The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

An Unusually Good Movie

by Mark Butterworth (Sept. 2006)

This movie starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson is sadly, one of the most overlooked gems of 2005 and this last half decade. Based on the true story of Evelyn Ryan, married to a no account machinist, Kelly, with ten children, she manages to save her family from the clutches of dire extremity time and again by her prize winning ability in the age of “contesting“. This is a playful yet often searing account of life which failed to attract much of an audience at the time of its release.

Prize Winner captures a period of Americana when millions of housewives competed in creating jingles, rhymes, product endorsements in twenty-five words or less for the sake of winning household appliances, sporting goods, supermarket shopping sprees, cash, and even cars. (Evelyn wins two.) It hearkens back to the time of food savings stamps, cigarette coupons, and china giveaways.

The director, Jane Anderson, provides a fresh use of gimmicks where Evelyn often appears in a scene to narrate and comment on the action involving herself, or to demonstrate discursively upon her task as a contester and how the promotional advertising phenomena operated. It is cleverly done and infuses a light, breezy attitude at times identical to the TV commercials (which sometimes transport themselves out of the screen into the home), with the optimism of people who participated in such things.

That functions as a relief to the otherwise darker contrast and brooding force, Harrelson, (in his finest performance) readying to explode and spill out of the kitchen where he is listening to baseball on the radio, isolated from the rest of the family in the living room watching TV, as Evelyn gleans another contest to get charged up for.

The sense of an ominous beast in a closet which everyone tries to ignore until they can’t is powerfully displayed. It was like that in so many homes then as it is today. It was true of mine where my father would have been drinking in the garage while pretending to be fixing something, and then once his anger was properly stoked, would pick a fight with my mother and escalate it to threats of violence.

One scene captures the drunk’s need to spoil every good family moment. Evelyn wins a shopping spree in which she’ll be able to fill up a freezer she’s already won with a cartful of food. She carefully plans her strategy to get the most items possible, while indulging in the delight of plucking delicacies, exotic foods, and luxuries off the shelves to make it more than a feast upon human fuels, but a trip around the world; a satisfaction to frustrated wanderlust in being able to try all sorts of international flavors and expensive tastes.

It’s a glorious time everyone is later having as Evelyn urges the kids to try the caviar, the hearts of palm, and all manner of unusual items. But Kelly sulks. He didn’t buy the stuff. He’s the emasculated male. The guys at work rib him about his prize winning wife. How dare they enjoy themselves at the expense of his pride? So he opens a can of Spam, eats it cold, attacks the table and tosses armfuls of goods out the door and out of the freezer.

Evelyn manages to tame him and gets him to join them in eating the jar of shrimp cocktail he previously admitted he wouldn’t mind trying and she made sure to get for him.

As bad as Kelly is, though, he’s not all ogre. He goes to work everyday to a job he never wanted. He tries to be affectionate, but can’t seem to pull it off. He reaches out, but his childishness always gets the best of him. He has moments of remorse, but fumbles in his pathetic attempts to mollify his victims. He is weak, yet thinks he’d be weaker if he sought help. He has no power of introspection, ruled instead by his deep seated grievances against life which he can never acknowledge.

We all know this man. He isn’t evil, but he always manages to hurt others both intentionally and inadvertently. He is a sulky, sullen, vindictive eight year old boy who never grew up and always decides later on that it’s too late to do so even if he wanted to now.

That is one of the powerful aspects of this film, the honest reality of the intransigent and incorrigible adult male. As Evelyn says of Kelly, he can be mean, but he’s not malicious. He doesn’t plan his outbursts. He just refuses to control them.

Perhaps I like this movie as much as I do because it does represent to me what I lived through. It captures the time, the manners, the traumas, the buoyancy and resilience of children and of a great many mothers. I do wonder at those who pour such scorn on that period, and lack the requisite compassion to see it as it was lived, and not as some sick symptom of American capitalistic materialism.

People drinking four dollar cups of latte shouldn’t throw their grounds at those who drank ten cent mugs of Maxwell House. I mean, really.

Many of those who disliked this movie referred to it as bad nostalgia about the 50’s, but the reverence with which 2002’s In America garnered from critics about persevering illegal Irish immigrants in a modern setting which was treacly, romanticizing, and made up of standard movie moments and characters stands in stark contrast to the loathing (“Prize Winner also celebrates passivity, the mom-at-home ethos, and blinding denial as antidote to dysfunction. Worse, it almost sanctions violence and alcohol in the home (stuff happens, so move on.) and suggests that change is bad.”-Doris Toumarkine) which was frequently dished out on The Prize Winner for its much less saccharine excursion through a lived life.

Others are miffed because the director hasn’t turned it into a feminist tract, what with the talented but long suffering wife who outshines her husband but has been made subservient by the patriarchal culture, having been further oppressed by the Catholic Church with its breed-us-more-babies agenda.

