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After his mother's death, Collin Fenwick goes to live with his father's cousins, the wealthy, avaricious, and controlling Verena Talbo, and her compliant, earthy sister Dolly. When a city slicker comes to town and convinces Verena to market Dolly's locally-famous tonic, Dolly finally gets some backbone, refuses to divulge the formula, and heads for a tree house with Collin and Catherine, the loyal maid. Verena, who has most of the town in her pocket, sics the law on the renegades. Dolly, Catherine, and Collin find a supporter in a retired judge, Charlie Cool, who's attracted to Dolly. Will Verena's venom win out? And what about that city slicker? Written by
THE GRASS HARP was a novel by Truman Capote, based (in part) on his a youth, living with a pair of aunts in a southern town. Here his narrator hero is orphaned at an early age, and he is raised by his father's cousins (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie). Spacek is the actual head of the family, running four prosperous businesses in the small town, such as the town department store and town hotel (complete with Presidential suite). She is a humorless, hard working woman, as opposed to her sister, who is a loving, free spirited type, who (with her friend and assistant (Nell Carter) collects herbs for a patent medicine remedy for "dropsy". Edwin Furlong (and, earlier, Grayson Frick) play the hero of the film, Collin (the narration is by Boyd Gaines). The hero quickly finds himself in love with Laurie, and just respectful towards Spacek. As he grows up, he finds himself defending Laurie's reputation (she is seen as quite eccentric). The town people also fear Spacek, but rather openly dislike her.
Walter Matthau is retired Judge Cool, a sensible elderly man who "good" people consider a nut (he openly admits that there was nothing wrong with a true love affair between a white man and an African-American woman which led to the white man being run out of town). Matthau is having problems in his home with an unsympathetic grown son and the son's wife. Matthau's wife has died years before. Others in this well cast film include Jack Lemmon as a Dr. Ritt from Chicago, whom Spacek brings back home - and whom accidentally sets in motion the delayed rebellion of Laurie and the others against Spacek's stiff and respectable regime. Joe Don Baker plays the local chicken rancher/part-time sheriff (who hates having to cow-tow to Spacek). Charles Durning is the local minister, who is out for only respectable religious leaders (with Bonnie Bartlett as his equally stuffy wife). Mary Steenburgen is the religious threat - an unmarried mother of twelve who has a mobile revival tent in the back country, but whom is pretty likable for all one's questions about her revivalism. Sean Patrick Flannery is Riley, a young man who lives unconventionally, but whom turns out to be a pretty good friend to Collin. Roddy McDowall (in one of his last roles) plays Amos, the local barber.
Basically Capote uses his characters to punch holes in what "nice, conventional" small town people believe is proper behavior. Spacek is the leader of these people, who believe in organized Christianity, hard work and business, and straight-laced morality. Laurie, Matthau, Carter, Flannery, Steenburgen, and Furlong are all believers in doing what is natural, and from the heart. So as they begin working together they become a model and a danger for the "nice people". But as the tale progresses, the nice people find that what they believe in does not emotionally satisfy them. Indeed Spacek suffers several losses in the course of the film that she never expected.
Charles Matthau, Walter's son, directed this (very nicely - it is one of the best ensemble movies of recent years). It was also a rarity in the 1990s decade of Matthau-Lemmon films. Whereas GRUMPY OLD MEN, GRUMPIER OLD MEN, OUT TO SEA, and THE ODD COUPLE II were all comedies, this film is dramatic and the two actors only shared one scene (with Roddy McDowall in his barber shop) in the film. Also, Lemmon's character is less likable than usual in this film.
The title, by the way, refers to a statement by Laurie's character about how the grass gives off a music like a harp, which is actually the voices of all the people who ever inhabited the earth. It becomes a running metaphor in the film up to the conclusion.
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