Surprise Winner
The Prize Winner
of Defiance, Ohio
How  One Remarkable
Housewife Raised 
Ten Kids On 
Words or Less

by Renate Stendhal

I went in with a certain trepidation. Would this be the typical Hollywood feel-good sappy, the predictable tearjerker for a women's audience?

I had read the book, met the author, Terry Ryan, whose shy charm and sense of humor had instantly convinced me of her truthfulness. This is the kind of daughter, I thought, who comes from a mother of true grit and brilliance. With "25 words or less", this woman managed to beat out the competition of up to 250 000 other housewives and mothers busily penning slogans, jingles and funny songs about toothpaste or washing powder during the advertising contest craze of the fifties and early sixties. Naturally, if you are one of her ten kids and have survived the daily disaster of a drunken raging father thanks to the verbal (and other) miracles created by such a mother, you will write about her as if she were a  fairy out of a fairytale.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a daughter's homage, and it rings true even if one has to imagine the much darker shadows in corners that were left untouched. The film pays its own homage to the daughter when Terry Ryan appears onscreen at the end to receive her mother's old typewriter as her inheritance. You can tell from this brief appearance how much she has indeed inherited from her mother.

The perilous move from bestseller to Hollywood movie was an obvious step – after all, this is a story of an underdog who wins out against all odds, the kind of story audiences tend to love best. But the insatiable movie machine could easily have dumbed down the extraordinary mother for mass identification, or over-sized her for sugarcoated family-values pontification. Choosing Julienne Moore to play another fifties housewife and mother could have seemed oddly calculated. Watching two casts of ten kids each grow up among different neighbors over some ten years might have made it hard to detect anything but the blur of a crowd. The dangers were innumerable.

I came out converted. Prize Winner is indeed a winner. Scriptwriter and director Jane Anderson (who made a daring 2003 TV movie, "Normal", about a husband turning transsexual) did a terrific job making the fairytale about the remarkable Evelyn Ryan engaging and "real" enough. There is the unavoidable repetitiveness of constant disasters followed by prize victories, but Anderson breaks them up with fast-forward animation and comic devices – like having Julianne Moore reciting jingles directly to the camera and promptly handing her apron-clad double at the kitchen table another blender or toaster she has just won. The director invents a hilarious visual display of all the kitchen gadgets, toys and palm trees, bicycles and romantic trips for two that this mother of ten has won – and sold in order to keep the family afloat. There are many charged and bitter-sweet moments, as when a spiffy Triumph lands in front of the family's simple house and the mother refuses to learn to drive it because that would make selling the car too hard to bear. In the absence of a truly dramatic arc, the film relies on the marvel of great acting in order to sustain emotional intensity, and achieves a poignant crescendo at the end.

Julianne Moore is different here than in her previous housewife roles (The Hours and Far From Heaven). She is luminous in her warm-hearted, sometimes childlike life joy and understated in her heroism. In fact, underneath her cheerful optimism, she makes us feel  the steely determination not ever to be provoked by the despair, humiliation, shame and rage her wreck of a husband triggers. These feelings clearly show, however, in the pained faces and cowering attitudes of the children and (later) teenagers. The kids perfectly convey the paralysis that grips them whenever father's violence threatens. Like shipwrecked souls they cling to the one solid hold they have: their mother's unflappable refusal to loose it. Only little tomboy Terry, alias "Tuff," spits out the truth about dad every now and then, and the film very organically develops her character out of the bunch of kids into the third protagonist. Ellary Porterfield (a young actress from Oregon who made her first mark on TV with Stuck in the Middle With You) in the role of teenage Terry ("Tuff") Ryan holds the screen next to Moore with impressive acting. She is the intelligent, sensitive witness who battles with the temptation to hate, and learns from her mother to try and stretch herself beyond the simplification of black and white.

It is no secret that Julianne Moore is an extraordinary actress, but it is a marvel time and again to see her at work. In the role of Evelyn Ryan we read in the mere expression of her eyes the process this "endangered" wife and mother goes through when the few dollars needed for milk have once again gone into booze; when she has to humiliate herself in front of the hostile milkman in order to get that milk for her kids; or when her husband attacks the big freezer she has won because he envies her success and doubly resents it because he would never be able to fill it with food. She seems to go inside to a place where she weighs her options and then chooses not to escalate the situation, not to pity herself and not to become a victim, but to embrace the crisis with intelligence to see how she can hold it or even turn it around or, with the very economy of patience and the bravery of goodwill, make the best of it – at least for the moment. At least for the kids.   .

Moore makes it easy to forget that there is no character development in either the mother or father of the family. Moore also creates outrageous moments of triumph and joy, mixed with comic relief when Evelyn Ryan's hungry mind can't resist the temptation to turn even serious events at home into a new jingle. Her jingle obsession leads to a witty exchange of written compliments with one of her strongest rivals, Dortha Schaefer– a delightful cameo by Laura Dern –, and to a welcome escape from home to meet  with  an elite circle of other verbally gifted  housewives. The scene is a reminder that in her youth, Evelyn had started out in a promising career as a journalist before she got married. When Evelyn and Dortha compare their entries in a sandwich contest, Evelyn's "housewife rap" is acknowledged as the clear winner:

Frisk-the Frigidaire
Clean-the-Cupboards Bare

With the unmistakable stamp of the 50's, one of Evelyn's prizes is a shopping-spree race against the clock in a supermarket. The stuffy atmosphere of the era is captured in a particularly tense moment when Evelyn asks the local priest for help with her alcoholic husband and takes in his advice. He tells her to consider the heavy burdens placed on her bread-winning man... whom she needs to understand and try just a little harder to please. The fleeting astonishment that passes through Moore's eyes at that moment is priceless as it turns into abysmal loneliness and the strange resolve that remains the mystery of Evelyn Ryan.

Woody Harrelson as the father delivers a portrait of a metaphorically castrated man –  scary in his drunken rages, his brooding, glowering moods, and pitiful. Having wooed Evelyn as a young crooner, a small-town star, he lost his singing voice in a drunken driving accident. He can't get over his misery, and it is painful to watch him in his arrested development like a once spoiled child who will destroy rather than appreciate what he has left. He tries, but his incapacities make it even more painful to behold the resourcefulness of his wife. Even though she can't confront his violence Evelyn manages to set certain limits with her man. She tries to distract him from his temper tantrums and negotiates fights between him and the kids with Salomon wisdom. "You know what your problem is, Mother?" he asks while the family celebrates another prize victory, getting menacingly into her face, "You are too damned happy!" She turns this jealous attack into a good-hearted laugh, joined on cue by all the kids, and he ends up mollified as if he had said something really funny. One often yearns for her to kill him – only to sense the wordless relief of the children every time she succeeds in cajoling him. When he has finally destroyed the family's last solid hold, the last hope and pride Evelyn made possible through her prize winning, he whines, "Do you hate me now?" To see Julianne Moore take this in, and to hear what she replies, is worth the movie ticket.


Send Us Your Comments
About This Article


©2005 Renate Stendhal
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D.,  is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives




december 2005

Cover | Contents | inFocus | inView | reView | inSight | Qreviews | Letters | Links Subscribe | Privacy | About | Terms | Contact | Advertising | Archives

© 2000-2005 Scene4 - International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media - AVIAR-DKA Ltd - Aviar Media LLC. All rights reserved (including author and individual copyrights as indicated). All copyrights, trademarks and servicemarks are protected by the laws of the United States and International laws. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.