Freaks, prophets, saints, and misfits — these are the characters that appear in the novels and short stories by the late, great writer Flannery O’Connor. The author is the subject of the new documentary, “Flannery,” available in virtual cinemas starting July 17.
Directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco and narrated by Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen, the film takes a fairly conventional approach to chronicling O’Connor’s life and work. There are discussions of the author’s childhood in Georgia and being very religious. She dreamed of being a cartoonist but became a writer, and she attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and Yaddo artists’ colony. She got into some trouble at the latter, when Robert “Cal” Lowell got her involved in an “anti-communist witch hunt.” When she moved to New York, O’Connor began suffering from lupus, a disease that killed her father when she was an adolescent. She returned to Georgia and began writing the work that cemented her reputation and career.
O’Connor was, according to her friend and editor Sally Fitzgerald, “shy but not timid,” and the film celebrates the author’s ability to see people clearly in her fiction and life. One of O’Connor’s stories, praised in the documentary by several admirers of her work — which include out gay writer Richard Rodriguez and New Yorker critic Hilton Als — is “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” The story concerns two visiting cousins who see an intersex person at a fair. They recount this experience to their younger cousin, who is intrigued by but unable to see the person. This is an example of O’Connor’s mixing “the sacred and the profane,” a theme that echoes throughout her work.
“Flannery” illustrates this story and others, such as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” with animated images that depict the narrative and help to capture O’Connor’s vivid prose.
The author tries to explain the secret of her craft in a clip from a 1955 television interview on WRCA’s program, “Galley Proof.” She says that a fiction writer, “describes an action to reveal a mystery.” This may suggest why O’Connor’s work can be frustrating for some readers. As Rodriguez gleefully explains, “You get it — or you don’t.”
When O’Connor has a book signing in Milledgeville, GA for her novel “Wise Blood” — which had been rejected by publishers and received some terrible reviews — southern ladies turned out to get autographed copies. O’Connor’s cousin, Frances Florencourt, observes: “She was probably chuckling to herself…wait ‘til they find out and really see what it’s all about.”
Many of the interviewees in the film talk about O’Connor’s character and development. “Flannery” becomes almost like a game of exquisite corpse, where one topic starts a narrative thread that continues over the course of the documentary. Out gay writer Brad Gooch, who published the biography, “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,” describes her first taste of fame (she was filmed in her youth by a news reporter because she had a chicken that walked backwards.) Sally Fitzgerald then asserts that the attention she received at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop by Paul Engle convinced her to become a writer.
The observations these talking heads provide propel the film, which also addresses the more significant and controversial issue of race in O’Connor’s work. She used a racial epithet in the title of one of her stories, which may “capture actual speech” that O’Connor mimicked in her work (and which got her work banned). An anecdote of her declining the opportunity to meet Black gay author James Baldwin in Georgia is used to indicate O’Connor’s ideology. Bisexual writer Alice Walker, who lived near O’Connor in Georgia and is interviewed in the film, talks about the racism in the region in 1952.
O’Connor may have been prickly about race, but she was very accepting of women who were attracted to women. “Flannery” recounts the author’s friendship with Maryat Lee, a bisexual, as well as her correspondence with Betty Hester who, Gooch explains, “confessed her lesbian activities that caused her to be discharged from the military.” O’Connor’s response, emotionally articulated in Steenburgen’s narration, is full of love and admiration. It may even give viewers goosebumps.
“Flannery” also acknowledges O’Connor’s sly humor. She has an amusing crack about Gene Kelly being cast in his first television performance in an adaptation of her story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
But mostly this documentary provides a reverent portrait of the writer. Coffman and Bosco trace O’Connor’s life with home movie footage and personal photographs and letters as well as film clips from John Huston’s screen version of “Wise Blood,” and the TV movie, “The Displaced Person,” which was adapted from O’Connor’s short story.
Perhaps the most valuable thing about “Flannery” is that this fine documentary should prompt viewers to read — or re-read — O’Connor’s work.