“Miss Firecracker” (1989, Corsair Pictures) is based on the 1980 play by Beth Henley, “The Miss Firecracker Contest” and it is, like the play, I suspect, somewhat flawed. You have the sense, by the end, that either it doesn’t fall together entirely satisfactorily, or that it’s all been tied up a bit too neatly. But the film’s penultimate image – Holly Hunter watching the fireworks from the run-down local planetarium in her hometown of Brookhaven, Mississippi, acknowledging that maybe what’s more important in life than winning beauty contests is attainment of spiritual grace – gets me every time. “Gosh, it’s a nice night,” she says. I’m puddling up just writing this.
“Miss Firecracker” tells the story of Carnelle Scott (Hunter, recreating her stage role) who’s preparing her talent routine for the eponymous local beauty pageant. Orphaned at an early age, she was sent to live with her aunt (a “mean woman”) and her two cousins, Elain (Mary Steenburgen), who won the Miss Firecracker contest 15 years ago and has been coasting through life on her beauty ever since, (and who has run away from her boring, wealthy husband in Natchez); and Delmount (Tim Robbins), lately released from a mental institution, who quits his job shoveling up road kill in order to sell the crumbling family manse and go to New Orleans to earn a degree in philosophy. Add to this the seamstress Carnelle hires to sew her pageant costumes, Popeye (Alfre Woodard), who began her sewing career at the age of four, making little costumes for bullfrogs because the family couldn’t afford dolls, and who claims to be able to hear through her eyes; and the tubercular Mac Sam (Scott Glenn), a carnival worker who long ago slept with Carnelle and wound up with syphilis, but who nevertheless still cares for her, and you have a tale that gives new, slightly twisted meaning to the term “Southern Gothic”.
As Frank Rich wrote in his 1984 New York Times review: “…we hear about midgets, orphans and deformed kittens - and they're the fortunate ones. Other characters, whether on stage or off, are afflicted by cancer, tuberculosis, venereal disease and, most of all, heartbreak. Even so, the evening's torrential downpour of humor …almost never subsides.”
All these messed-up souls are, in one way or another, looking for that state of grace, trying to escape their unhappy pasts and become, somehow, different people. Carnelle, almost too old to even be in the pageant, is trying to shake off her unsavory past (“Miss Hot Tamale” as the townsfolk have come to know her), and to overcome her practically nonexistent self-esteem, convinced that if she wins the contest, she will be certifiably beautiful – just like the cousin she so adores and looks up to. There’s a sub-subplot about a red dress Elain has promised to lend Carnell to wear in the pageant, which she says she forgot to bring. Delmount falls in love with Popeye, and Elain eventually goes back home to her wealthy, boring husband and two children, even though she had planned to leave them and seek her own salvation. They’re all looking for what one character calls “what you can reasonably hope for in life”.
And in the end, it’s not giving anything away to say that Carnelle does not win the Miss Firecracker contest. She’s a runner-up who isn’t even permitted to ride on the Miss Firecracker float in the ensuing parade: she must march behind it, carrying the American flag, determined, committed and optimistic to the end: “Look,” she says, “if you come in last, you follow that float. I took a chance and I came in last, so by God I’m gonna follow that float!”
For me, Carnelle becomes a realist and her transformation resonates with me, no less than her need to be loved, to feel attractive, to be somebody. She overcomes what Robert L. Macdonald called in his discussion of the play in Southern Quarterly the “the noisy, dazzling spectacle of her failure” and points out “the maturity of her acceptance that she will have to try another time, another way.” Amen.
Last year I took a nine-to-five job-job with a good salary and benefits and at the same time had to put my dreams of a big, busy acting career aside. I had to be realistic about it. I’ve had to be realistic about my dreams and aspirations all my life, in fact, which is probably one of the main reasons this movie just tears me up, even while I’m laughing in sheer delight. And I know that I can try another time, another way.
Don’t let this all this analysis scare you off, I didn’t intend to write a term paper. This is a sweet, funny, touching movie, filled with charming, oddball people, all searching, and, ultimately, all finding something.
And trust me, we’re all looking for something. Even if it’s just that moment at the end of a hellish day when you can stop, look up and say “Gosh, it’s a nice night!”