Ethan Hawke’s new biopic ‘Wildcat’ gracefully captures Flannery O’Connor’s complex attitudes on race, writing and faith
This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.
“Wildcat,” the new film by Ethan Hawke about the life of Flannery O’Connor, is not your typical biopic, a fact that seems entirely appropriate since O’Connor is not your typical writer. The film, which features Maya Hawke, the gifted actor and daughter of Ethan, in the role of the iconic Southern fiction writer, doesn’t aim to provide an exhaustive account of the events of O’Connor’s life. In fact, much is left out of the story. Instead of a dutiful (and potentially pedestrian) account of where Flannery was born, where she was educated, who her parents, friends and advocates were, her success and slow rise to fame, her lupus diagnosis, her subsequent exile to her mother’s dairy farm in rural Georgia, and her tragic death at age 39, Hawke’s film offers us something much more risky, imaginative and engaging.
By focusing the storyline on a key period of young Flannery’s life during which she came into her own as a writer, and by interspersing powerful, dream-like reveries in which we witness the events of some of O’Connor’s most memorable stories unfold even as Flannery is conceiving them, the film gives audience members a sense of what it might have been like to live in the mind of Flannery O’Connor. Like O’Connor’s stories themselves, the experience is by turns hilarious and horrific. As O’Connor once stated (and Ethan Hawke quotes her on this, as he quotes so many of her compelling statements about writing, religion and life in the course of the film): “I’m always irritated by people who think fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
“Wildcat” is not your typical biopic, a fact that seems entirely appropriate since O’Connor is not your typical writer.
And shocked we are, both by the stories themselves and by the incongruity of the fact that they emerge from the mind of a seemingly shy, mild-mannered, ordinary Southern woman coming to maturity in the staid culture of 1950s America. Flannery is far from the Southern gentlewoman her conventional mother, Regina Cline O’Connor (played superbly by Laura Linney) wishes her to be. She doesn’t write romance novels glorifying the Old South like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, a circumstance that plagues her mother. Quite the contrary, Flannery writes stories that interrogate her native place and its people and dramatize the sordid reality she witnesses on a daily basis. Some of these realities include the likes of escaped criminals, con men and serial killers—a Dante-esque role call of thieves, liars and murderers—along with the more domestic but no less destructive sinners whose daily practice includes virulent racism, classism, greed, lust, envy, wrath and just plain old hatred.
An untamed author
O’Connor has an unerring eye for human sin and its manifold manifestations, and Hawke makes the most of this gift by bringing to life the world she observes and critiques so incisively (and often humorously) on the screen. There is more to Flannery than meets the eye—an oddness and a wildness that both her family and the publishers and critics who first reviewed her fiction found disturbing. Both Hawkes, Ethan through his writing and Maya through her uncanny embodiment of O’Connor, enable us to see this aspect of her being and her work. O’Connor famously refused to “do pretty,” hence the title “Wildcat.” Flannery refuses to be tamed.
The film begins with the fiction of a film trailer for another film, “Starr Drake,” based on O’Connor’s story “The Comforts of Home,” in which a supposed nymphomaniac enters the lives of a mother and her adult son, leading to familial implosion, attempts at seduction and accidental murder. We recognize the genre of the fictional trailer and the film it supposedly advertises as the kind of seedy, sensationalized, noir stuff that audiences in the late 50s and early 60s ate up. Those who have read the story will find the trailer hilarious, an ironic take on O’Connor’s very serious story, but one she writes, as she puts it, “with her tongue firmly stuck in her cheek.”
O’Connor has an unerring eye for human sin and its manifold manifestations, and Hawke makes the most of this gift.
During her lifetime, O’Connor regularly suffered as a writer from readers who just didn’t get her work: the strange amalgam of tragedy and comedy; the ironic setting of aberrant human behavior within polite, proper contexts; the satirist’s distance she tries (and sometimes fails) to keep from her flawed and ridiculous characters. There was once a television film made of her story “The Life You Save Must Be Your Own” starring Gene Kelly that did such violence to her story she thought it an abomination.
