Retro-mad film review: Fried Green Tomatoes (US, 1991)

I was watching stand-up comedian Margaret Cho’s “Revolution” (might review the DVD soon – she’s gay and funny, I’m a big fan), while waiting for Jon Stewart’s greatest lesbian moments load in, (he’s straight, smart,  funny and pro-gay, what more can you ask?) and listening to the radio at the same time. Suddenly, “Baby I Need Your Loving” came on the British radio. I happen to shamelessly and secretly love Motown. The coolest thing about volunteering at Oxfam is having access to a plethora of music ranging from African music, to Motown to 80s music and so on.

The Secret Life of Bees

Anyway, the song plays and I remember “The Secret Life of Bees”, which starred Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys and an eeriely older Dakota Fanning. Queen Latifah is an Oscar and Grammy winner (Chicago, Hairspray, but I will always remember her as the bad ass lesbian in “Set If Off” – she rocks a lesbian and she had one hot girlfriend in that movie), Jennifer Hudson is the American Idol runner-up and Oscar winner, Alicia Keys is of course best known for being the New York born, Grammy winning, bad-ass piano prodigy, Dakota Fanning is of course, famous for being the precocious child actor who plays precocious children really well. Anyway, this is another one of those Southern dramas replete with mystery, memories of African American oppression, the fight for civil rights and so on. Set in the 1960s when African Americans were granted the right to vote, it is interesting in the first half, and then it just lost me in the second half. I don’t know why, it just bored me. Though there was tension,  conflict and so on, it just seemed bland, and lacked character motivation and plot. I assume the screenwriters (apparently it was based on a book) assumed that thoughtfully adding issues of class, race, civil rights, a few scenes of violence would make up for its blandness,but that didn’t work. I also think it also has to do with all these award-winning actors all in one movie. I think there should be a rule against that, because I seriously think that one movie can’t take all those award-winning actors all in one show – the universe would simply just…implode. The only good thing I liked about this film was Sophie Okonedo (underrated! She should do more films. And not because she played a mentally challenged young woman in this film), and that’s because I think she has the talent and she could carry a whole film just by her lonesome. I hope she does soon.

Fried Green Tomatoes

fried 1Which brings us to Fried Green Tomatoes, a 1991 film directed by Jon Avnet, adapted from the novel by Fanny Flagg entitled “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe”. I know this is a little dated, it had come out in 1991 and hence is almost two decades old, but it’s worth watching, or re-watching again, because this movie, unlike “The Secret Life of Bees”, is actually a thought-provoking, tender, sweet, well-crafted tale about an American South that’s long gone. It is a movie that is both romantic and bittersweet, and it has all the charm that “The Secret Life of Bees” lacks. Very few stories about the American South touch the heart like this one, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a brief respite from the mindless, special effects-laden summer blockbuster line-up this year. I also recommend “The Color Purple” (although I recommend the book more than the movie. But the movie features a very young Whoopie Goldberg in her feature debut, so that’s worth checking out) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (true, this one has no gay subtext – but I love it nonetheless). And if you’re feeling industrious, you must read and watch (not necessarily in that order) “Gone with the Wind”, the mother of all literature that is American South. Anyway, interestingly enough I get to watch this film only last year – but that was because in 1991, I was in high school, and I had the mistake of reading the movie reviews about this film from a Catholic magazine in my hometown, back in the Philippines, so you can imagine how an impressionable young person would view such a film with such content. But now, I have watched it and I have no regrets.

The Story

Evelyn Couch (the divine Kathy Bates) is in the middle of a mid-life crisis. Overweight, stuck in the suburbs, unhappy with a marriage that has fizzled out and a husband who prefers watching baseball and dinner (preferably at the same time) over her sexual overtures, she is at the end of her rope. A stay-at-home wife, she fills her time going to vagina workshops and workshops that tell her how to rekindle her marriage. Once, when she goes to visit the care home where her mother-in-law (who, of course, hates her) stays, she stumbles across Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy, “Driving Miss Daisy”) who is alone and lonely herself, but is happy and friendly enough to share the story of the Threadgoodes, especially the life and times of Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary Louise Parker), who go through the ups and downs of life together.

fried2Ruth and Idgie meet while Idgie’s older  and favorite brother, Buddy Threadgoode (Chris O’Donnell) is flirting with Ruth. A tragic accident (Buddy gets run over by a train while trying to retrieve Ruth’s hat) devastates Idgie and she retreats from her family and community, choosing instead to live on her own and to hang out with the town’s not-so-reputable citizens, drinking, smoking, gambling, getting into fights and strutting around in men’s clothes. Idgie’s mother is up-in-arms, but does not know how to deal with this daughter and so, one summer, a few years later, she enlists the help of Ruth (who is staying for the summer before she gets married) to coax Idgie out of her unlady-like, rebellious, uncouth ways and start living like a proper young Southern woman. This proves unsuccessful, and it only draws Ruth into Idgie’s world. Idgie, in fact, succeeds in making Ruth help her give out goods illegally from the back of a train, jump off a train, have a picnic near a bee’s nest, get drunk, play baseball, swim naked and drunk in the river and play poker. While Idgie is already set in her ways, and does not change, clearly Ruth has a soft spot in her heart.

