By Michael Gray
Warner Brothers’ upcoming screen version of the book “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” brings together a formidable ensemble of female filmmaking talent. Writer/director Callie Khouri, who scripted “Thelma and Louise,” adapted Rebecca Wells’s bestselling novel for co-producer and star Sandra Bullock, and selected a cast of veteran Hollywood actresses to fill the title roles of the Ya-Yas, a gaggle of old-school Southern belles in rural Louisiana.
Bullock plays Sidda Lee Walker, successful playwright and troubled daughter of Vivi Walker, a melodramatic, cocktail-swilling virago and the mercurial leader of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Sidda Lee has fled the South and her mother’s tantrums for New York, where she lives with her Irish boyfriend, Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Mother and daughter have a cataclysmic falling out after Sidda naively discloses in a magazine interview that Vivi’s lousy mothering gave her all the material she needed for a successful writing career in the theater. The damage done to their relationship seems irreparable, until the Ya-Yas come to the rescue. As her mother’s lifelong friends, the Ya-Yas feel duty-bound to intervene, and they fly to New York to take Sidda Lee home, by fair means or foul, to face her past and vanquish her mother’s demons, and thus avoid inheriting them herself.
Backing Bullock in the Ya-Ya roles are Oscar winners Maggie Smith and Ellen Burstyn, multiple Emmy winner Shirley Knight, and one of the leading interpreters of James Joyce’s works on stage and screen, Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan. The California-based Abbey Theatre veteran spoke to the Irish Echo about her part in a Hollywood blockbuster that will likely be this summer’s “Joy Luck Club” for female audiences across America. The Dublin native has been living in the states since the late 1960s, but she said she felt that the nuances of the rural Southern accent required a quick crash course in Louisiana history to prepare for the part.
“I’d been to New Orleans, but I’d never been to central Louisiana where the picture is set,” Flanagan said. “So I read an awful lot about Louisiana under the Longs, the political dynasty of the time, which was fascinating and gave me a socio-economic picture of where these women would have grown up, the kind of world they would have belonged to. The dialect coach sent me tapes of interviews with Louisiana locals, all about the Longs and the shooting of Huey Long, and life at that time. So I did all of that, and I read Rebecca Wells’s books, both the ‘Ya-Ya’ book, and the one that follows it, ‘Little Altars Everywhere.’ Then I made choices and brought them to the director. The challenge was to take the ‘Teensy’ character and make her fruitful for her time and place.”
Flanagan found the power structure of the mid-century Louisiana family different from the more balanced version we accept as normal today.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
“They lived in a world where the women ran the families and kept their menfolk out on the perimeter,” she said. “You see very clearly in the film the way they treat their men, kept out there away from it all, that ‘you go duck hunting, honey, I’ll call you when I need you’ sort of thing. They organized all the main events of their lives, the weddings and funerals, the parties and get-togethers and the network of friends. But when crisis hits — as you see in the scenes with the young Vivi and her young husband Shep — when crisis hits and the husband is desperately needed, where is he? The best he can do is feed her a sandwich when she’s almost catatonic on the floor. So it’s a very true picture of that kind of arrangement of the men and the women.”
The actress dismisses with undisguised scorn the notion that the “Ya-Ya” movie will be pigeonholed by critics as a “chick flick.”
“Oh, please, I don’t know what that is, unless it’s something you show at Easter,” Flanagan said. “This is a film about families and tribes and about dysfunction. ‘Chick flick?’ What does that mean? It’s such a sexist, ridiculous way to describe it. I think this is a significant film about a very important subject: If we don’t do something about owning up to the dark aspects of our lives, the things we’ve neglected, the things we screwed up on, the dysfunctions in our lives, we will never find happiness or delight. Nor will our children; they will be visited with the covered-up legacy. That’s what happens in the film. And it doesn’t matter that it’s a mother and daughter. The story is told profoundly, and poignantly I think, through a mother-daughter relationship. But it could be a father-son story. God knows, there are enough fathers that keep secrets from their sons and pass on that burden of secrecy in a family, and there are families that are torn apart and shredded, and have suffered dreadfully because of that.
“You don’t have to go to Hollywood, just pick up any Irish newspaper and look at the stuff that’s coming out about abuse in families. This not a story that Hollywood invented, this is a story that takes place in families all over the world, and if the picture has a messages, it’s ‘hey, get real, own who you are, so you don’t burden your children with the legacy of your denial, do something about it.’ And children, forgive your parents for doing the best that they can.”
On a more positive note, Flanagan found connections between the Ya-Ya’s Louisiana and the Ireland of her youth, both places of overlapping communities — of extended family and friends who were almost family, reflected in the complex intergenerational relationships of “Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.”
Said Flanagan: “I think theirs is very much a flavor of that in this film, these women have known each other since they were kids, they live in the same town, when they were grown up they had children together, they had romances, marriages, deaths, they were deeply involved in each other’s lives, as much because they’re close friends as because they live in the same place. There’s a word for that in Tennessee, Ashley Judd was telling me on the set, for the people who live next door to you and are not family but they feel like they are, they’ve known you all their lives and all your life, they’re called ‘yard kin,’ which is a wonderful way of describing them. I think in Ireland one certainly had that sense of neighbors and people who knew you all your life, and also the extended family members not being so far away, which is not the way it is now.”
The timing of the “Ya-Ya” shoot last year prevented Flanagan from taking part in an annual Irish event dear to her heart, the Bloomsday reading of Joyce’s “Ulysses” at Symphony Space in New York.
“Every second year I read the Molly Bloom part, but I didn’t manage to do it last year because I was shooting the ‘Ya-Ya’ movie at the time,” she said. “It takes five hours to get from Wilmington in Delaware, where we were shooting, to New York, and, unfortunately, I just couldn’t do it that day. But we had a little Joyce reading at lunchtime on the set for all the Joyce fans and aficionados, and various people read favorite pieces of theirs. So I didn’t get to do it last year, but this year it’s the 20th anniversary of Symphony Space, so it is a big occasion for them, and I’m delighted to be able to do it once more this year.”
As one of our foremost interpreters of Joyce, from her role as Gerty McDowell in Joseph Strick’s film version of “Ulysses,” in 1967, through her portrayals of Nora Barnacle, Molly Bloom, Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, and Gerty again in “Joyce’s Women” on stage and screen, Flanagan knows the material better than any actress performing today, yet she remains awestruck by the richness of the writer’s language.
“Well, it’s a symphony. When you read the Molly Bloom soliloquy aloud, it’s a symphony, you hear the highs and the lows, the adagios, it’s like listening to a great piece of music,” she said. “When conductors and musicians play a symphony, they find something new and different each time. There are great chunks of it I know by heart, and great chunks of it I look forward to, and there are places where it’s more difficult, just from a breathing point of view, and the pace that it demands. But because it is like a symphony, there are places where it races along and you must race with it, and there are places where the waters are more still, and slower, and deeper. And then there are unexpected currents. But it’s a wonderful experience, each time I do it its different.”
Joyce fans can look forward to seeing Flanagan tackling the three-hour monologue again in New York next week, at Symphony Space as part of the June 16 Bloomsday celebrations, and Ya-Ya fans can see the film starting Friday, June 7, at theaters nationwide. For more information on Irish films, visit www.IrelandOnFilm.com.