When Harlan's queen of bootleg liquor, Maggie Bailey, died at the age of 101, I made a prediction and it is this. Some film writer/producer will see the drama in that woman's life and will make a biographical docu-drama to equal "Coal Miner's Daughter," the film which captured the unique life story of country singer, Loretta Lynn.
"Coal Miner's Daughter" was exceptionally well done for this reason. It was managed completely by a Canadian film company which respected Miss Lynn's cultural heritage and mountain brogue. There was nothing exaggerated about the portrayal of the characters. There was nothing stereotypical about the country girl who became famous and who never lost pride in her country roots. The mountain accent spoken by Sissy Spacek and others was authentic. There was not a single word of dialogue in that film which did not ring true, right down to the pronunciation of "vy-eeny sausage."
"The Maggie Bailey Story" would have to be done by writers, producers and actors who had that same kind of respect and integrity for the woman and the language she spoke. They would have to fully understand the time and place which defined her circumstance.
I have seen "Sergeant York" a number of times, which stars Gary Cooper as Alvin C. York, the Tennessee back country World War I hero. The Tennessee accent in that film does not ring true, nor does the dialogue itself. Do Tennesseans say, "Leave me be?" or "I'd best be gittin' on home?" No. I don't think so. I think they would say, "Leave me alone." "I'd better be gittin' on home." The former sounds like "country" dialogue written by a "city man" trying to "be country" and missing the lilt and lingo a country mile.
So, whoever undertakes "The Maggie Bailey Story" must make it authentic in every respect. Her life story is the "stuff" that drama is made of and it will make a marvelously poignant stage play or motion picture. It must not be another sensational "Thunder Road."
Just imagine, a 17 year-old girl, through no fault of her own, is left by cruel circumstance to bring up her brothers and sisters, i.e., to provide their food, shelter, clothing and education.
She needed money back in 1921. Selling bootleg booze met that need. It became a way of life. How that happened and continued is the story just waiting to be told. Also, how Maggie Bailey spent much of the money she earned during her more than 75-year reign as Harlan County's Bootleg Queen is surprising, because of its humanitarian undertones.
The next step in telling "The Maggie Bailey Story" on the silver screen or on the stage is to cast the leading role. Who could portray her and do her justice? Only one actress comes to my mind, Merle Streep.
Miss Streep is an actress whose roles have required her to speak with a number of foreign accents. For example she spoke with a Danish accent in "Out of Africa," when she portrayed Isak Dinesen's Baroness Karen Von Bliven. She mastered a German accent in "Sophie's Choice," and a French accent in "The French Lieutenant's Woman." One of her best character portrayals was that of an Italian immigrant peasant woman in "The Bridges of Madison County." She can be glamorous and beautiful or she can be ordinary and plain. When she shows extraordinary strength in a character, she can, at the same time, almost collapse with vulnerability. She could play Maggie Bailey's strengths and weaknesses, as well as, her long career which involved numerous brushes with the law.
Maggie Bailey's last years were spent in a nursing home. The highlight there, of course, would be the "born again Christian experience" that she had before she died, which included a baptism.
I think Miss Streep could sink her teeth into this story and it is one which deserves, and needs to be told. I also predict that "The Maggie Bailey Story" will, in time, find its way to the top of the movie charts and claim a whole "trunk load" of Oscars.