectation and the eagerness with which we reach for the suspect profile. The film begins late on the night of Good Friday, the Holly Springs streets deserted except for a quietly patrolling sheriff’s cruiser. A black man, whom we have just seen steal a pint of Wild Turkey, knocks at the rear window of a van while inside, a young, white woman undresses. She quickly turns out the light and doesn’t answer.
We follow the stocky man as he breaks into a house, startling a elderly, white, female resident. It turns out that Willis Richmond (played by Charles S. Dutton) and Jewell Mae “Cookie” Orcutt (Patricia Neal) are the best of friends and he’s come late, but dependably, to clean the family pistols. Quickly, our suspicion turns to trust. As witnesses in the dark, we have sorted the seeming from the genuine about this intruder and connected with Cookie’s Fortune‘s central theme. The relationship between the good-humored, quick-witted Willis and pipe-smoking Cookie, in her maroon Mississippi State Bulldog jersey and matching sneakers, is moving and almost plausible, the best part of the film. It is gone however, in a matter of minutes.
Cookie’s suicide is the most salient surprise and break-through, sympathetically and effectively evoked. A physically infirm and mentally-slipping woman, lonelier each year after the passing of her lifemate Buck, childless Cookie
opts for death’s golden boat and golden wings while she still has the wits, will, and courage to choose. She pulls the trigger on one of Buck’s old peacemakers and the feathers fly.
The film follows the consequences of Cookie’s choice, as her estranged, niece Camille Dixon, a fading Southern flower, attempts for reasons of family vanity and propriety, to cover-up the suicide. Rather than face this embarrassment, Camille, with her dominated sister Cora in tow, allow Willis to stand falsely accused of murder. An atavistic character for the era that haunted the childhood of Tennessee Williams, Camile has not reckoned on just how much things have changed in Mississippi–this new Mississippi, home to such popularly elected humanitarians and civil rights boosters as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Governor Kirk Fordice.
Sure of their fishing-buddy Willis’ innocence, but needing someone to charge and hold while the mess is sorted out, sheriffs’ officers take him into custody. Willis seems a little put out, but no sweat. Not to worry. In millennial Mississippi, African-American men suspected of killing white women can expect a standard-issue Atticus Finch, an unlocked jail cell complete with gorgeous and devoted white female roommate, a clean wool blanket to pull up on a chilly night after the Scrabble-playing visitors have left, a feast cooked by an officer’s wife, and a bluesy-but-upbeat soundtrack suggesting everything’s going to turn out just fine.
Meanwhile, the out-of-town forensics expert bumbles along and the out-of-town, black-and-suave investigator is befuddled. The message? Go back into the Heat of the Night, clueless, suspicious, Mister Tibbs. Between white and black communities, between juke joint and church sanctuary, we can handle this ourselves.
Holly Springs’ legacy, as told through passing shots of historical markers, is that of a town once-swarming with cotton, yellow fever, and Confederate generals. To move Cookie out form under the long shadows of complicity in the rewards of a place so long dependent upon the exploitations of black labor and the domination of black people, the film invokes the story of her husband, the gambler Buck Orcutt. Gambling is narrative’s and perhaps life’s, way of pretending to give the slip to history. In the turn of cards or the roll of dice, the winnings seem to wash their hands of any nasty labor that might have produced them. Buck rode into town in 1929, year of the Great Crash, with two pistols to his name. Soon he had amassed his bride Cookie, an antebellum mansion, the little house out back that Willis Richland would come to call home, and a collection of fake jewelry appropriate to “the biggest suck that ever lived,” in the film’s constant talk of fishing and luck.
But before Willis can be freed in a Holly(wood) Springs ending to claim the big house willed to him by Cookie as her nearest kin, there are a few distractions. There is considerable bumbling around by Jason (a rookie officer descended from Barney Fife), some hokey in the poky between Jason and Emma (Barney never got this lucky), and the First Presbyterian Church’s Easter production of Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play Salomé (as abbreviated and directed by Camille Dixon) with its themes of adultery, murder, wanton sexuality, suicide, and necrophilic vampirism echoing and anticipating the course of the filmic story.
Cookie’s Fortune is not slight, as several reviewers have suggested (by this I think they mean in need of multiple rocket launchers firing from all directions upon cars crashing through flaming windows thirty stories up), but, rather, low-key in giving the appearance of being thoughtful. Frequently deft in everyday, evocatively-lit detail and alert to the humorous possibilities of the moment, the film is deaf to its own unreality. It would have us believe Holly Springs is kept from utopian harmony only by that haunted scapeghost of Victorian ladyhood, in all her manipulative trappings, indulged eccentricities, and unacknowledged offspring. Cookie’s Fortune acts as if the struggle for racial justice has no bitter legacy, contemporary consequences, nor work left to do.
Allen Tullos editor of Southern Changes and is a professor of American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University.