I’m watching the Oscars. At this juncture, Princess and the Frog has lost to Up in the Best Animated Film award. And T-Bone Burnett’s song from Crazy Heart won over both of Randy Newman’s songs from the Disney movie set in New Orleans. The only hope left is for Blind Side, written by a New Orleans native, with New Orleans resident Sandra Bullock up for Best Actress for the same picture. That said: New Orleans maintains a long history as a setting for movies.
One of my favorites as a child was The Buccaneer (1938), in which Fredric March plays Jean Lafitte. It was my introduction to how the pirate and his men helped Andrew Jackson save New Orleans from the British during the War of 1812. A more problematic film was New Orleans (1947). Even though it included both Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, they are furniture in a rather politically incorrect film. However, the music is good. A hidden gem is Panic in the Streets (1950), in which a doctor and a cop in New Orleans have only two days to locate a killer, who is infected with the plague. It includes wonderful shots of New Orleans.
One of the consummate New Orleans films is A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan, the film captures New Orleans just following World War II. Another good 1950s film is King Creole (1958), an Elvis Presley film, directed by Michael Curtiz, with some decent music inspired by New Orleans.
The 1960s gave us a film that helped define the decade. Easy Rider (1969), starred Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Its climax involved LSD, hookers, and a New Orleans cemetery during Mardi Gras. I’ve seen it recently and it still holds up. The 1970s gave us Pretty Baby (1978), Louis Malle’s story of a 12-year-old girl growing up in Storyville, New Orleans’ red-light district. It starred Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon and Keith Carradine. In the 1980s, we saw Angel Heart (1987), which took place in Algiers and involved the supernatural, as only can take place in New Orleans. The same year gave us The Big Easy, which starred Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. It had a great detective story and interesting characters, but lacked in New Orleans verisimilitude.
In recent years, we’ve enjoyed a number of New Orleans-based films. We’ve had: an underrated John Travolta vehicle, A Love Song for Bobby Long; Denzel Washington in the reality-bending Déjà Vu: Brad Pitt’s love letter to the city, entitled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; and the aforementioned Princess and the Frog.
And there are many, many more, seen and unseen. The Oscars come once a year, but New Orleans, and it place in American film history are forever.
PS: Sandra Bullock just won in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category.