It's been a long weekend in New Orleans. I traveled over here for reasons that have nothing to do with Mardi Gras or football, and ended up sucked into a weekend where the main -- the only -- activity in this city had to do with the Superbowl and parades. Oh, yeah, there was also a big mayoral election, but it rated only a small banner on the newspaper's front page above a giant photo of Drew Brees.
I've always felt New Orleans deserves better movies than the ones in which it's portrayed. In movies and on TV, "New Orleans" rarely strays from the French Quarter, which is about a foot away from swamps and Cajuns, where everyone talks in hideous accents and eats nothing but gumbo and beignets. Doesn't anyone realize that New Orleanians sound like they're from Brooklyn, not Georgia? The police force is nothing but corrupt, and the city is riddled with prostitution and drug lords. Also, Mardi Gras occurs practically every weekend.
But even though those stereotypes abound, the last couple of years have been good for "The City That Care Forgot" in feature films. I liked both The Princess and the Frog and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, admittedly for entirely different reasons. And while I wasn't much enamored with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for the most part I liked the way the city of New Orleans was portrayed in the film. I've found seven feature films set in the New Orleans area for you to enjoy -- I didn't include the 2009 movies mentioned above because they're not on DVD yet (though Ben Button is). I do believe the New Orleans Saints have never appeared in a film, but I suspect that will change fairly soon.
Down by Law
While this Jim Jarmusch movie about three men who are imprisoned in the same cell and plan an escape could theoretically have been set anywhere, I love the way that cinematographer Robby Muller photographs New Orleans in the opening sequences. I also find the characters Tom Waits and John Lurie play to be quite convincing -- in fact, I wish New Orleans did have a deejay that sounded like Waits. No fake syrupy accents here. Check out the trailer below to see what I mean -- the YouTube quality isn't kind to the photography but you get the idea.
The Big Easy
The native New Orleanians reading this are all rolling their eyes. This really is a silly movie. Dennis Quaid's Cajun accent is cringeworthy, for one thing. But I do love the scene where he takes Ellen Barkin's straight-laced character to dine at Tipitina's ... although that's not the real Tipitina's. Also, lawyer Lamar (played by NYC playwright Charles Ludlam) is a whole lot like many South Louisiana politicians and lawyers I have known. Speaking of lawyers, former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison appears briefly as a judge.
This little movie from 1989 about Louisiana Gov. Earl Long and his encounters with Blaze Starr seems all but forgotten these days. And admittedly Paul Newman really is too attractive to be a convincing Earl Long. Also, I have read multiple biographies of the former governor and I do believe his real-life relationship with Miss Starr was exaggerated considerably for the film, probably because Hollywood prefers romance over cold lust -- or maybe it's faithful to its source, a memoir by Starr. Much of this movie takes place in Baton Rouge and rural Louisiana rather than New Orleans, but there are a few key scenes in the French Quarter, where the real-life Blaze Starr used to perform. Again, the scenes in south Louisiana are beautifully photographed, this time by Haskell Wexler. Catch Lolita Davidovich's portrayal of the exotic dancer in the following clip.
Tune in Tomorrow
Here's another movie that has never seemed to get enough love -- it appeared at about the same time as another movie about soap operas, Soapdish, which overshadowed it. Although the movie is set in New Orleans, it is actually a loose adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which was set in Lima, Peru. Young Martin (Keanu Reeves) works at a radio station where everyone is swept off their feet by a new radio scriptwriter, the amazing Pedro, played by Peter Falk. Meanwhile, Martin's Aunt Julia, played by Barbara Hershey, is sweeping him off his feet. The cast includes native New Orleanians Patricia Clarkson and John Larroquette, plus Buck Henry and Dan Hedaya, as well as appearances from the Neville Brothers and The Wynton Marsalis Band. There's a lovely montage of the city starting just before the three-minute mark in this clip -- and I do love Henry Gibson in his white suit, like so many older gentlemen one encounters in New Orleans.
This is the only film on this list that I haven't watched properly. You see, when this film was shot in New Orleans in the early 1970s, my grandfather had a whim to work as an extra. So whenever my family watches this movie, no one really pays attention to anything but the one scene where he walks by the camera, and then we fast forward and rewind and freeze-frame it a bunch of times. He does look dashing in a Depression-era hat. Non-relatives might be more interested in seeing James Coburn and Charles Bronson in this Walter Hill film about a boxer and his promoter trying to earn a living in the 1930s. There's a lovely scene at Casamento's where Bronson just can't resist Coburn's plate of oysters -- knowing their reputation for oysters, this is quite authentic. You can catch a few glimpses of New Orleans, mostly the Quarter, in the trailer.
I realize this Tony Scott film doesn't have a lot of fans, and some of its New Orleans-set scenes drew criticism -- Mahnola Dargis called it "vulgar.' The movie was shot in New Orleans not long after Katrina and the subsequent floods destroyed parts of the city. But I do like the way the city is portrayed in this film, and the actors don't try any funny stuff with their accents. Someone should have told Denzel Washington that locals still call it the "GNO Bridge" and not the "Crescent City Connection," but that's the tiniest of carps. And the scene in which the Algiers ferry explodes was so realistic that it practically stopped my heart when I saw it in the theater. Maybe if I'd watched the following trailer I'd have been more prepared ... but I don't think so. Charmaine Neville and local columnist Chris Rose both appear in the film.
Live and Let Die
I have saved what might be possibly the cheesiest film ever set in The Big Easy for last. It's also one of the silliest James Bond movies ever. Why I like it, I can't say. The thing with the alligators ... the goofy voodoo elements of the plot ... Jane Seymour's character ... yikes. But on the other hand, I am very fond of Yaphet Kotto and Geoffrey Holder in just about anything. You don't see a whole lot of New Orleans in this movie -- well, not a lot of the actual city, as opposed to the goofy stereotypes -- Mr. Big's restaurant is in the Quarter, you can see the airport, and some scenes were shot in a Slidell bayou. We could argue that Bad Lieutenant is cheesier, but it gets the New Orleans area fairly accurately in its weird way.