Courtney B. Vance in Cookie’s Fortune
as Otis Tucker
“This is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. They have been here for a long time. They know all about one another.” This is what the late great Roger Ebert wrote about Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, but he just as easily could have been talking about “Cookie’s Fortune”, my favorite Altman film, and my annual Easter weekend viewing. Set in a small Mississippi town, the film doesn’t begin so much as just sort of drift into view. Willis Richland (Charles Dutton) is already at his bar stool; Camille (Glenn Close) and Cora (Julianne Moore) are already in the midst of Easter play rehearsal; two of the town cops are mid-conversation. When the impressionable new policeman, Jason (Chris O'Donnell), learns his old gal, Emma (Liv Tyler), is back in town, he just marches right on up to her and into a make-out session. Then she goes back to doing what she was doing. Introductions here are unnecessary, even if you’ve been gone a long time. The only character who really gets introduced is Courtney B. Vance’s Otis Tucker, the detective in from the big city, arriving on account of a possible home invasion ending in the murder of local matriarch Cookie Alcott (Patricia Neal), even if we, the audience, know she wasn’t murdered at all.
Otis purposefully marches into his first shot of the film, outfit in an impeccably cut suit and straw hat pitched at a necessarily jaunty angle. And though Otis initially wonders why the jail cell door is hanging wide open, and though the Sheriff’s assistant continually ogles Otis, this initial take-charge, charismatic introduction is somewhat a sleight-of-hand. He maintains a cool air throughout, yes, peppering his witness inquiries with partly sweetened, partly satiric “Uh-huhs”, but it’s telling that he brings no partner with him. This mean there can be no implementations of Good Cop/Bad Cop; it’s just Good Cop all the time. The one brief instant when Eddie “The Expert”, local forensics specialist, tries desperately to play bad cop, Otis shuts him right down. Otis lets the people have their say, and what they say is what gets to the truth.
That’s what makes Vance’s performance both a standout and overlooked. Generally when an out-of-town detective shows up on the scene, he’s there to talk some sense in these people, to extrapolate the truth by any means necessary, to heroically harangue, to valiantly prowl, to get to the bottom of things dammit. Det. Otis Tucker doesn’t really get to the bottom of things; he incisively, but subtly probes, and then just lets things rise to the top. Look no further than the scene that puts the nail in the metaphorical coffin of Camille, the chief villain. When Cora enters the jail near the end, wondering where Camille is when Camille is convinced only Cora can get her off the hook, Otis doesn’t hold Cora back, he points toward Camille and says “Right over there” in a supremely, tellingly relaxed line reading, allowing her to go right on over and put the nail in the coffin herself.
For a while I thought Otis Tucker deserved his own FX show (Mississippi Nights w/Otis Tucker), but now I see that his own show would be contrary to the character’s spirit. He couldn’t hold his own show because he’s not the focal point and never wants to be. He is not the bourbon or the cognac or the dark rum or the black tea or the sugar or the lemon juice; he’s the straw that stirs the drink.