There are certain expectations when a film is set in New Orleans—a promise of sex, violence, magic and tragedy. Elegant exteriors tend to peel away in The Big Easy to reveal seedy, scarred underbellies, both in setting and character.
The images from Hurricane Katrina’s destruction along the Gulf Coast, particularly the aftermath in the hopelessly flooded streets of New Orleans, are analogous in some ways to how Hollywood approached the city—revealing, troubling and hard to forget.
New Orleans is already rebuilding in Katrina’s wake: neighborhoods have been reopened and residents are slowly returning to assess damages and begin anew. As the long process of rebuilding continues, here’s a chance to remember some of the more prominent films that captured the Big Easy, for better or worse, in all its past glory.
Bette Davis stars as Julie Marsden in this love story based on the play by Owen Davis (no relation) set in New Orleans’ high society. Marsden’s plan to embarrass her fiancé, Preston (Henry Fonda), backfires at a major social function and causes the cancellation of their wedding. The tragedy that strikes the south in this film is not a storm, but rather a yellow fever epidemic that brings Preston back into Marsden’s life, where she must care for him.
A Streetcar Named Desire(1951)
In the big-screen version of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, set in the French Quarter (but shot on a Warner Brothers set), elegance arrives in the person of Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), a refined but increasingly nutty sister to Stella (Kim Hunter). Opposite Blanche on the etiquette scale is Stella’s husband, a brute named Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando)—a card-playing, bowling-alley-brawling, heavy-drinking man’s man with biceps the size of riverboats. DuBois’ sketchy past starts to catch up with her as she bunks with Stella and Stanley, and a startling undercurrent of sexual tension (controversial for 1951) seeps into the storyline. Brando’s performance is epic even today for its range of raw rage toward Blanche and unconditional love for Stella.
Easy Rider (1969)
A counter-culture classic, Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut follows Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) on the quintessential cross-country road trip in search of, well…depending on which metaphor you choose, America, freedom, truth or the perfect high. The symbolism (not to mention the emergence of Jack Nicholson) is what makes Easy Rider so memorable, and it’s never more evident than when the two buddies reach their final destination: Mardi Gras in New Orleans. With the money from their big cocaine sale safely secured, Captain America and Billy celebrate their arrival by dropping acid in a cemetery with two hookers from a legendary local whorehouse, Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights. But in the end it’s a bad trip, one that taps into the bad vibes of the era and a belief that any effort to be different will end badly. As Captain America says ominously the night before the two character’s fateful demise: “We blew it, man.”
Angel Heart (1987)
New York private investigator Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) gets caught in a twisted tale of sex and murder that leads him from Louis Cyphre’s (Robert DeNiro) Harlem den to the heart of Bayou Country. On the surface, it appears to be a standard murder mystery, not unlike a million other PI adventures, but as voodoo and Satan-worshiping creep into the plot, and as Lisa Bonet’s character emerges (in a steamy role that helped get her kicked off “The Cosby Show”), and, most of all, as DeNiro casually devours an egg (a mesmerizing scene), Angel Heart quickly transforms from standard to surreal.
The Big Easy (1987)
Another southern thriller released the same year as Angel Heart, The Big Easy relies on its namesake as a leading character. Authentic Cajun music fills the soundtrack, the back streets and dark alleys (it’s shot on location) throb with curious activity, and the overall texture of the city—“New Orleans is a marvelous place for coincidence,” says one character—soaks in like sweat on a humid summer afternoon. Aside from the setting, Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin are the two main characters—he’s a good-natured but flawed cop and she’s a prosecutor for the district attorney. Once again, sex, murder and corruption rule.
New Orleans’ District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is the protagonist in Oliver Stone’s dual attempt to unravel the mysteries of President Kennedy’s assassination and capture a generation’s skepticism over the government’s simplistic explanation of the event. Stone was criticized for not making a factual film, and that’s certainly a defensible argument. But what he did accomplish was a complex and convincing presentation of so many disjointed pieces of the puzzle—a veritable grab-bag of nearly 30 years of conspiracy theories—that it was impossible not to question what really happened. Funny that Garrison’s hometown New Orleans became the backdrop for a film that tried to agitate the sensitive nerve of one of the country’s greatest blows—a tragedy that churned up sentiments of government negligence and possible cover-up, shifting blame, unanswered questions and a prevailing belief that it was the sort of historic event, avoidable or otherwise, that signified a loss of innocence and a crippling of the country’s psyche. Unfortunately, those sentiments are still ringing familiar in New Orleans today.