This movie mom writes jingles

By Brooks Robards - May 11, 2006

"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," playing at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven this Sunday, May 14, in honor of Mother's Day, opens in 1956. Women's work then was confined to keeping house and raising children. The prize money Evelyn Ryan, mother of 10, wins from entering contests for advertising jingles and slogans comes in mighty handy, since her husband Kelly drinks up most of his paycheck. Based on a real-life memoir written by Ms. Ryan's daughter, Terry, the movie provides an offbeat, stylized overview of life in the Midwest long before dysfunctional families became grist for the TV sitcom mill.

Women may have been second-class citizens in the 1950s, but Evelyn Ryan, as played by Julianne Moore, is no slouch. She loves words and puts the skills she learned as a newspaper reporter before marriage to good use, entering contests that bring the family a stream of useful products - from bicycles to home freezers.

The $5,000 prize she wins in one contest enables the family to avoid eviction and make the down payment on a house of their own. Her supermarket shopping spree allows the family to taste a variety of exotic goods like caviar and hearts of palm. In four years, Evelyn wins two ice buckets, 16 ice crushers, a lifetime supply of birdseed, and a free window installation just in time to fix a broken window pane.

Moviegoers who remember Ms. Moore's bravura performance in "Far From Heaven" will appreciate the fine line she draws between Mary Poppins-style good cheer and a survivor's true grit. A lesser actress might have turned Evelyn into a mawkish martyr.

Film Short: Intriguing French mystery on screen

Caché, a psychological suspense drama from France, will be shown at the Island Theater in Oak Bluffs this Sunday, May 14, another in a series of art films presented exclusively at the theater. Caché has won five European film awards including Best Picture, Director, and Actor, also Best Director for Michael Hanneke at Cannes. The film stars Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche as a couple living a perfect life that is suddenly disrupted by a mysterious videotape. Critics have described the film as "a deliciously elusive mystery...brilliantly disturbing, constructed with surgical precision."

Caché, Sunday, May 14, 4 and 7 pm, Island Theater, Oak Bluffs.

Wit and product focus are what the contest companies are looking for, Evelyn tells the audience. The movie's direct address is just one of the rhetorical techniques director Jane Anderson marshals - others include black and white sequences and animation - to distance viewers from the Ryan family's story and emphasize the gaps between life in the 50s and today. Current consumers are more likely to buy lottery tickets than write jingles.

Ms. Anderson makes her movie-directing debut in "The Prize Winner." A screenwriter and television producer who specializes in issues affecting women, she wrote the scripts for "If These Walls Could Talk" and "How to Make an American Quilt" and directed the TV movies "Normal" and "When Billy Beat Bobby." In "The Prize Winner," Ms. Anderson wields a lightly satirical touch to raise questions about the emptiness underlying the era's "new, improved" product ethos.

As played by Woody Harrelson, Evelyn's husband Kelly is a nice, if troubled, guy whose dreams were dashed by an auto accident that ended his singing career. He comes home from work as a machinist and downs a six-pack of beer and a pint of whiskey, then loses his temper when the Red Sox beat the Indians.

Movies need their villains, and Kelly is stuck with the job. Fortunately, Dad saves his abuse for the prize freezer, although he does tell Evelyn, "You're too damned happy" and contributes to a milk spill that sends her to the Emergency Room. This is that prehistoric era before drinking became an "ism" and domestic violence acquired a label.

At the same time that "The Prize Winner" puts a positive spin on the Ryan family's misfortunes, it doesn't entirely pull its punches. After Evelyn seeks help from the parish priest and he tells her to "try a little harder," one of her kids mutters, "his breath smells like Daddy's."

Evelyn finds an ally in fellow Contester Dortha Schaefer, played by Laura Dern, whose talents seem wasted in an underwritten part.

The Ryan's 10 children mostly serve as props for "mother" and "dad." Tuff (Terry) Ryan, who penned the memoir on which the movie is based, provides an exception. Played by Ellary Porterfield, she gives vent to the frustrations that her mother chooses not to mention. "If I were you, I'd be mad all the time," she tells her mother.

This funky, if not entirely successful, look at life in the late 50s and early 60s pays tribute to motherhood in ways that provide insight into how women coped in an era that often eclipsed their contributions.

"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" Sunday, May 14, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring St., Vineyard Haven. $6; $4 for members. Mom gets in free when you buy a ticket. 508-696-9369.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to the Times.