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Don’t miss Julianne Moore’s powerhouse performance in
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Special for Digital Filmmaker
by Jan Lisa Huttner

“You know it's a bad year for women when none of the best picture nominees even features one in a lead performance,” wrote Los Angeles Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz on February 1st, one day after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) released this year’s list of Oscar contenders. And Abramowitz is not alone; many women are questioning this year’s selections. But if all this is news to you, you may well ask an obvious question: what’s missing?

If I ruled the world, this year’s list of Best Pictures would include King Kong and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, two films driven by powerhouse performances by A-list actresses in parts specifically tailored for them by popular female screenwriters. Both Naomi Watts (the star of King Kong) and Julianne Moore (the star of Prize Winner) were so compelling that I’m having a hard time choosing between them in my parallel universe, so I’m incensed about the fact that I don’t get the chance to root for either one of them here on planet Earth. But at least Naomi Watts was in King Kong, so AMPAS be damned, lots of people saw her great work. Julianne Moore, however, starred in Prize Winner, which opened on a paltry 41 screens on the last Friday of September, and grossed a mere $626,310 before it was pulled from commercial release eight weeks later (by which time it was down to 15 screens).
















 

Prize Winner is based on Terry (“Tuff”) Ryan’s best-selling 2001 memoir The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. It’s an Eisenhower-era haunted house movie in which the monsters are bankers, milkmen, priests, and policemen, while the damsel-in-distress is a tenacious Catholic housewife. Evelyn Lehman was a budding young journalist when she met and married Leo (“Kelly”) Ryan in 1936, and like so many talented women of her generation, she put aside career ambitions and devoted herself to raising a family. But Kelly turned cruel under the weight of his responsibilities, and when he started drinking away his paycheck every night, Evelyn needed for a way to make her verbal skills profitable. She turned contesting into a family sport, and became one of the biggest money-makers of the ‘50s.

This could have been grim stuff, but filmmaker Jane Anderson (who won Emmy and WGA awards in 1993 for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, and received Emmy, WGA, and DGA nominations in 2003 for Normal), takes her lead from Tuff, adopting Tuff’s triumphant tone as her own. Evelyn never gave in to the sorrows of her life, and Anderson understands that her job is to prove that Evelyn did, in fact, manage to keep it all together.

Moore gives a performance of incredible depth and nuance: smiling on the outside, screaming on the inside. She is always acting the part of the perfect Mom for her brood, fearful that Kelly’s bitterness will infect her children like a virus and ruin their lives. Almost every scene takes place in the Ryan’s cramped and cacophonous little two-story house, but Anderson fills each frame with so much color and light that the viewer is torn in two: on the one hand, it feels like it would be fun to live there, but on the other hand, it’s downright claustrophobic. Evelyn is only allowed one extended escape scene; when Tuff, one of the middle children, gets her driver’s license, she takes Evelyn to a meeting of the Affadaisies (a club for fellow contesters), but their one-day excursion carries a high price.

How does Evelyn do it? She thinks like a baseball player. Every new contest is another chance at bat. Sometimes she hits a home run, sometimes she hits a single, sometimes she strikes out, but her lifetime average is phenomenal. (The sights and sounds of baseball are ever-present in the film. Kelly is a fanatical Cleveland Indians fan, and two of their sons make steady progress from Little League up to minor league careers, while the family assembles to cheer them on through every game.)

The role of Kelly Ryan must have seemed pretty thankless on paper, nevertheless Woody Harrelson succeeds in giving the man a soul. Even though he loves his wife, her success humiliates him. The whole town knows that all their money comes from Evelyn’s winnings, and the guys at work hound him mercilessly. So it’s clear that Kelly is just as much a victim of societal expectations as Evelyn is, and he’s never portrayed as a one-dimensional villain.

Laura Dern also has a small but spicy role as Dortha Schaefer, the leader of the Affadaisies. Although Dortha and Evelyn rarely see each other face-to-face, they are both lively letter writers, and Anderson uses their correspondence to propel Evelyn out into the wide-world beyond her house. However physically constrained she may be, Evelyn is a voracious mental traveler.

I frankly don’t know why this film didn’t do better at box office, and I predict it will be very popular when it hits the DVD shelves on March 14th. It will, of course, be categorized as “a chick flick,” and many men will therefore be loath to see it. That’s a shame, because Evelyn Ryan was as uniquely American as Truman Capote, Edward R. Morrow and her other well-known male contemporaries, and even though she encased herself in girdles and dowdy dresses, the heroic dimensions of “a life well lived” are clear for all to see.

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Jan Lisa Huttner is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples. In addition to freelance work for a variety of print and online publications, Jan writes regular columns for the JUF News, Chicago's Jewish community monthly, and Chicago Woman, a bi-monthly published by The Woman's Newspapers. She is an active member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.
 

 

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