3 October 2001
Jackson, Miss. — Viewers nationwide will experience a bit of Southern culture this month when ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatres (EMMT) American Collection presents an adaption of Eudora Weltys prize-winning comic novel The Ponder Heart on Monday, October 15, at 8 p.m., repeating October 17 at 8 p.m. and October 21 at 3 p.m. on ETV.
Welty died at age 92 on July 23, 2001. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1909, she became one of the most distinguished writers in a region which produced William Faulkner, Truman Capote and Flannery OConnor. In The Ponder Heart, published in 1953 and winner of the William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters, Welty uses her ear for dialect and eye for colorful detail to bring a small southern town vividly to life. And like the best storytellers, she exaggerates a little.
She writes about the Ponder family in which Uncle Daniel Ponder — whos blessed with a loving heart, not much common sense and the riches of Croesus — throws his southern hometown into an uproar. In The Ponder Heart, Peter MacNicol (Sophies Choice, Ally McBeal) stars as Daniel, heir of the richest family in Clay County, Mississippi. His penchant for giving away his possessions — from heirloom watches to the family filling station — borders on lunacy. Small wonder that his father, Sam Grandpa Ponder (Boyce Holleman), tries to have him committed.
Co-conspirator in the plot to tame Daniels generosity is his niece and contemporary, Edna Earle Ponder, played by JoBeth Williams (The Big Chill). Edna Earle is the brains of the family, the proprietor of the Beulah Hotel and the exasperated narrator of her Uncle Daniels bizarre adventures.
After the family attorney, DeYancey Tadpole Clanahan (Lenny Von Dohlen), wins back the Ponders gas station from the pretty female motorcycle daredevil on whom Daniel has bestowed it, Grandpa and Edna Earle decide that Daniel needs to settle down with a wife. The most respectable candidate is widow Teacake Magee (Joanne Baron). Daniel is game, but on the way to the wedding ceremony chances across backwoods flower Bonnie Dee Peacock (Angela Bettis, Girl, Interrupted) and marries her instead.
A wisp of a thing and a mere 17-years-old, Bonnie Dee insists on a trial marriage while she gets used to living in a big house and being the richest woman in Clay County. But the isolation does not suit her and she runs away, only to return in time for a dark and stormy night during which she mysteriously dies.
The ambitious district attorney Dorris Gladney (Brent Spiner, Star Trek: The Next Generation), arch enemy of the Ponders, indicts Daniel for murder. Tadpole organizes the inept defense, and thus commences one of the strangest trials in American fiction — a trial with an outcome that would have bewildered even Perry Mason.
The film was shot in several areas in Mississippi. We filmed in Canton, Edwards and Raymond, Mississippi, which are authentic places around and about Jackson, where Eudora lived and where she used to take pictures. Her photographs turned out to be quite useful in understanding how she observed people, says director Martha Coolidge. The hotel we used was in Edwards. The house was in Raymond, where there was a famous battle during the Civil War. These are places that have never been used in films before. I felt it gave the picture a really special look.
Coolidges big breakthrough came in 1991 with Rambling Rose, a quiet film about a troubled beauty played by Laura Dern, who comes to live with a respectable, if eccentric, southern family presided over by Robert Duvall and Diane Ladd.
Her skill depicting the South is again evident in The Ponder Heart. Though Coolidge is a Yankee herself, certain southern qualities perhaps run in her family since she is a distant cousin to one of our more eccentric presidents: Calvin Coolidge.
The book itself has its own eccentric structure. It rambles on in a charming way about the family, and then things come together at the end. You cant do that in a movie, where youre driven more by plot. So you try to maintain the spirit of Eudora Welty and get the best out of the book, says Coolidge. One of the things I did was insist on going back to the original ending of the book, where Uncle Daniel gives away his money. That had actually been changed in the script because people didnt want it to seem as though hed bought his way out of the trial. But I felt I could do it without giving that impression, and I think I succeeded, Coolidge added.
Coolidge had no interaction with Welty during the filming, but Ms. Welty was aware of the production. According to Coolidge, Welty saw and approved the script and also signed a copy of the book for every single member of the crew.
Sam Sherrill, who retired from Public Radio in Mississippi (PRM) this past June, secured a small part in the film. I had read the book and liked it because it was southern to the core, says Sherrill. Its real, the language is real, the people are real and I have an aunt like the one JoBeth Williams plays. I think people will enjoy the movie.
After rehearsing their segment, PRM announcer Joe Bonelli and Peter MacNicol wrote additional dialogue for Bonellis character, political gossiper Preston Buford. Everyone was very nice and professional on the film, but Peter MacNicol went out of his way to help me make a good showing, says Bonelli.
Other cast members from Mississippi include Boyce Holleman (Grandpa Ponder) from Gulfport; Nathaniel Lee, Jr., (Talmadge Peper) Clinton; Emily Noble (Nurse) Brandon; Jaymee Vowell (Johunie Ree Peacock) Ridgeland; Brenda Judin (Leota) Jackson; Shari Schneider (Eloise) Jackson; and Andrew Libby (Bailiff) Jackson.
For in-depth information about The Ponder Heart, Eudora Welty and American Collection, visit the series web site at www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/americancollection/index.html and the educators web site at www.ncteamericancollection.org/. The educators web site, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, represents a collaboration of thousands of teachers in high schools and junior high schools nationwide.
Now in its second season, ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatres American Collection is an acclaimed new series featuring the best of American drama from the finest literature. The next title in the series is James Agees A Death in the Family, scheduled for January 2002.