Based on a true story, the new miniseries Love and Death follows the journey of Candy Montgomery, a Texas housewife accused of killing her neighbor Betty Gore with an axe.
1980, Wylie, Texas. A young, blond, churchgoing woman is accused of murdering the friend she attends her Methodist church with. The murder is brutal: Candy Montgomery, 30 years old, hits her victim 41 times with an imposing axe, while her daughter is taking a nap a few meters away. The murderer did not flee after getting rid of her bloody clothes. As usual, she goes to pick up her children at school, then welcomes her victim's daughter for a long planned sleepover.
After a lengthy trial, this stunning case came to an even more surprising conclusion: having invoked self-defense, Candy Montgomery was found not guilty.
This is one of the reasons why this story continues to fascinate four decades later. After being adapted into a TV movie in the 1990s, and then last year in the series Candy, it is the turn of David E. Kelley, the creator of Big Little Lies, to tackle this sordid story. Titled Love and Death, his 7-episode series – the first of which will be seen at the end of April on HBO Max – features Elizabeth Olsen in the role of the criminal. Lily Rabe plays Betty, while Jesse Plemons plays Betty's husband, Allan, with whom (spoiler alert) Candy is having an affair.
The murderer had everything going for her before she started an affair with Allan: she was living the life she had always dreamed of. But something was missing. For director Lesli Linka Glatter, the series focuses on "those women and men who espouse the standards of their time".
"Candy's husband Pat was a scientist who maintained his wife. Together they had moved to the suburbs. They had built the home of their dreams. Everything was going well for them and yet they felt a sense of emptiness. Why wasn't Candy fulfilled? Faced with this emptiness in her heart and soul, she made a choice: a horrible choice, yes, but a choice nonetheless."
Realizing that her marriage is making her unhappy (her husband, Pat, is played by Patrick Fugit), Candy decides to take matters into her own hands and sets her sights on her friend's husband, Allan, a man she meets at a volleyball game hosted by her church. "She thinks she'll get better by having an affair. And what's interesting is that she's not making the most obvious choice of partner. She's really looking for someone to open up to, a friend to talk to. That's why she chooses Allan," the director explains.
"At that time in Texas, no one was talking about mental health or therapy. Both Candy and Allan needed someone to talk to. They found each other. Their meeting led to a beautiful friendship, a romantic friendship in its own way. The affair was a way for them to finally be honest with someone. This was quite new for them".
Candy did not venture into this adultery on a whim: it is an event that she planned meticulously: "Before starting their affair, Candy and Allan talk about it for months. Sure, it's not the sexiest way to start a relationship, but that's how it happened!" the director adds.
If the conclusion of this story, namely the murder of Betty, is absolutely horrible, the episodes of Love and Death show nevertheless a humor; a shifted, absurd humor: "The unfailing determination of Candy pleased me a lot: it is a comic spring of the character and of the series", explains Elizabeth Olsen.
"It's an aspect that helped me understand this woman better. People often use humor to cope with and survive painful or even horrific situations."
Love and Death borrows its tone from dark comedies such as Gus Van Sant's Ready for Anything (1995): "Humor and satire are intertwined in extremely real situations," explains the actress. Director Lesli Linka Glatter also cites The Turncoat, the Fargo series and The Accused as major inspirations. Jesse Plemons, who plays Allan, agrees: "The show reminds me a bit of the Coen brothers. It has the same "quirkiness of middle-class America". The proof? Every time Candy sees Allan, she prepares spectacular dishes, which she takes pleasure in bringing back to the sleazier motels.
The would-be murderer is actually so strong in her role as a housewife (even outside the home) that she even tries to start her own interior design company: "Candy was always trying to push the thing a little further. This degree of perfectionism allowed us to better understand her and her crime", adds Elizabeth Olsen, who, in order to get into her character was inspired by the covers of magazines from the late 70s and early 80s, (and who surely played an influence on Candy). "It was hard not to think of Hillary Clinton. She too had the hope and dream of being something other than a wife and mother. In terms of hair, I also thought of Hillary, especially when I saw a picture of Candy with a perm!", continues the actress.
Elizabeth Olsen was so projected in her role that she did not want to watch the series Candy on Hulu: "Usually, I am less possessive with my characters, but I do not know, there I appropriated Candy in a very personal way … ". Jesse Plemons, on the other hand, didn't hesitate to watch the series with Jessica Biel: "I love Melanie Lynskey inside the actress who plays Betty". Anyway, he says, Love and Death plays on another register: "In our series, the situations are particularly funny in the first three episodes that precede the murder, then, it takes a 180 turn. The more you go through the story, the more you realize that things are complex, that there are no real villains. You get to understand everyone's position." According to Lesli Linka Glatter, Love and Death is indeed more focused on the psychology of the characters than on the crime as such: "We wanted to have an overall vision of this American-style tragedy."
A real American tragedy, since Candy Montgomery is still alive. She would have changed her name and would now live in Georgia, in the United States. Not surprisingly, she was not involved in the project of the series: "In fact, she never gave interviews," says Elizabeth Olsen.
"I think she's been through a lot to rebuild her life after something like this. I didn't want to stir the pot, but rather try to understand her with the information I had available to me."
The court transcripts helped her reconstruct the events. They also guided the script and the shooting of the murder scenes (shot in two days). "Candy is the only survivor in this story. We only have her version of the facts", explains the director. The series thus relays the course of the events from her point of view: the murderer would have passed at Betty's house to take her daughter's clothes before a sleepover; Betty would then have confronted her about her affair with Allan, then would have seized an axe to attack her.
If the circumstances of the murder could be questioned, there is no doubt about the violence of Candy's reaction, namely 41 blows with an axe: "Thanks to the testimony and the results of the investigation, we know how long Betty was alive, and what kind of blow she received. It was intense to imagine all that…", confides Elizabeth Olsen, who hopes however that the viewers will not be put off and will try to understand the gesture of her character, as horrible as it is. "I think Love and Death makes a sincere attempt to tell a complicated story and allows many truths to emerge," she says. "Ultimately, it's about judging Candy and then realizing that things are often more complicated than they appear."