In all fairness, this soggy domestic saga takes place back in the 1950s and '60s, before the concept of feminism had dawned on American women. Like a lovely, lobotomized Stepford Wife, Evelyn accepts the drudgery of her life along with the deception of her husband.

[It] ladles on the goodness, elevating her subservient Betty Crocker heroine almost to sainthood. Evelyn is so stalwart, so understanding, so uncomplaining, so cheerful, so sweet and so selfless that it's difficult for a contemporary woman to identify with her unquestioning acceptance of adversity. - Susan Granger.

The movie is neither light comedy nor heavy, kitchen sink drama. It is a biopic about a rather ordinary woman who had extraordinary skill and determination in becoming a provider by winning contests and prizes.

The ebullient Evelyn always manages to make the best of everything. Although she is portrayed as emblematic of women in the 50’s, she was born in 1913, married in the 30’s and stands for a pre-World War Two generation that suffered through the Great Depression and the War.

My mother was twenty-one in 1950 when her first son was born, but I have to add that the good humor, high spirits, lack of self-pity, and strength that characterizes Evelyn were fairly common in those generations as it was true for my mother who also married an abusive alcoholic. People were used to life being fraught with pitfalls.

In fact, the situation of the Ryans in the movie was commonplace. Every block had one such a family or more. In those days, a lot men drank and the women and kids often went without. How this can be equated as nostalgic (who remembers such days of rage and abuse fondly?) or demonstrative of simpler times (as if such hardship and trauma are uncomplicating) is incredible.

You also have to be exceedingly dim to not know that postwar prosperity was nothing like the affluence of today. Everything then except housing, perhaps, cost more of a percentage of a paycheck. Many people have no idea how inexpensive food is now while families were larger then.

What the film misses most is either the religious dimension of Evelyn Ryan’s strength, her grace under pressure, or discovering whom the inspiring models were for her in her youth. We wonder where she gets her pluck and perseverance from, but only get a hint it might come from her Catholic faith and in going to church.

The director, instead, downplays the family’s Catholicism except to hold it either in contempt (an unconsoling, idiotic, and inebriated priest makes an appearance) or as a matter for the wishful thinking of children when the small children hide in a closet praying the Rosary in the hopes that Mom will win a major contest and their home won’t be foreclosed on them. Why? Because their Dad took out a second mortgage that he never repaid. It went down his throat for the most part.

When their prayers are answered, there is no moment of giving thanks for a miracle. They asked and they received, but God is never praised. Nor do we ever see them at church or the parochial schools they went to.

To a modern audience, her large family is scorned as excessive, and the Church which encourages that must be seen as a monster.

There is one holy, homily moment with the daughter, “Tuff”, when their car has broken down on the way to meet the Affadaisies, a group of women just like Evelyn who are contesters and dear, kindred spirits whom Evelyn has been trying to get together with for years. Tuff is discouraged and frustrated that every time something sweet or good is in store for her mom, something ruins it. She asks her mother if she wishes she’d never married Dad. Evelyn explains how she prefers to take joy and delight in whatever moment she finds herself in rather than be miserable in the face of adversity -- like now. She tells her she’d never have gotten to enjoy this tender moment with her smart, sensitive daughter if she hadn’t married Kelly.

This scene and the coda at the end of the movie featuring the last bit of doggerel she wrote before dying,

Every time I pass the church
I stop and make a visit
So when I'm carried in feet first
God won't say, "Who is it?"

clue us into the simple fact that Evelyn must have been a devout Catholic who happily went to Church, and most likely was able to unburden her heart to God. She may well have found all the peace and strength there necessary to maintain her positive outlook, delight in life, and high energy.

It is the movie’s one great flaw that it passes by this major part of the Ryans’ lives.

One critic noticed, “Her almost preternatural optimism and willingness to shoulder the burdens keep the family running. . .” Dr. Frank Swietek

It is also that preternatural quality which seemed to inflame others.

“Perhaps the real Evelyn was as unflappable and level-headed as the film suggests, but her saintliness and white-bread demureness, even in the face of Kelly's increasingly bad behavior, is trying. . .” - Maryann Johanson

 “Hermetically sealed in a wrongheaded ‘50s logic, Julianne Moore portrays the maternal idiot savant character of Evelyn as she engages in winning thousands of dollars in cash and prizes that never include birth control.” - Cole Smithey

 “. . . the film features Julianne Moore as an always chirpy automaton named Evelyn Ryan. . . [who] keeps smiling like one of the Stepford Wives. . . “ - Steve Rhodes

This kind of callowness makes you want to love the movie all the more.

The idea of bearing one’s crosses with patience and pluck; of bearing up under strain; of not complaining day and night about how weak, victimized, overcome, and vulnerable one is; the ability to be phlegmatic before hardship -- things that were common to people of Evelyn’s generation -- strikes many today as hopelessly repressed, constipated, enabling, disempowered, and weak.

These are the people who endured the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, ended racism in America and are yet considered by a few subsequent generations as stupid, stifled, and frustrated people.

