Snippets: Ethan Hawke’s Biopic about Flannery O’Connor

In Wildcat, the recent film by Ethan Hawke based on the life and work of Flannery O’Connor, one hopes to see, you know, Flannery O’Connor’s life. But Mr. Hawke mostly gives us her writing instead – and only snippets at that – dramatizations from her novels or short stories that come across as scenes students might perform in classes at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City.

It’s mostly talk with little action.

Hawke might have given us more of Wildcat’s best scene in which Flannery (played by Maya Hawke, the director’s daughter) is surrounded by intellectuals, including poet Robert Lowell (Philip Ettinger) and writer Elizabeth Hardwick (Willa Fitzgerald). The subject of the Eucharist comes up and Hardwick inanely says it’s a lovely symbol, to which O’Connor replies, “If it’s a symbol, then the hell with it.” And she evangelizes the highbrows, eviscerating their dismissal of the Real Presence.

Innovative creativity is always risky, and Mr. Hawke has taken a big risk in choosing not to make a classic biopic. In Wildcat, a subtle mention of an O’Connor story title in a biographical scene morphs into a dramatic “excerpt” from the story itself, sometimes effectively, as in an interracial confrontation from “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” or less effectively in “Parker’s Back,” when Miss Hawke provides voiceover narration for the absentminded Parker’s tractor collision with a tree, which has the effect of being the audio equivalent of title cards in a silent movie.

When we see O’Connor reading one of her stories to a mid-1940s class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, we get a small taste of her literary gifts, but the various scenes devoted to dramatizing her work interfere too much with what we might have learned about her life.

Really, the film is suffocating, seeming to suggest that there was no joy in Flannery O’Connor’s life, that her Southern Gothic writing was always autobiographical, and that a poor, humorless woman was trapped on her Georgia homestead, Andalusia, never to see much of the world.

But Flannery O’Connor not only had that Iowa sojourn, she lived in New York City at one point (and upstate at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs), and she traveled to Europe: to Lourdes, for heaven’s sake, and to Rome where she met the pope! To be fair, Wildcat probably had no budget for filming in those places, yet those experiences could have been dramatized, had Mr. Hawke not doggedly stuck to the notion that to know a writer’s life you only need to know her writing.

It was out of Yaddo, a writers’ colony, that Wise Blood, her first novel came, which the film passes over. And this is also true of her friendship with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, her later literary executors. It was at Yaddo that she met Lowell, with whom she became a longtime correspondent – a fact that Wildcat suggests was some sort of ill-fated love affair, which it never was, although Flannery may have been smitten, briefly.

I don’t want to be unfair. Miss Hawke gives a credible – albeit variable – performance. And Laura Linney is generally good as her diffident mother. And the two of them, with cameos by a handful of other actors, form a kind of Original “Wildcat” Southern Repertory Company when the film dissolves into those story snippets. Hawke and Linney each play six roles: the two O’Connor women and five characters each from the various stories.

Both actresses have Southern roots, although both were born in New York City, and their accents seem derived not from time spent down South, but from watching Gone with the Wind. When O’Connor wrote her stories, she heard Georgian voices the way one would on the streets of Milledgeville or Atlanta, not from listening to Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. Indeed, all the dramatized stories in Wildcat are pure Hollywood, which has always had a tin ear for various American accents – none more than the South. And not just the vocal. The gestures are just as broad, even at times cartoonish.

Wildcat is pretty to look at, though cinematographer Steve Cosens’ palette is very muted, which only adds to the film’s somber mood.

At least O’Connor’s Catholicism is made very clear. Her defense of transubstantiation is powerful. The only priest in the film (played by Liam Neeson) seems ineffectual at first, but ends up being sagacious. He and Flannery talk of the scandalous James Joyce, although, oddly, not that Joyce was – as were William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Franz Kafka, and others – a seminal influence on O’Connor work.

Towards the end of the film, good scenes of Flannery’s suffering – from lupus, or “French wolf,” the still-incurable disease that took her life when she was just 39 – merge into her story “Good Country People” about a Bible salesman who tries to seduce a young writer and ends up stealing her wooden leg. It’s frustrating, though, because Ms. Hawke’s performance is just hitting its stride with Neeson at her bedside – now stopped short as we endure yet another snippet.

But the best O’Connor line comes from “Joy Hopewell,” the aspiring writer in “Good Country People,” who is told by the salesman that she even looks like a writer, which he concludes must surely make writing come easy to her. She disagrees. “It’s like giving birth to a piano – sideways.” (That’s not actually in the O’Connor story, but it is what she said once in an interview.)

Wildcat is not a total failure but it’s nearly so because its conceit of interweaving scenes from O’Connor’s life with vignettes from her fiction, snippet after snippet, never gives the viewer satisfactory insights into either.

And there is just one scene involving peacocks – in a train station where the birds, inside crates, await their release at Andalusia. But they remain in a box, just like those who watch this movie.

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Wildcat has no MPAA rating. If it did, it would probably be PG or PG-13. The cast also includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Steve Zahn, and Alessandro Nivola among others.

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Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.