Felix is a miserable old hermit who has lived in an isolated cabin for the past 38 years. He catches word that an old friend ...
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material and brief violent content
Length: 100 minutes
Released: January 22, 2010 Sundance 2010
Cast: Bill Murray, Robert Duvall, Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs
Director: Aaron Schneider
Writer: C. Gaby Mitchell, Chris Provenzano
Perhaps the most defining moment of anyone's life happens when they can't be there for it.
In the new film "Get Low," an East Tennessee hermit with a bad reputation around town decides to hold his own funeral before he dies. He wants to know what folks will say about him while he's still around.
The film is inspired by actual events in Roane County during 1938, when Felix "Bush" Breazeale (played by Robert Duvall) - with the help of Loudon funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) - is able to put on a pre-death funeral.
"Get Low," which was shot in Georgia, opens in Knoxville on Friday. Critics are praising the film, especially Duvall's performance, saying it is worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
Just as it is in the movie, the real funeral turned into one of the biggest community gatherings in the history of Roane County.
Eleanor "Pete" Quinn Barnes, the daughter of Quinn, grew up in her father's funeral home in Loudon and was 18 when it happened. Today, her memories of that day are fuzzy.
But Barnes can still recall flashes of what it was like.
"It (drew) an awful big crowd," she says, "and it was awfully hot. It was more like a three-ring circus than a funeral. It was big."
Estimates are that 8,000 folks attended, many of whom never even knew Breazeale. Traffic to Cave Creek Baptist Church was backed up for four miles, other reports indicate.
High-profile politicians and ministers showed up. Choirs sang. It was almost like a picnic, complete with ice cream being served. One Roane County newspaper report says 10 guests fainted during the party - probably due to the heat and the large crowds, not because Breazeale was alive.
Breazeale made no pretense he was dead. A skilled craftsman, he made his own coffin and sat beside it as mourners came up to speak with him.
The pre-death funeral was such a hit that Breazeale became a local celebrity. On July 4, 1938, Breazeale and his mule were guests of honor at a Harriman Independence Day party. The fliers touted "Come and Hear the Living Corpse."
The filmmakers say "Get Low" isn't supposed to be historically accurate. Like any movie based on truth, certain facts are changed for entertainment purposes or to drive the story along.
The movie strays far from real history. Frank Quinn is portrayed as a lonely guy. His wife left him. He's childless and in need of money.
Yet when Barnes watched "Get Low" during a recent private screening and Murray appeared on screen playing her father, she only had one criticism. "Daddy never had a mustache in his life," the 90-year-old Sweetwater, Tenn., resident whispered.
She and her family forgave the other aspects of the character.
"I know they have to change things to make for a more interesting story," says Sweetwater resident Chico Barnes, the grandson of Quinn.
In real life, Quinn and his wife were happily married and had two children. Quinn was a boisterous type, with a reputation for making the grieving feel better.
That quality spurred the funeral director to help notorious hermit Breazeale when he came to Quinn about a pre-funeral party. Quinn jumped at the chance, taking meager Breazeale to a Knoxville clothier for a suit and getting photos made to publicize the event.
Quinn's son-in-law, Buddy Robinson, helped with the arrangements. In the film, Robinson, portrayed by actor Lucas Black, is a hardworking family man with a newborn and employee of the Quinn Funeral Home, but the son-in-law relationship doesn't exist in the movie.
Robinson's baby in "Get Low" is supposed to be Maryville resident Larry Robinson. "I really wasn't enthralled in all that," Robinson says of seeing himself portrayed in the film, even though it's as a baby. "The movie is 5 percent truth and 95 percent Hollywood embellishment. Bill Murray had some entertaining lines, but my grandfather was very moralistic."
Now in his 70s, Larry Robinson says he grew up hearing the story of Breazeale and the pre-death funeral.
"My father was a good storyteller," Robinson says. "I have a head full of memories of Loudon and a lot of interesting things that happened around town."
A Quinn family member by marriage, who is a screenwriter in Hollywood, developed the story for the screen.
Ask anyone, though, about why Breazeale would want his own funeral staged before his death, and no one has a clear answer.
In "Get Low," he feels guilty over a life gone wrong and wants to make amends, especially when it comes to a lost love in his life (played by Sissy Spacek). In real life, "no one really knows why," says "Get Low" director Aaron Schneider. "That's the biggest question we have, and there is no answer."
Breazeale never married, and no one knew of a long-lost love.
The real Breazeale had a sketchy reputation around town, and was arrested and charged with murder in the late 1800s. He was later acquitted, but the stories about Breazeale remained.
"That probably started weighing heavy on his mind," says Rene' McGill, one of the owners of McGill-Karnes Funeral Home, formerly the Quinn Funeral Home.
McGill says the story of Quinn and Breazeale is legendary at her business, which is still operating in the same building where Quinn and Breazeale plotted the funeral party more than 70 years ago. McGill has her own theories on why Breazeale wanted the early funeral.
"He probably thought, 'What do people think of me? How do they view me?' That's a question we all asked ourselves," McGill says.
Breazeale died five years later. His passing was not a huge event, with only a few people attending. For years, he had no tombstone. In recent years, a community group made sure he had a proper stone.
Quinn's Funeral Home was in charge of the interment. They followed instructions to not make a fuss over his actual passing. There was no eulogy or songs. The final ritual has been described as "a simple committal service."
Terry Morrow may be reached at 865-342-6445. His blog can be found at http://blogs.knoxnews.com/knx/telebuddy/.
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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