O’Connor didn’t think much of movies or their ability to convey what she was trying to convey in her stories. Hence the brilliance and the charm of opening “Wildcat” with a critique of the limitations of the art form that Hawke is working in and that Flannery distrusted. My own sense is that Flannery would have found it whip-smart and funny. It is also a witty and engaging way to signal to the reader from the get-go that this is not going to be a conventional film. To read O’Connor’s stories is to learn to expect the unexpected. The same is true of watching Hawke’s film.
As a professor who has been reading and teaching O’Connor’s fiction for decades and a scholar who has written a good deal about her, I admire the degree to which both Ethan and Maya Hawke have immersed themselves not only in the stories, but also in O’Connor’s letters, essays and journals. So many of her brilliant and incisive statements about her work show up in the dialogue and in her musings, sometimes spoken by her and at other times spoken by other characters. As readers may know, the impetus behind the film first came from Maya, whose admiration for O’Connor goes back to her school days and who has a particular affinity for the Prayer Journal Flannery wrote as a university student. Her commitment to her portrayal of O’Connor is total. She makes O’Connor’s words hers and fits inside her skin with a kind of stunning authenticity.
To read O’Connor’s stories is to learn to expect the unexpected. The same is true of watching Hawke’s film.
Ethan’s passion for the project is evident as well, in terms of this devotion to detail, his effort to capture the spirit of O’Connor as well as the letter of her life and his commitment to making a film that does what O’Connor’s stories do—surprise us at every turn, the perfect homage to a writer for whom the element of surprise was the biggest gun in her considerable arsenal.
I invoke the image of the gun advisedly here, as another of the elements of O’Connor’s work that shocks readers and that Hawke captures so well in the film is her use of violence in her stories. Several guns go off within the first few minutes of the film—the second time even more stunning than the first. One of the brilliant choices in the characterization of O’Connor is the visceral portrayal of the fact that these moments of violence that break out in her fiction are as traumatizing to her as they are to readers. As O’Connor says in the meeting with her editor at the Rinehart publishing house in New York when he asks her to provide him with a summary of the ending of the novel she is currently writing, Wise Blood, “I don’t outline. I have to write to discover what I’m doing.”
Imagination, ego and grace
O’Connor was often as surprised as her readers are by the actions her characters take. Flannery allowed herself to be vulnerable to her own imagination, to the dark places it often took her and to the truths her art tells. These, unfortunately, are not the truths the casual reader wants to hear: that human beings are inherently sinful, that they are in need of saving grace, and that grace often comes in terrible, terrifying forms. As O’Connor once wrote, and as the priest in the film, played powerfully by Liam Neeson, reminds her as she lies in bed suffering from a bout of lupus, “Grace, before it heals, cuts with a sword.”
Flannery allowed herself to be vulnerable to her own imagination, to the dark places it often took her and to the truths her art tells.
This scene speaks to another aspect of the film that is poignantly faithful to who O’Connor was. O’Connor spent her brief lifetime trying to reconcile her twin vocations as a Catholic and as a writer. In the anguished scene with the priest mentioned above, she confesses, “My writing is scandalous. Can it still serve God?” This is a question she struggled with even as a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as she was learning her craft among fellow-writers, many of whom were atheists or, at least, non-believers. In the Prayer Journal she kept during this time, she wrote letters to God in which she implores him to help her not to lose her faith. She questions her own motives in a moving scene in the film where she prays, “I want to write a novel. A good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling and a bad. The bad uppermost.”
O’Connor recognizes her besetting sin of intellectual pride and castigates herself for it—yet she also knows that without that pride and the confidence and commitment it brings, she could never become the writer she wants to be. As she reports to her beloved friend and confidant, poet Robert Lowell, played by Philip Ettinger, after meeting with her editor at Rinehart, “He told me I was prematurely arrogant. I had to supply him with the phrase.” This brief exchange deftly captures the prideful Flannery, just moments after her heartfelt confession in church. “Wildcat” foregrounds this spiritual struggle O’Connor endured and dramatizes the fact that her writing was a means of exploring the challenge of how to be a flawed and broken person and yet be a Christian who seeks to do good in the world.
