The Ballad of the Sad Café (film)

The Ballad of the Sad Café is a 1991 Southern Gothic drama film directed by Simon Callow and starring Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine, and Rod Steiger.[2] Its plot follows Amelia, a moonshiner in rural 1930s Georgia who is visited by her former husband, recently released from prison.

The Ballad of the Sad Café
The Ballad of the Sad Café (film).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySimon Callow
Written byMichael Hirst
Based onThe Ballad of the Sad Café
by Edward Albee
Produced byIsmail Merchant
CinematographyWalter Lassally
Edited byAndrew Marcus
Music byRichard Robbins
Release date
Running time
100 minutes
CountriesUnited States[1]

A co-production between the United States and Canada, the film's screenplay was written by Michael Hirst, adapted from the Edward Albee play, which in turn was based on a novella in a collection of short stories of the same title by American writer Carson McCullers. The film was entered into the 41st Berlin International Film Festival.[3]


A lonely moonshiner named Miss Amelia dominates a small Georgia town. She changes in attitude and kindness as two men, Cousin Lymon (a small, hunchbacked man claiming to be Miss Amelia's cousin) and Marvin Macy (Miss Amelia's ex-husband) enter her life.




Actress Vanessa Redgrave championed screenwriter Michael Hirst's adaptation of the Edward Albee play (which itself was based on the novella by Carson McCullers), and her involvement in the project was integral to it receiving funding.[1] Director Simon Callow found Albee's original play "too talkative" for the medium of film, and as a result, Hirst's screen adaptation features less dialogue.[4]


Redgrave was cast in the role of Amelia from the production's outset.[1] In preparing for the part, Redgrave made certain alterations to the character's appearance and manner:

I thought I should make very simple, clear choices about how to play Miss Amelia. I discussed each choice with Simon Callow, our director. I had to make a choice about her appearance, and I am still not sure I made the right one. Carson McCullers specifically writes that Miss Amelia has dark hair, but I thought I should have as little disguise as possible in the part. Given the fact that I am blonde and basically fair, with blue eyes, I decided to go for looking like a real straw-headed Southerner...I thought that Miss Amelia should be presented like a cartoon image, looking the same way until something very significant happens in the story. When it does, she changes out of her dungarees and wears a red dress to mark the fact that she has become a woman. I wanted her to appear to have remained rather like a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy emotionally.[4]

Willem Dafoe was considered for the part of Marvin, but demanded a salary too high for the film's budget.[1] Keith Carradine was cast in the role instead.[1]


Principal photography took place in the summer of 1990 in Spicewood, Texas, near Austin, as well as in Seguin,[4] on a budget of $3 million.[1] In order to perfect a Southern American accent from her native English accent, Redgrave studied with George Burns, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin.[4] She added, "Not only that, [George] knew how to wiggle and flap his ears, and he made an electrical device that, placed behind Cork Hubbert's ears, produced a wiggle for the camera that convinced all spectators that Cousin Lymon could flap his ears."[4]


The film had its premiere at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York City on March 28, 1991, before being released in the United States on May 8 of that year.[1]

Critical receptionEdit

The Ballad of the Sad Café was met with mixed reviews from critics.[4] Roger Ebert praised the film, awarding it three out of four stars and writing: "All of this is about as believable as those breathless "Dateline America" reports you read in the British trash press about snake-worshipping cults in Louisiana Sunday schools. But it plays well, if you can dismiss from your mind any remote expectation that the behavior in the film will mirror life as we know it. And Vanessa Redgrave, imperious and vibrating with passion, makes a proud, sad Miss Amelia."[5] Vincent Canby of The New York Times was less enthusiastic about the film, writing: "Miss Redgrave was, is and will always remain one of the greatest actresses in what's generally referred to as the English-speaking theater. She is so great, in fact, that when she goes off the track, as she does here, she continues to barrel forward with the momentum of a transcontinental express train that will not be stopped. The spectacle takes the breath away. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is that kind of movie. It's not silly as much as it's majestically wrongheaded. It's a movie in which all options have been considered at length before the worst possible choices have been made."[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Los Angeles, California: American Film Institute. Archived from the original on 24 April 2019.
  2. ^ "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991)". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011.
  3. ^ "Berlinale: 1991 Programme". Retrieved 21 March 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d e f LoBianco, Lorraine. "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 27 May 2020.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (7 June 1991). "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 27 May 2020.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent (28 March 1991). "Review/Film Festival; Vanessa Redgrave In a Cursed Triangle Of Love and Hate". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 27 May 2020.

External linksEdit