Alfre Woodard’s always been one of my favorite actresses, but the one film that earned her an Oscar nomination had always eluded me, so it was a treat exploring Cross Creek (Ritt, 1983), the lovely biopic of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It’s interesting to remember that Out of Africa took home a boatload of Academy Awards just two years later, but the Ritt, with a similar arc, is a better film for concentrating on the writing process and not merely on the biographical trappings. In the Pollack film, Karen Blixen’s poems often seem incidental to her character’s development, serving more as a pretense to indulge in African nature-watching and a tedious Robert Redford romance. Rawling’s love life, however, is secondary to her search for her own authorial voice, and her immersion into the hardscrabble world of backwoods Bayou life serves as an interesting contrast to the post-imperialist plantation privileges Meryl Streep gets to enjoy. Ritt has always been highly sensitive to issues of class in American life without over-sentimentalizing the poor, which is always a harder sell than exotic animals and picture-postcard prettiness anyway.
The film’s still by-the-numbers in a typical Hollywood sense, and Leonard Rosenman's intrusive score distracts (especially compared to Taj Mahal’s authentic music coloring in Ritt’s Sounder from the previous decade), but Mary Steenburgen’s brittleness is used to good effect, and Rip Torn in particular is very funny and very touching (he was also nominated for an Oscar). Woodard brings in all the subtle colorings we’re used to seeing from her, but if anything, this film serves as an interesting trial run for her glorious work in John Sayles’ Passion Fish nine years later—a much better film that also exploits its own bayou locations (in Louisiana, as opposed to Florida) in marvelous ways.
Rawlings is getting a US postage stamp this month (though, alas, I don’t have any postcards for The Yearling, so it won’t impact my own collection at all).