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CRITIC AT LARGE

She's Making the Most of Her Southern Roots

November 19, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Fannie Flagg has red hair, electric blue eyes and an eccentric history. She has been Miss Alabama (on the sixth try), a writer-actress on "Candid Camera" for five years, a night club and comedy album comedian, a co-star on Broadway in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," a television regular on "The New Dick Van Dyke Show" (playing his sister), "Harper Valley PTA" and "Hollywood Squares," a character actress in "Five Easy Pieces" and other films.

More recently she has been writing for the troubled Dolly Parton television show, now being revised under a new producer, Nick Vanoff, to celebrate Dolly's own country style. After a one-week hiatus, Flagg will play Parton's mother ("a real camp," she says) in a comedy soap opera within the show.

"She's Beulah Fay, a movie star who's brought her whole family from Tennessee to live with her in Beverly Hills. Dolly's writing on it herself and has me say things like, 'The good Lord told me you should buy me this Rolls-Royce.' "

Flagg is also writing a movie for Parton for Fox. Now, also, for the second time, Flagg is a published novelist with a clutch of enthusiastic reviews to show for it.

"Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" sounds at first like a parody of Southern Americana. Whistle Stop is the name of the town, not just the cafe. Her characters have handles like Smokey Lonesome, Idgie Threadgoode, Biddie Louise Otis, Artis O. Peavey and Vesta Adcock (whose bird figurines somebody broke into the house and stole).

But names can be deceiving. "Fried Green Tomatoes" is a comic novel with a powerful foundation in reality. Beneath the jokes (which are wonderful) lurk anger, tragedy, a murder mystery and a deceptively casual collage of what life was like in an Alabama hamlet in the middle-half of this century. What it was like to be white, what it was like to be black.

As Caroline See noted in her admiring review in this newspaper, author and book invite comparison with John Steinbeck and his "Travels With Charlie," which, it turns out, is a favored work of Flagg's.

She admires Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker and, for a different set of reasons, Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward, Joyce Grenville and Beatrice Lille. She has met many of her idols, including Coward, who saw her do "Private Lives" in Houston, had high praise, talked about his hard early days and said, "I've only become elegant lately."

Reading the new novel, I thought of "The Last Picture Show," because, like the Larry McMurtry book, it is a requiem (very spirited but more than a bit sad) for an aspect of Southern Americana--all America--that is quickly disappearing: the isolated and self-contained small town.

Whistle Stop is itself drying up like grass in a drought. The local columnist, Dot Weems, complains that there's nobody left to gossip about. The cafe was one of those places you'd barrel past at night on the two-lane in the pre-Interstate days, envying the warmth of its lights and imagining the life, as in a tidal pool, you knew was there but you couldn't see without stopping for a while.

Flagg herself grew up not in a small town. Home was an apartment in Birmingham, Ala., which is where the Whistle Stop folks foolishly thought all the fun was. Her father was a projectionist, a sweet, sad alcoholic with artistic inclinations.

The novel, five years in the writing, entailed a lot of research. "I went to the New York Public Library and even the Library of Congress to read as much as I could about the period," Flagg says. "I went to Birmingham and read through back issues of the newspapers. I talked to people. I remembered stories my grandmother told me about places like Whistle Stop."

In the beginning she had only one character, the elderly Mrs. Threadgoode, remembering it all (with a stunning gift for prevarication) in a rest home in Birmingham. ("That catfish was so big the photograph alone weighed 40 pounds.")

"She needed somebody to talk to," Flagg says, "so Evelyn Couch came along, and then she decided to have a life of her own." Mrs. Couch, a visitor to the home, is overweight and depressed.

The black characters, like the Peaveys, made their own demands for attention. "I did six or seven months of research just to get their histories and their speech right."

Flagg was inventing comedy sketches as early as high school, with some difficulty. She was for years an undiagnosed dyslexic who was merely thought to be a stupid speller. "I am an inspiration to all writers," she says. "I can't spell." She uses an electronic typewriter with a small display screen that lets her catch her mistakes a little sooner.

She entered the beauty contest as a calculated attempt to win a college education and did her own comedy sketches as her talent contribution. She got a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse where dance lessons were a problem.

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