The South has long been a regular setting for filmmakers. But more often than not, Hollywood gets Southerners wrong, depicting them as hayseed caricatures. The exceptions are worth noting—and sometimes even celebrating. Here are 15 great Southern movie characters and performances:
15: Edward Bloom (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor) of Big Fish (2003)
He’s a larger-than-life Alabama storyteller with unbelievable tales about being a star athlete in high school, taming lions in the circus, parachuting into North Korea, robbing banks, and romancing an Auburn University beauty—exploits which his son learns are pretty much true.
14: Norma Rae (Sally Field) of Norma Rae (1979)
She’s inspired by the real-life Crystal Lee Jordan of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, who battled to organize textile workers in the early-1970s. Field won an Oscar for playing this heroine who “embodies much of what we like to think is best about our national character,” as New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote.
13: Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) of Broadcast News (1987)
She’s a determined Atlanta girl who grows up to become a big-time, self-assured TV news producer in Washington. NEWS DIRECTOR: It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room. JANE: No, it’s awful.
12: Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) of The Prince of Tides (1991)
He’s an unemployed English teacher and football coach from South Carolina, working through tragic family dysfunction (as only Pat Conroy can write it) with a Manhattan shrink. “When things get too painful, we either avoid them or we laugh,” he admits. “It’s the Southern way.”
11: Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones) of Capote and Infamous (2005, 2006)
He’s the writer who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, and was such a real-life character that Hollywood made two pictures about him. Both capture Capote as he struggles to write what will become his nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood.
10: Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) of Selma (2014)
He was only 36 when he led the pivotal march depicted in this picture. Oyelowo is an English actor who seems to embody the spirit of the young Baptist minister from Atlanta, whose courage in the face of bigotry would make him a titan of American history.
9: Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds) of Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
He’s a trucker/bootlegger racing to get a semi full of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours. “When I made Smokey, I did not go out and buy a tux for the Academy Awards,” Reynolds said in 1979. But the movie raked in almost half-a-billion in today’s dollars and secured Reynolds’ position as the top box-office star in the world.
8: Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) of A Face in the Crowd (1957)
He says he’s “just a country boy,” but in truth he’s a megalomaniac who claws his way from a jail in Arkansas to a Manhattan penthouse where he’s the most influential man in America. Almost 60 years after its release, Griffith’s performance still burns through the screen.
7: The women (Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, and Daryl Hannah) of Steel Magnolias (1989)
They were dismissed by some critics as being more Hollywood than Southern when the picture was released in 1989, but since then Truvy, M’Lynn, Clairee, Ouiser, Shelby, and Annelle have been embraced as bona fide Southerners. With such lines as, “The nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly” (Truvy), how could they not make the cut?
6: Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) of Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
She’s a girl who rises from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to become the superstar of country music without one false note. Lynn herself selected Spacek from a stack of Hollywood 8x10s.
5: Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) of The Last American Hero (1973)
He’s based on the real Junior Johnson, the pride of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, who parlayed his skill running moonshine into racing stock cars and then became a NASCAR champion. Hollywood made this forgotten gem from a 1965 Esquire story written by Richmond, Virginia’s Tom Wolfe—“The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”
4: The Atlanta suburbanites (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, and Ned Beatty) of Deliverance (1972)
They’re four guys who should have gone golfing, as the movie poster said. Instead, they decided to canoe down a river in the back of beyond of the North Georgia mountains. Poet James Dickey’s epic has them wage war to survive and get out.
3: Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) and Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) of Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
She’s a Jewish lady and he’s her black chauffeur in Atlanta in a story that begins in 1948 and spans four decades. Nobody in Hollywood seemed interested in adapting Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play into a picture; one studio suggested casting Bette Midler and Eddie Murphy. But producers Richard and Lili Zanuck persevered with Tandy and Freeman and got the money to make the film, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Picture.
2: Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
He’s the paragon of virtue in seersucker.
1: Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone with the Wind (1939)
She was only 5-foot-3 and 100 pounds, but her spirit and Leigh’s performance made her a cinematic giant. As her sister-in-law, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (played to perfection by Olivia de Havilland), remarks to her, “Scarlett, you have so much life.”