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Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, The (2005)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 30 September 2005

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Film Rating:
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Talk about truth in advertising: yes, this movie is about a prize winner who lived in Defiance, Ohio. In the 1950s and on into the early 1960s, housewife Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore) constantly entered the kind of contests that were common back then. Most of them seemed to require describing why you liked this or that product in 25 words or less. Others required the applicant to come up with a catchy (and usually corny) jingle. Ryan won dozens of these contests, but sold most of the products she won—because she had ten children and a husband, Leo, called Kelly (Woody Harrelson), who drank too much and earned too little.

After Evelyn died at 85, her children went through her things; one daughter, Terry (called Tuffy as a child), ended up with 24 notebooks listing every jingle and poem she had written, letters of congratulations and entry blanks. Evelyn also kept meticulous track of all the prizes she won. Terry soon realized though her mother was, to all appearances, just an ordinary working-class housewife and mother, she was—almost incidentally—a very remarkable person. She wrote a book about her mother with the same title as the movie (and the subtitle “How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less”); Terry was surprised when the book sold to the movies.

You may be surprised, too. This modest movie, the first theatrical feature directed (and written) by veteran TV movie director Jane Anderson, is fascinating, both for the people it depicts and the situation, and concludes with one of the warmest, most touching scenes in recent American movies. In many ways, it plays much like a well-made TV movie, but a TV movie wouldn’t be likely to have Julianne Moore as the lead.

It’s not that Moore makes all the difference—the movie would be good with another actress—it’s just that the difference she does make is so important. It would be too easy to portray Evelyn Ryan as a victim, but Moore evades that almost entirely through her performance. She’s not just a survivor, she’s a winner—not only of blenders, freezers, etc.—in her own life. She had few ambitions beyond raising her kids right and remaining loyal to her troublesome and troubled husband. But on these modest levels, she triumphed, and so does the equally modest movie.

Director-writer Anderson uses an unusual idea in the opening scenes. We see the Ryan family—they’re Irish Catholics—going about their daily lives. Evelyn gets the husband off to work and the kids off to school—but then she also starts talking directly to us, so we see two Julianne Moores on screen, costumed just alike. One is in her “real life,” the other talks to us. She continues narrating occasionally throughout the film, but this odd, imaginative double image occurs only in the opening scenes.

This has a peculiar effect—it doesn’t make what we’re seeing seem less real, but more real. It takes us quickly into the family’s life and times. The story centers directly on Evelyn, but as time passes, daughter Tuffy (usually played by newcomer Ellary Porterfield) becomes one of the central characters. The story sort of fades away toward the end as the Ryan children leave home to begin their own lives and the contests gradually cease. But the film concludes with a few imaginative, touching scenes best not described here.

It’s surprising the directions the movie does not go. Kelly drinks too much, often putting away a six pack of beer and a pint of whisky every night. He does his drinking mostly from a small shelf in the kitchen, a realistic touch. Kelly has a ferocious temper, given to throwing breakable things and pounding on items he dislikes. He is both proud of Evelyn’s prize-winning abilities and resentful that this practice is necessary to the family’s lives. He often runs out of money before week’s end, having drunk it all away.

Evelyn is resolutely cheerful and optimistic, but there are small hints that this takes an effort, that it doesn’t come as naturally to her as those around her tend to believe. When Kelly gets angry at her at one point, she tells him firmly “I don’t need you to make me happy—I need you to let me alone when I am.”

The kids are well aware of their father’s shortcomings, and even remind him of them from time to time. We overhear one of them singing “Row, row, row your boat Gently Down the stream. Throw your dad overboard And listen to him scream.” The local priest, who himself drinks too much, is old-fashioned enough to tell Evelyn her first duty is to her husband, and that she should regard her husband as the ultimate family authority.

But the movie doesn’t make Kelly into a monster. In a brisk series of flashbacks presented as a live-action slide show, we see that Kelly and Evelyn were high-school sweethearts. He was a very good singer and planned to go into show business, but an accident (of which we get a brief ghastly glimpse) damaged his vocal cords and eliminated his chances of singing professionally. Since then, he’s been all too painfully aware of his own shortcomings; much of his misbehavior is prompted by guilt and shame. Kelly never strikes his wife or his kids; he’s not a bully, but rather a sad alcoholic with a lousy temper. Occasionally, Kelly even laughs at his own temper or other shortcomings, so the character remains believable, even guardedly likeable, all the way through. Harrelson is self-effacing in the role; he never tries to extend it into a costarring part.

Moore is unquestionably the main character in the film, but Ellary Porterfield is a real find. She’s gawky, adolescent and intelligent, reminding me somewhat of Heather Matarazzo in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Porterfield isn’t as extreme as Matarazzo, and is more attractive, but they both embody a similar feisty, independent teenage spirit. Laura Dern has a few scenes (in some, talking straight to the camera) as a fellow prize winner a few towns away. She invites Evelyn to a meeting of the “Affadaisies,” a club of prize winners. It takes a while for Evelyn to get there, but the wait is worth it. It’s gratifying to see a gaggle of 1950s housewives who, at first glance, seem utterly typical, but we soon realizes that these are deeply intelligent women who have had little outlet for their intelligence than entering contests. And yet they are happy, living fulfilled if modest lives. It’s one of the truest and most surprising scenes in the movie.

The movie is laden with small, telling details, and largely recreates the period with accuracy. However, I became tired of the conceit of having Evelyn always dressed in pink or faded red, I suppose to visually underline her optimistic nature. Also, the clothes some of the kids are wearing at the end of the 1950s look much more like clothes they would have been wearing at the beginning of the decade—I was there, and remember. Most movies set in the 1950s, at least since “American Graffiti,” seem to assume that the only music anyone under twenty listened to was rock ‘n’ roll. Actually, rock didn’t really kick in until halfway through the decade, and even then it shared jukebox space with many other kinds of songs, from Jo Stafford and Doris Day ballads, novelty songs and love songs, to folk music at the end of the decade. Here, they cleverly use songs even older than the 1950s to suggest the idea that Defiance, Ohio may not be exactly mainstream. We here “Bye Bye Blues” and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” by the great Les Paul and Mary Ford, “Rag Mop” by the Ames Brothers and others. Near the end, Kay Starr’s terrific version of “Wheel of Fortune” is brilliantly placed.

One of the most amusing, and oddly, exciting scenes is when Evelyn wins a chance to rush through a supermarket filling a cart with anything she can grab in a limited time. She does her research beforehand and knows exactly what she’s doing as she eagerly races up and down the aisles. She tries to grab gourmet foods, the kind she could never ordinarily afford, and she chooses the 1950s fave raves among such: caviar, hearts of palm, capers.

There’s some sense of manipulating reality toward the end, as Evelyn learns to her shock that Kelly secretly took out a second mortgage on the house—and it’s now due. So she has to win just one more big contest. I doubt that things worked out in such a structured manner in real life, but even so, here it’s only a momentary glitch, not a fault.

“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” is not the kind of movie that most people will discover in theaters, but it is exactly the sort of thing they’ll stumble across later on via video or on a cable channel. And they’ll wonder why they never heard of such a charming, likeable—yes, winning—movie before. Well, I’m here to tell you: it is that good.







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