O’Connor and race
Inherent in O’Connor’s Catholic vision is the recognition of the flawed nature of humanity, and also a frank acknowledgment of both the brokenness of the world and our duty as human beings to love it. In one of her letters, O’Connor writes, “If you believe in the divinity of Christ you have to cherish the world even as you struggle to endure it.” The sins of the world take many forms in O’Connor’s stories, and perhaps chief among these in the American South Flannery occupies is the sin of racism.
There has been much controversy over the years about O’Connor’s complex and ambivalent attitudes towards race and the civil rights movement. In the interests of full disclosure, much of that controversy in recent years was stirred by some of the revelations published in my book Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, in 2020. While there isn’t time or space to fully explore the complexities of this question either here or in the film, it’s important to recognize the graceful ways in which “Wildcat” addresses this issue.
There has been much controversy over the years about O’Connor’s complex and ambivalent attitudes towards race and the civil rights movement.
First, the film reminds us regularly that O’Connor was coming of age and writing her stories in the midst of one of the most tumultuous times in American history. In one particular scene, Flannery’s mother comes to pick her up from the train station and confesses to her, as they walk to the car, that she has brought Aunt Katie along for the ride because “I can’t come out here by myself. Now that there are more of them than there are of us.” There is no mention of who the “them” refers to, but there does not need to be. Flannery knows the coded language her mother speaks in—in fact, it is her own native tongue. She greets her mother’s unfounded fears and her prejudice toward African Americans with a look of disgust. She is no longer in Iowa or New York, more progressive places (if only marginally) with regard to race, but is back in the South again, the land of Jim Crow and unabashed white supremacy.
In the ensuing scene, Flannery rides in the back seat of the car as the radio announcer reports news about the civil rights movement. Moments later Aunt Katie begins to interrogate Flannery about her writing, delivering one of the funniest lines in the film, “You been writin’ any cute stories lately?” Flannery balks at first and then tells them the plot of Wise Blood, which scandalizes them (as she knows it would), after which Aunt Katie suggests that she write a good novel, like the one Margaret Mitchell wrote. “I just love that movie,” she adds, conflating the film version of Gone with the Wind with the book (which she probably hasn’t read). “That colored girl who plays Mammy just tickles me. It’s so nice to see a respectable Negress!” Flannery answers Aunt Katie’s racist remark with no words, but instead with the look of a young person exhausted by the ingrained ignorance and benightedness of her elders.
This telling scene is followed by a reverie in which Flannery dreams up one of her most celebrated stories, “Revelation,” which features a racist white woman of her mother’s generation, Ruby Turpin (played by Laura Linney) who is assaulted by a young woman named Mary Grace (played by Maya Hawke) in a doctor’s office after she becomes enraged by the older woman’s racist chatter.
Though juxtaposing these two scenes is anachronistic (O’Connor wouldn’t actually write “Revelation” for another 10 years), the choice to place them side by side is poetic, as it reveals the ways in which O’Connor’s stories that address race spring from her compulsion to explore and expose this particular sin. Granted, this is a sin that O’Connor wasn’t entirely innocent of—there is no such thing as innocence in O’Connor’s theology, in addition to the fact that it would be impossible to be a white person formed in a deeply toxic racist culture without suffering in some way from the affliction yourself—but it was one she knew to be wrong, as her stories that unmask the ugliness and evils of white racism demonstrate over and over again. Mary Grace channels O’Connor’s exasperation with the thoughtless, cruel, soul-destroying bigotry of her native South and her own family.
“Wildcat” is a film that delivers much more than a factual account of O’Connor’s life. It offers us an encounter with a powerful imagination, one that leaves the viewer with a vivid impression of who Flannery O’Connor was, with all of her flaws and inconsistencies, her mighty strivings, and her human failures. The film itself is a work of imagination. As with good fiction, it takes liberties with the facts in order to arrive at a higher truth. Biographers do not have the luxury of doing that, but filmmakers do.
Though I have been reading O’Connor for a long time, I feel as if I know her and appreciate her peculiar genius in a fresh and new way. Like the stories O’Connor left us, “Wildcat” shocks and disturbs, makes us guffaw and weep, and arrives as a revelation, a gift and a labor of love.
You can find all of America Media’s past Cover Stories here.