And this is where a lot of viewers, critics and fans have argued. The book on which the film is based makes it clear that Idgie and Ruth are lovers. The film version has sanitized and effectively de-gayed it. But this 1991, pre-Ellen, pre-Will and Grace, pre-Queer as Folk and pre-L-Word. It was a different time then. So when one views this, one can and might become confused about the relationship. One can view them as really close friends or full-on lesbian lovers. If you think they are just intensely close, then you are leaving in the Dark Ages. ^^ For Ruth and Idgie are gayer than the lesbians at a Pride March, the characters of L-Word and Queer as Folk  combined. ^^

fried 3Case in point: You can see it in the long, lingering, smoldering looks they give each other , most notably during the bee and honey scene, where, as Ruth looks on while Idgie goes to get honey just for her, a multitude of emotions go over her face: fear, trepidation, admiration, awe. In fact, I do believe this is probably where she falls for the charming Idgie. When after getting drunk during Ruth’s birthday, Ruth announces to her that she is getting married, Idgie’s crestfallen expression gives away much about what she feels, and when Ruth gives her a drunken kiss, Idgie’s expression shifts – like she is perplexed, but also, like she has died and gone to heaven.  And so, when Ruth gets married, Idgie refuses to attend the wedding (because what lesbian in her right mind would want to watch her beloved get married to someone else?) , but drives all the way to Alabama (from Georgia) to see Ruth and her husband set foot in their new house for the first time. It becomes more implicitly gay when Idgie gets up the courage to visit her after a few months (because that’s what we do – especially those of us incapable of articulating our feelings to pretty women ^^), finds out Ruth is being beaten up by her husband and gets all worked up. Ruth convinces her not to do anything and Idgie relents. But when Ruth’s mother dies, and Ruth sends a cryptic biblical verse to Idgie (Ruth 1:16), it sends Idgie bursting in Ruth’s house, taking her away from all the violence of her husband  (but not after her husband hits and kicks her one last time). Ruth leaves with Idgie, and Idgie gets enough money to start off a cafe with her. The front area is for white people, while the back area is for black people. All is well, and Ruth and Idgie raise Ruth’s son together. Ruth’s husband comes back though and demands his wife and son to come back with him, but Idgie defends her family and home, because, you know, Idgie is kind of the “man of the house” – and she rocks the part as well. ^^ Anyway – this is where it gets hazy (this is hazier than the implied relationship between the two main characters): the husband disappears and the issue would have been dead and buried, except one day, the husband’s truck surfaces from a river a few miles from the cafe, so the police from Georgia start investigating. Since they can’t find the body and are aware of the tension between Idgie and the husband – Idgie goes court, only to get off scot-free when her mortal enemy, the town reverend,  concocts an alibi for her at Ruth’s request (now, that is true love). They live a long life, until Ruth dies and Idgie raises her son alone.

This is a story within a story,and the other story here is that of Evelyn, who, upon hearing the story of the two women empowers herself, able to stand up to people who regularly ridicule her, gets a job and even puts  her husband in his place.

Dreamy and poignant, this story is actually as much an ode to an American South long gone, as an ode to the strength, beauty and endurance of female friendships, and relationships, at it were. Production values are sound – although this being the early 90s, it does have that gritty, early-90s-set-in-the-60s feel to it – with none of the glossy, clean feel of newer digital filmmaking and special effects. But this film compensates with a solid story that keeps you riveted to the screen the whole time, superb acting from the leads, especially Mary Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson, and supporting leads from Kathy Bates and the late, great Jessica Tandy (who won an Oscar for this movie). The only beef I had about this film was, as I already mentioned, the sanitized, lesbian overtones. When I was watching it, I had this distinct feeling that Idgie fell for Ruth because she hero-worshipped her brother so much this was a kind of f*cked-up way of getting closer to her dead brother, rather than a natural, personal choice for her. Hence her lesbianism was in direct correlation with the brother, not with Ruth. I find out this is also an issue that other critics have raised with the movie, since the book establishes that Idgie was a flaming lesbian (^^) and her brother had nothing to do with her lesbianism or her feelings for Ruth. There are instances in the book, in fact, when Idgie allegedly has sexual relations with prostitutes, a fact that Ruth is jealous about. Anyway, that being said, this film is still as gay as can be, and as notes, it even has a courtship period, a period of long absence, and a period where they actually get together and live a (not-so) happily ever after. As for the consummation of the relationship, the director reveals in his  commentary of the DVD of this film (commentaries! the greatest thing that has ever happened to DVD! yay!) that since there was no way of showing overt displays of affection in the film – the food fight scene is the outlet with which they show and defuse all that pent-up sexual tension between the two. Good call. All that physical action in the food fight, including the food and sex connection, makes for a good articulation of the subtext.

Overall, despite the downplaying of the gay aspects of it, this is an excellent film. As one watches this, one actually becomes wistful for those days long gone when though the fashion was bad,  the hair was bad and the special effects were bad, in films,but the stories and the acting were good. I hope for a cinematic renaissance of those things soon – maybe not the bad hair, and the bad fashion – but the excellent stories and excellent acting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s