The Prize-Winner of Defiance, Ohio

The Prize-Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Film review by: Witney Seibold



            Julianne Moore plays a real-life 1950s housewife named Evelyn Ryan who, to supplement the meager income of her machinist husband and feed her twelve children, entered jingle-writing contests and sweepstakes. Oftentimes the prizes would include item of dubious usefulness, like a dozen ice-crushers, but just as often, there was a large cash prize. Her husband, Kelly, was an angry drinker who would often beat the furniture (and probably the kids as well, although this film never addresses it) and bellyache that he was not the “breadwinner” of the house. Her children lived in fear of him. Her last win was her biggest, and she seemed to accomplish the Herculean task of keeping a large family and household together.

It’s not a terrible film, merely awful. I think this is due in large part to the casting of Woody Harrelson as Evelyn’s alcoholic and emotionally crippled husband. You see, as this film takes place in the 1950s, director Jane Anderson, has chosen a bright chintzy look for it. The music is cute, the contests are presented in invigorating special-effects-laden montages, and Julianne Moore is very good (it would be a strain for her to be bad) as an insuppressibly happy person. There are even a few wonderfully tasteless jokes involving a woman in a decorated iron lung. Then Harrelson barges into the room, evidently from another film, perhaps Natural Born Killers, and proceeds to defy everything the film has been setting up. Into this delightful and fanciful world of melodrama and defiance and winning-against-insurmountable-odds comes a cold, dark, bracing punch in the face of an abusive, thick-necked, broken, alky asshole. The financial hardship they all suffer at his hands is a very palpable thing. The kids live in fear of him. Why does Evelyn stay?


I’m not naïve; I know the stigma attached to divorce in the 1950s, but Evelyn’s winnings were not depicted in the film as acts of heroism or independence from this world (as is, I suspect, the filmmaker’s intention). The book upon which this film is based was written by one of Evelyn’s daughters, and I think the shift to the first person exposed the unsolved mystery of why Evelyn stayed. She came across as foolish and misguided. The performances were fine, but the general thrust of the film was wrong.

The real-life Ryan children appear at the end of this film, and it’s such a ham-handed maneuver that, well, I wasn’t the only one laughing in incredulity.

-September 30th, DreamWorks

Published in: on January 30, 2009 at 1:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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