Instead of focusing entirely upon the literal content of the film, this critic offers a nicely realized feature of an underlying universal symbolism in one scene where Evelyn has just managed to cajole the milkman into letting her slide on the week’s payment, and Kelly acts out his resentment:

“Their disagreement escalates, they engage physically, briefly, and as she pulls away, she falls, crashing onto the floor, with milk and glass flying everywhere, in slow motion. Kelly is horrified, the kids (who are always everywhere in the frame) are frightened, and mother, her wrists bloodied by her effort to break her fall into shards of milk bottle glass, struggles to get to her feet amid the slippery red and white liquid that swirls around her.

It's difficult to guess what anyone had in mind for this image, but the effect is startling: the ultimate mother, at once ideal and wretched, awash in symbols of her function in life.” - Cynthia Fuchs

It does seem either Marionite or Pagan, and occurring in the midst of a generally straightforward narrative, is a halting and haunting moment that doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s there for.

While Jeremy Fox wonders: “Is she a victim of her times, does she make herself a victim by failing to stand up and demand better than what she gets, or is she ultimately a success because she keeps her home and family together despite the odds and raises 10 kids who almost all go on to college and good careers? The movie doesn’t have a point of view on this central question or, rather, it has all three. Anderson seems to have too much empathy with Evelyn to excoriate her for not being a trailblazer, but she’s also too much a woman of her own times to completely let Evelyn off the hook.”

We notice the feminist text when we see the family watching a beauty pageant on TV and the contestant is asked if a woman could be president. She tells us, no, women are too emotional for such a job. The director expects us to smile because here we have Evelyn who has more moxie, intelligence, and intestinal fortitude than any man in this story.

The recreation of TV jingle ads featuring singing models is also intended to provoke a little feminist contempt along with the presentation of the Affadaisies and the recitation of the accomplishments of its members who have won various prizes like the Pillsbury Bake-Off, and the same sorts of contests Evelyn enters.

“. . . this caramelized production . . . — a candy-colored perkiness that bathes every triumph, every setback, and every Ryan in the forgiving light of Simpler Times. . .” - Lisa Schwarzbaum

How this is a caramelized version of life in Simpler Times escapes me. A working class family, a drunken father, a strong mom and life exactly as it was lived is cotton candy?

Simple is the furthest thing from truth when you’re poor and the cause of it is sitting in your midst threatening you with violence either occasionally or every night. Simple as in being a byword on the block as “those poor Ryans” and going to school knowing your dad is famous for being a ne‘er do well? Simple as in bearing your shame, your burdens without going on Oprah, but instead going to Church?

This movie which reveals the hardship in Technicolor and never shies away from it, doesn’t wallow in it either. It has a better idea. Why not get through it?

If this movie had been about a Japanese or a French family, the great majority of critics would have whooped it up. Instead, at Rotten Tomatoes it received a 58% score with 45 in favor and 32 against. A majority did endorse the film, and often glowingly, but that begs another question: is there an audience for this kind of movie?

After all, light, domestic comedies such as The Egg and I, Cheaper By the Dozen (the original), Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Life with Father, I remember Mama, and Yours, Mine and Ours (the original) were mostly endearing comedies without social comment. They weren’t mixed with scenes of homegrown violence and children’s eyes filled with fear.

Evelyn Ryan, though, is a heroine in this tribute to her and a far cry from the pathetic Angela’s Ashes, that keening Celtic lament about awful choices. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is not a wretched victim. Rather, she is defiantly American, positive without being stupid, and lastingly triumphant. Not because she outlives her husband, but because she manages to achieve great things - being a wonderful mother, finding a way to keep her mind alive, and taking joy everywhere it presents itself.

In one scene after she returns bandaged from the accident with the milk, Kelly tells her in his maudlin way that he only wants to make her happy. Her reply is stiff and cutting, “I don’t need you to make me happy. I only need you to leave me alone when I am.”

About time she told him off, the audience must exclaim at that point, yet her words cuts him to the quick in their bitter renunciation of any lingering affection she might have had towards him. After that, all we see of Kelly is a whipped man.

That is part of her triumph, though, that the feminists refuse to recognize. She knows how to be content with herself, her children, and even with an unequal partner. She is too resilient to be considered as a mere survivor. Kelly survives. He goes to work. He drinks. He goes to sleep. He does that over and over again. Evelyn gets up and lives, enjoys, delights, prays, and grows smarter and stronger.

Evelyn becomes empowered (I hate that word) not through any ideological women’s movement, but through her keen intellect, serving her children, loving friends, and reliance on good models and faith.

Because this movie celebrates domestic virtues, and is mixed with painful exposition, it is by that reason alone unlikely to attract a large audience. It has a different kind of light and darkness than is in It’s A Wonderful Life, for example. We forget how dark that movie is, but it’s relieved by a happy ending. Prize Winner has a happy ending, too, but it takes place in the fullness of time, not according to the driven dictates of a fictional plot.

Watch this movie, and then watch it again to show it to a friend and see how much it grows on you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.


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