November 11, 2005
A warm, winning and true story of a
Julianne Moore portrays a Catholic saint in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, a new film from out lesbian creators Terry Ryan and Jane Anderson. Not a saint with a halo and scepter, sanctioned by the pope, but a mother of ten married to a no-good drunkard, who always sees the glass half-full and who always makes lemonade out of the lemons life deals her, even when sometimes those lemons are hard as rocks.
Moore plays the real-life Evelyn Ryan, whose daughter Terry Ryan wrote the book on which the film is based. Set in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the movie tells the story of Evelyn, who kept her large family together by winning advertising jingle contests. She had a way with words and won many contests, both big and small, using the prize money to keep her family out of financial ruin.
Not only was she the breadwinner of this family, but she was also the sustenance of the children’s souls, constantly in turmoil by having to watch the churlish shenanigans of their alcoholic and unstable father.
The film is a wonderful slice of life. Were it fiction, it would be unbelievable, especially the way in which Evelyn won many contests just in the nick of time--to prevent from the family being evicted, or to pay off a large bill just before it was too late. Created with moving detail and in the vivid colors of the period, Prize Winner is just that--a winning and rewarding film for those interested in the best that humanity and cinema has to offer.
Made from a feminist viewpoint, Prize Winner is not preachy at all. It simply tells the tale of a revolutionary woman who was extraordinary in every sense of the word.
The intelligence that filmmaker Jane Anderson brings to the directing is superb. Her status as an outsider, in society and Hollywood, has informed the sensitivity with which she portrays women like Evelyn who were treated like second-class citizens by their spouses, preachers, and others, and who were yet expected to pick up the pieces when men let the world go astray.
There is a wonderful scene in the film where the priest comes to counsel Evelyn after one of her husband’s drunken rages. His reaction and suggestions to Evelyn, as though this were all her doing, speaks volumes about patriarchy.
The many kids in the film are brilliant too.
Particularly effective is Tuff--Terry Ryan’s childhood nickname--played by Ellary Porterfield as a teenager. She is focused on nicely in the second half of the film. In her independent spirit and intellectual honesty, you can see a repressed girl waiting to find her wings and fly away.
Terry Ryan’s script is astute, well paced and filled with humor and humanity. On the surface it would seem difficult to create an engaging film about a woman who won prizes writing product jingles. Yet Ryan’s script and Anderson’s directing bring forth a film that is edgy, subversively political and engaging every step of the way.
Julianne Moore is luminous here, creating a character so complex and so moving that it will bring you to tears. Moore is not stranger to the period. She played another suffering 1950s housewife in out director Todd Haynes’ Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven, in which her character has an affair with her black gardener while her husband struggles with his homosexuality.
Woody Harrelson takes on the role of Evelyn’s drunken, pot-bellied husband and he does so with such pathos and psychological nuance that his performance is a revelation.
The film has lots of suspense, gobs of humor and deep moments of emotional catharsis. At the end, the real, grown-up Ryan kids are filmed in the house. The real Tuff sits on the porch with her mother’s typewriter. If the scene doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, then nothing will.
This film deserves all the prizes it can get in the upcoming awards season. Yet it is, in many ways, too good and too intelligent for what normally wins. Nevertheless, the work is truly a prizewinner.
In a recent Advocate interview, Anderson said of herself and Ryan, “We’re both blessed with great partners. Love raising kids, and making art. Isn’t that what happiness is all about?”
It is our privilege that Anderson and Ryan chose to spread that happiness around and share their abundant humanity with us.