Monday, August 22, 2011

Clyde's Movie Palace: The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio (2005)

Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio
The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio
Julianne More
Woody Harrelson
Laura Dern
Ellary Porterfield

Screenplay by
Jane Anderson based on a book by Terry Ryan
Directed by
Jane Anderson

If organizations such as the American Family Association had their way, I’m sure they would love to send us all back to the Happy Days of Ritchie Cunningham and Fonzie. I also have to believe that if state legislatures such as the dunderheads of South Dakota had their way, every woman in their state would once again become their idea of the happy housewife: forever barefoot, constantly pregnant, and put on this earth to do nothing but lie down, do a man’s  bidding and to walk around with a permanent smile engraved on their faces. So what does all of that have to do with The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio?

Prize Winner BookIt may help those of us who are about as far removed from the forties, fifties and early sixties as you can get understand that while a happy face is often painted in glorious Technicolor on that era, life for many stay at home moms and their kids wasn’t always quite so grand and that you did the bidding of Lord And Master not because it was necessarily the right thing to do, but because it was expected of you, and because there were no alternative.   No matter how poor of a provider he may have been, you often had no choice but to stay at home and become a punching bag for the Lord and master.
The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio, is the story of Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), who used her knack for writing poetry and jingles to help keep food on the tablPrize Winner 0009 and a roof over the head of her family. Her husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson), works at a machine shop but spends a good portion of his income on a nightly bottle of liquor and a six pack of beer to help him drown his sorrows. Although he has moments when he shows his love for his family, it doesn’t change the fact that Kelly is a poor provider and an alcoholic. And when Kelly hits the sauce, he is emotionally abusive towards his family and his kids.

And Kelly makes lots of promises, promises about how he is going to change, promises that good fortune is just around the corner, promises that he knows and we certainly know are never going to be kept. Just as we are aware of this, Evelyn is also. But she stays with him, doing her best to help her family survive with her jingles. She is as much of a mother to Kelly as she is to her children. Let’s face it, there weren’t too many other options for a woman with 10 kids in those days, and one has to wonder if there would be that many more today.

But year after year, Evelyn hangs in there with a cheery disposition that even June Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver would be hard pressed to sustain. At one point, there is another drunken outburst by her husband after a Red Sox loss in which he beats her newly won freezer with a baseball bat.   She consults her local priest. His advice: Support your husband, he has a tough life.

There were times in watching this film that I wanted to yell at the screen in frustration, “Why don’t you just get rid of his sorry ass.”
But I had to keep reminding myself that this was a completely different and unrecognizable world than what we live in today.
But there are times when I think the film falters in drawing us into that world. While its moments of whimsy (jingle singers popping in and out of nowhere) are certainly clever and give the film an uplifting quality, they do detract from it and are distracting  in such a way that it often makes the story more distant from us than it should be.  It hinders our emotional involvement in Evelyn’s plight.

Yet, you can’t help but greatly admire Evelyn. She is the eternal optimist despite the worst possible circumstances imaginable. To her kids, she is a not only a mother, but their savior and Prize Winner 0002their hero. At the end of the film, we are told how the children went on to do much better with their lives, most having careers ranging from teachers to writers. Julianne Moore’s Evelyn, certainly goes a long way in to making us understand that to Evelyn, it was better to be optimistic, love your kids and do the best that you could for them. On the other hand, Woody Harrelson’s Kelly often seems more of a caricature, and whatever demons is possessing him we are never fully made to understand them although Evelyn certainly did.

Perhaps the saddest moment comes near the end of the film during a conversation between Evelyn and her daughter, Tuff (a wonderful performance by Ellary Porterfield) “He’s never going to change, is he?”

“No, he isn’t,” she answers, as a terrible look of sadness crosses her face. It is not sadness for herself, but sadness in the realization that her daughter sees the father exactly for what he is. “But do you know what,” she continues, “That man on the phone just told me that my entry won over 250,000 others, and it wasn’t even my best one. You can be anything you want to.”

And it is at that point that we fully understand Evelyn. It’s not about winning prizes, it’s not about wallowing in your own misery. It’s about giving your children something better in life to strive for by giving them as much happiness as you can. And with a message as uplifting as that I have no choice but to give you my grade, and for The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio it’s a B+.

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