July’s Movie of the Month, the 1996 abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, was the debut feature from blistering satirist Alexander Payne. Since this initial work of relentlessly bleak humor, Payne has consistently delivered soul-crippling dramedies that typically fall somewhere between Todd Solondz & Noah Baumbach in their meticulous indulgence in human despair. What’s been less consistent, however, is the way Payne has dealt with the prominence of his female characters. Citizen Ruth dealt with a homeless addict who unwittingly finds herself the center of a national debate on abortion rights. Although Ruth, played with heartbreaking sincerity & total lack of vanity by a top-of-her-game Laura Dern, navigates a world where her legal & bodily struggles are dominated by a vast network of uncaring men, she is still the center of her own story. Citizen Ruth is the only top-billed Laura Dern performance where her protagonist actually commands the film’s POV. It also happens to be the only film from Alexander Payne that centers entirely on a woman’s POV, a perspective he’s been seemingly drifting further away from ever since.
Alexander Payne’s last three films have all included interesting, complex roles for female characters, but they’re roles that mostly color & complicate the lives of the writer-director’s male protagonists. Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska are all about men, usually middle-aged, in a moment of personal crisis. Payne-penned women merely swirl around them. The closest Payne has gotten to repeating the female-centered POV of Citizen Ruth was in his follow-up to that initial work (and his best film to date, in my opinion), Election. The 1999 MTV-produced dark comedy Election doesn’t exactly have a female protagonist, but does its best to split its POV 50/50 along the gender binary among four equally interesting characters. It’s also acidically critical of adult male power dynamics in how they deal with the women under their influence, another aspect of Payne’s early work you aren’t going to see echoed in films like Sideways.
Election derives its title from its fictional high school presidential election in which young, A-type personality Tracy Flick (played as a hilariously uptight go-getter by Reese Witherspoon) is roadblocked by bitter middle-aged teacher Jim McAllister (a full-schlep Matthew Broderick), who is annoyed to the point of cruelty by her youthful promise & his own personal failures. I remembered from watching this film as a teen that both of these characters were dismally selfish & abusive, but it plays very differently returning to it as an adult. Tracy Flick can be annoying, sure, as many high school goody two-shoes can, but she in no way matches the grown man evil of Jim McAllister. The film begins with McAllister blaming the underage Flick for ruining the life & career of a colleague, an adult man & an unlikely father figure, who she had an affair with. This pattern repeats itself later in the film when McAllister himself has an affair & again blames the woman for the transgression. The worst you could say about Flick is that she’s demanding & self-serving (to the point where she treats Jesus like an employee in her bedtime prayers), but there’s an element of class politics in that demeanor. Flick comes from a poor, single-parent family & works hard, militantly hard, to free herself from that economic restraint, looking down on the kids who have it easier & don’t have to try as hard with as much daily persistence to succeed. McAllister, who has settled for a mediocre life in a loveless marriage, getting small thrills from participating in high school extracurriculars & beating off to high school-themed porn in his basement, hates the promise Flick works so hard to secure for her future & seeks to nip it in the bud when he hits his spiritual low point. It’s a far worse impulse than anything you could say about Flick’s naked, admittedly abrasive ambition.
Payne pits Flick & McAllister against each other in a larger narrative involving a charming idiot jock & his lesbian slacker sister (who share narration duties with the main characters), a structure that recalls the political satire vs. character study narrative arc of Citizen Ruth. This 50/50 gender split is the closest Payne’s ever come to returning to the female POV of his debut, which isn’t exactly a mark against his films’ overall quality, but does point to an interesting shift in the way he’s written stories since his early stirrings in the 90s. The only time I’ve become actively annoyed with the masculine-centered POV in a Payne film is in the middle-aged ennui of Sideways, but that was mostly a matter of personal taste. Still, I’d gladly welcome a Payne project that returned to the feminine POV of his first two films, It looks like his next project, Downsizing, will at least be a return to the 50/50 split of his sophomore work, a film that might divide its attentions between characters portrayed by Sideways‘s Paul Giamatti & Election‘s Reese Witherspoon. It could be a start, but still wouldn’t be a full return to the perspective established in Citizen Ruth. Hell, as long as Payne’s bringing back old collaborators, he might as well write another starring role for Citizen Ruth‘s Laura Dern. The world desperately needs more of her top-bill performances & Payne himself could use an excuse to write another work from a woman’s perspective, a creative starting point he seems to be drifting further away from with each project.
For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy, and last week’s comparison of Laura Dern’s performance with her other top-billed roles.