Katie Johnson was probably one of the least well known performers in the original Ealing The Ladykillers. Certainly taking her role in the Coens remake was not as intimidating as taking over the role originally played by Sir Alec Guinness. Indeed, I think the smartest thing the Coens did in their version was completely changing the variety of Dotty Old Bat in the movie. And you understand, I like the Coens version well enough, albeit not as much as the original, and Irma P. Hall as Marva Munson certainly has something to do with that.
Hers is not a name you hear as much as many others. This despite the wide array of impressive directors she’s worked with. The Coens, yes. But also Werner Herzog twice. Spike Lee, Michael Mann, Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Howard, Tyler Perry. And of course Clint Eastwood. She’s been doing TV and movies for my entire life, and if I can’t find out what she did in Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, a made-for-TV movie from 1979, I put it to you that she’s probably okay with that.
While I’m pretty sure I’ve seen at least two of the movies she made before Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I saw them both not long after they came out and never again. Whereas I’ve seen her as Minerva, the voodoo practitioner who plays a minor but important role in the proceedings, multiple times. Starting in the theatre. Really, half the cast—not least the Lady Chablis herself, of course—steals that movie, but Hall is on that list. She’s a wonder in it.
Likewise, she’s enormous amounts of fun in The Ladykillers. Not exactly the same fun, but fun with some of the same roots if you know what I mean. It tells you quite a lot about the characters that I’m pretty sure Marva Munson would be horrified by any comparison between them but Minerva would be amused. And there is a definite comparison; these are both Southern women, after all, and more specifically black Southern women. Deeply religious, though their religion is in extremely different forms.
I know I’ve seen more of her TV work. Not a ton of it, but it at least makes for some interesting reading. There are not a lot of people who have been on both Wishbone and Law & Order: SVU, or both Dallas and Rugrats. Irma P. Hall only has a couple of truly stand-out roles, but she’s been there in the background of pop culture my entire life, and that’s the kind of person I like to bring to more people’s notice.