The ongoing Hollywood deconstruction of Eisenhower-era American values hits a speed bump of sorts in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, a whimsical, stylish tribute to the wit and inner strength of a Donna Reed–esque housewife and mother of ten (Julianne Moore) whose bouyancy and creative flair holds her family together in spite of little help and indeed much resistance from her alcoholic, bullying husband (Woody Harrelson).
Based on the memoir of one of “prize winner” Evelyn Ryan’s ten children, writer-director Jane Anderson’s film recalls the 1950s phenomenon of jingle-writing “contesting,” which could become a veritable cottage industry for verbally apt housewives (or “jingle belles,” in the typically clever turn of phrase of a group of such contesting regulars headed by Laura Dern).
Like Far From Heaven and The Hours — both of which also starred Julianne Moore as a 1950s housewife in a deeply troubled marriage — The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is overshadowed by the dark side of the Cleaver era. Beneath the film’s primary colors and cheery modernity is an old boys’ network in which neighborhood policemen and the alcoholic parish priest have more sympathy and understanding for a drunken, loutish husband and father than for his long-suffering wife.
Yet Evelyn is no passive victim. Where The Hours offered a bitter manifesto on behalf of “women living lives they have no wish to live,” The Prize Winner celebrates a woman who chooses happiness despite the harsh problems of her world, and who succeeds in making that world better for those she loves. Moore’s character in The Hours was driven to abandon her husband and family, but Evelyn’s commitment to her family (and her faith) is unmoved by the failures of her husband (and her priest). It’s an almost subversively idealistic subtext to a now-familiar ritual exposé of the American dream.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.