I have to admit, I have not always been overly impressed with actor Julianne Moore and her acting choices over the years. To me, she has often been the Darling of the Patriarchy, not so much for her acting, but for her undeniable willingness to take off her clothes – see “Short Cuts” (1993), “Body of Evidence” (1993), “Boogie Nights” (1997), “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “The End of the Affair” (1999). Her imitation of Jody Foster’s accent in “Hannibal”(2001) chafed in my ears. Moore stood lifeless and caricature-like in her portrayals in “A Single Man”(2009) and “Crazy, Stupid, Love”(2011).
However, having said all of this, I do believe she can act, and “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” is certainly a much more professional choice. She has made a small niche out of playing 1950s housewives – in addition to this movie, she played a ‘50s housewife in “The Hours” (2002) and “Far From Heaven” (2002) – and Moore does the ‘50s mom/housewife fairly well with a certain amount of disengaged emotional sweetness.
In “The Prize Winner,” which is based on a true story, Moore plays Evelyn Ryan, a good Catholic mother to ten children and wife to an alcoholic rager, Kelly (played by Woody Harrelson). In order to make ends meet for her family, she enters jingle contests, prevalent in the 1950s, and often wins big. She wins toasters, larger kitchen appliances and money to put down on a new house, to the delight of her children and the sometimes jealous rages of her husband.
The movie opens in 1956 as Ryan enters a number of jingle contests. On her winning history, Ryan humbly states, “it wasn’t that I was more gifted, I was simply more determined.” In a flashback scene, we understand how Ryan ended up with her husband. When she was younger, writing for the Sherwood, Ohio Daily Chronicle, and suffering from boredom, Ryan hooked up with her husband, Kelly, who was a musical crooner/singer. According to Ryan, “he loved music as much as I loved words.” However, Kelly’s career as a crooner is cut short when his vocal chords are injured in an auto accident, he loses his singing voice, and settles on a career as a machinist and an alcoholic. In pure ‘50s housewife fashion, Ryan excuses Kelly’s behavior:
So if he seems unhelpful at times, selfish and mean please remember that he lost his voice while I kept mine.
In another early scene, when they are on the brink of eviction, one of the children dismays to the father about the possible eviction. Kelly Ryan reassures the child that all will be fine – “don’t you worry, sweetheart, mom always figures something out.” The burden for sustaining her very large family’s stability was clearly on Evelyn Ryan’s shoulders.
Why I feel compelled to review this movie, and also to encourage women of all generations to watch the movie, is that it exposes how institutions often kept women repressed, oppressed and in poverty through institutional enabling of the alcoholic male figure in the home:
1. Financial Institutions: There is an uncomfortable scene at the bank when, despite the fact that Evelyn wins the money for the down payment on the house, the bank executive dismissively discourages Evelyn from signing the back of the check and the mortgage paperwork, in favor of her unreliable husband. This of course leads to abuse later when Kelly, without Evelyn’s consent or approval, takes out a second mortgage on the home and almost costs them the residence;
2. The Police: The police were called out, presumably by the neighbors, when in an alcohol-induced rage, Kelly tears up the new freezer and other unattached items and lets out of litany of obscenities out the back door. He is raging at the outcome of a baseball game playing on the radio, which lends itself to an inference that he was also a gambler as well as a drinker. The police arrive in the Ryan residence, but they are cozy with Kelly, calling him by his first name and talking baseball with him instead of reprimanding and ensuring the safety of Evelyn and the children. Evelyn’s face in that scene tells the story of frustration;
3. The Church: In the aftermath of Kelly’s rage, a priest visits the home. He tells Evelyn that the stress from taking care of and supporting such a large family is causing Kelly’s outbursts. He states that Kelly has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that it is Evelyn’s duty to try harder. Evelyn counters that Kelly drinks a six pack every night and there is nothing left of his paycheck at the end of the week. However, the priest remains unsympathetic and convinced that it is all somehow Evelyn’s fault and that she must make a better home for Kelly. The truth in that scene is summed up by one of the smaller Ryan children, who remarks when the priest leaves, “his breath smells like dad.”
These institutions were complicit in keeping the secret of abuse and neglect, and in enabling its continued existence and proliferation.
There was also a startling scene in the middle of the movie. It is an actual clip from the 1960 Ms. America Pageant hosted by Bert Parks. In the question-and-answer segment of the telecast, Parks asks a contestant the following question:
This is a presidential election year. If a qualified woman were running for President, how would you feel about voting for her and why?
The contestant answers:
If the men candidates running against her were qualified, I feel I would vote against her, my reasons being that women are very high strung and emotional people . . .
The beauty of this clip is that it comes after an incident in which Kelly has yet another emotional outburst and Evelyn is somehow hurt and all the milk is spilled as a result of his anger.
“The Prize Winner” was directed by, and the screen play was also written by, Jane Anderson based on the book by Evelyn’s daughter, Terry Ryan. If one is to believe the DVD case, this is a light, fluffy “comedy” – “anything is possible with a little laughter and a lot of heart. . .” Don’t believe that hype: there is nothing comical in the truth of alcoholic rages and abuse, and near-poverty as a result of both. This is actually a drama evidencing every-day courage and perseverance in the face of such obstacles. And in that light, this movie is an emotionally-moving success.
I highly recommend this movie.
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