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The Member of the Wedding Reviews

Made for television, this handsome adaptation of Carson McCuller's classic (and, evidently, uncinematic) Southern-Gothic coming-of-age novel still must dwell in the dark shadows of Fred Zinnemann's 1952 Columbia Pictures version. "Do you think I will grow into a freak?" plaintively asks Frankie Addams (Anna Paquin). She's a 12-year-old girl in an affluent Georgia household in 1944, haunted by the sight of an androgyne in a carnival sideshow. Ungracefully straddled between childhood and maturity, Frankie has close-cropped hair, scabbed elbows, a boyish figure, and a restless intellect. All this makes Frankie an outcast from other, prettier girls her age, and she goes largely overlooked by her own family during the excitement of her older brother's imminent wedding. Instead, Frankie's constant companions are her little, tow-headed cousin John Henry (Corey Dunn) and an adopted mother-figure, black family cook Berenice (Alfre Woodard). To them she confides her desperation, anxiety, and a groundless but increasingly manic fantasy that after the marriage she will go live with the newlyweds and escape her stifling existence. In the days before the nuptials Frankie feverishly talks of the glorious future and wades disasterously into the grown-up world by visiting the local saloon, where she barely escapes the gropings of a drunken soldier. When the big day arrives, Frankie, suitcase packed, tries to leave with the bewildered bride and groom, and must be forcibly restrained, kicking and screaming. That night she runs away from home, but half-heartedly surrenders to a friendly policeman, and is collected by her father. Heavily-dependent on introspective soliloquies from Frankie and Berenice, The Member of the Wedding, unsurprisingly, found its most rewarding incarnation as a 1950 Broadway play. Zinnemann's feature, hardly more than a filmed play itself, at least managed to import the key stage cast, with Ethel Waters as the wounded and wise Berenice and 26-year-old Julie Harris in an agonized portrayal of adolescence. Theatrical and static as it was, the picture nonetheless holds together thanks to Harris' now-legendary coiled-spring performance. The 1997 MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, shot in warm, subtly nostalgic tones, just doesn't build as effectively in emotional catharsis and stark intensity, despite fine individual moments from the age-correct Paquin and--especially--the skeptical but sympathetic Woodard. Towards the end, in fact, the phantom voice of "Carson McCullers" (actually actress Maggie Marshall) starts reading chunks of text to tell us what's going on inside poor Frankie's head, a rather desperate measure. The TV filmmakers also skip the original, painful conclusion in which John Henry dies, the trauma that truly launches Frankie into adulthood. (Substance abuse.)