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Look away: Dixieland is phony in 'Grass Harp'

If the movie South didn't exist, it would have to be invented as a dialogue exercise for New York actors seeking to stretch. That's what "The Grass Harp" is: an exercise in phony Southern accents, phony gentility and phony Capote.

Derived from the Truman person's first novel, it's the somewhat tonally unsure story of two prissy Alabama spinster sisters, one of whom secedes from the family union by hiding in a treehouse with a few confederates, thereby throwing the whole town into a tizzy. Yes, it's a tizzy movie, I'm afraid.

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Now what is the wonderful New York actor Walter Matthau doing in "The Grass Harp" under a cheesy mannequin's white fright wig, playing a loopy judge named Cool with an accent as Southern as the south side of East 52nd Street? Blame it on the director, whose name also happens to be Matthau (as in Charles) and who has dreamed of casting his father in this role ever since he graduated from film school. The result might have been great family therapy, but the movie leaves much to be desired.

The real problem is the charmlessness of Piper Laurie as the eccentric Dolly Talbo. Dolly has pretty much sacrificed her life to play the "wife" -- that is cook, slave, housekeeper, beekeeper and so forth -- of her business-woman sister Verena (an icy Sissy Spacek), and she's developed a somewhat ephemeral, evasive personality, one that her young cousin Collin (the dreary Edward Furlong in the Capote-equivalent role) finds brilliantly endearing. so it says in the script.

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Yet somehow Laurie, who's been devastating in dramatic roles (remember both "Carrie" and, before that, "The Hustler"?) never seems the magical, enchanting person Collin believes her to be and the script says she is. Dolly is theoretically Holly Golightly grown to maturity, with the power of charm and magic to goad a young writer's imagination and haunt him his whole life (clearly the real Capote loved his autobiographical antecedent). But Laurie: uh-uh. She just seems tired and somewhat vague and is easily blown off the screen by the annoyingly theatrical Nell Carter, who appears to think of the film as her comeback vehicle.

In fact, young Matthau's whole take on the town is annoyingly overdone: It's one of those irritating burgs where everyone's a character actor trying for a career comeback. There's no sense of ensemble work, not with Roddy McDowall, Charles Durning, Joe Don Baker and Mary Steenburgen turning up every few minutes for a last, desperate shot at stardom. You feel the strain, and the young director's unwillingness to assert himself and rein in his famous charges.

As it is, only the subplot (among far too many) of Spacek's deception by the oily Jack Lemmon has any real weight. Somehow, in her held-in dignity and sense of responsibility, Spacek, the movie's nominal villain, becomes its only admirable character, or only real character. She feels like an authentic Truman Capote figure, the great lady flawed but ultimately human. The rest are simple cartoons.

'The Grass Harp'

Starring Piper Laurie, Walter Matthau and Sissy Spacek

Directed by Charles Matthau

Rating PG

Released by Fine Line

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Sun score: **

Pub Date: 10/25/96


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