Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and the Erosion of the Female POV in Alexander Payne’s Filmography

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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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Strangely Imperfect Trinity of Top-Billed Laura Dern Performances

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When we were discussing July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s mid-90s abortion comedy debut Citizen Ruth, I noted how rare of a treat it was to see Laura Dern receive top bill in a film, any film. I didn’t realize at the time exactly how rare that treat was. Although the child of two well-renowned, actors, Laura Dern has only starred top bill in three theatrically released feature films. That’s less than one film a decade in a professional career that spans back all the way to 1973. I’ve always thought of Dern as an enigmatic, striking screen presence capable of stealing any film she stars in, from Jurassic Park to her various David Lynch collaborations to her odd childhood appearance in the Cher melodrama Mask. It seems so strange to me, then, that the actor would be afforded so few opportunities to anchor a film with that idiosyncratic, attention-commanding presence. Even stranger still is the bizarrely imperfect set of roles that make up her top billing trinity. Dern commits herself whole-heartedly & with great humility to each lead role she’s allowed, but the nature & number of those roles suggest that she’s working in an industry that’s unsure what to do with that sense of commitment.

I’d say, far and away, the best performance in Dern’s top billing trinity is the one we’ve already discussed extensively here in Citizen Ruth. A homeless, pregnant addict who cares more about huffing household chemicals for a cheap high than engaging with the political debate that surrounds her unborn fetus, Ruth is one hell of a protagonist, a deeply damaged character that pushes past anti-hero into something much more disturbing. As I said before, the character she most closely resembles in my pop culture data bank is Stranger with Candy‘s hellishly cruel protagonist Jerri Blank, an undeniably bad person whose corrupt moral center is in far worse shape than a simple explanation of chemical dependency. In Citizen Ruth, Dern is charged with embodying a Jerri Blank archetype worthy of an audience’s sympathy. It’s no small task. On the one hand Ruth is a victim of an imperfect economic system, one reduced to a political talking point in an abortion rights debate she wants nothing to do with in the first place. On the other hand, she’s an aggressively air-headed subhuman willing to lie, cheat, steal, and gut punch children as much as needed to achieve her never-ending, immediate goal of huffing herself high. Alexander Payne constructs a dangerously dark line of humor in Ruth’s troubled character & Dern finds a way to make the blistering mess of a human being somehow, improbably endearing. It’s incredible how much joy you get watching Ruth pull off her (absurdly modest) heist of the century at the film’s conclusion, especially considering the morbid circumstances that lead to that moment & the grim implications of that character’s most logical future. Dern deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a heist of her own with the audience’s sympathies in that role & it stands as an easy choice for her best top bill performance to date.

Dern’s very first top bill performance predates Citizen Ruth by a five year gap, but her titular characters in both films share a surprising number of similarities. 1991’s Rambling Rose was an early high point in Dern’s career in terms of accolades, but maybe defines a low point in the context of artistic adventurousness. Filmed after her early David Lynch collaborations Blue Velvet & Wild at Heart, but years before her peak moment of popularity in Jurassic Park, Rambling Rose finds Dern starring top bill in some blatant, uninspired Oscar bait. She almost landed that Oscar, too. The film marks the first time a mother & daughter were nominated for a single work (her mother Diane Ladd stars opposite of her as the film’s matriarch) and at just the age of 24 Dern was one of the youngest actors ever nominated for the Best Leading Actress Academy Award. In the film she plays even younger, depicting a teenage girl in the Depression-era South who’s taken in by a charitable family attempting to save her from forced prostitution. In essence, Rambling Rose is a watered-down version of the Brooke Shields shock drama Pretty Baby. However, by casting an adult Dern as its underage sex worker (who never actually does any sex work) and reducing her dangerously vulnerable place in the world to a source of melodrama & light humor, the film makes its teenage-prostitute-in-peril story all the stranger. Rambling Rose portrays a long gone South where kids innocently play Cowboys & Indians and “Girls don’t want sex; girls want love” in an overly saccharine way that leaves no doubt that the film believes its own bullshit, all while hilariously mistackling hefty topics like budding teenage sociopathy & forced hysterectomies as a “cure” for an “overactive” libido. It’s a singularly strange, uncomfortable work, one that’s more than a little amusing in its ineptitude.

The strange thing here is how little Dern is given to do. Diane Ladd chews scenery as an anachronistically progressive matriarch that allows her to appear noble at every possible turn. Robert Duvall stars as the paterfamilias, known simply as “Daddy”(*shudder*), who is similarly, hilariously noble in his thwarting of the young, misguided Rose’s various sexual advances. I particularly enjoyed Duvall’s Southern drawl delivery of the line, “Put that damn tit back in your dress! Replace that tit.” A young Lukas Haas lights up the screen as a proto-Norman Bates preteen creep, one that convinces Rose to allow him to get her off with his little boy hand, a moment he emotionlessly accompanies with the line “Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating experience of my life.” Yuck. The boy hungers for Rose. Rose hungers for his father, a sexual desire that’s communicated largely through body language & intense eye-fucking (before she moves on to find beaus outside of Daddy’s home). She isn’t afforded much room to do anything else. Laura Dern is amusing & dorkily sexy in her titular role as Rose, but she isn’t given much to do outside indulging in some unsure, girlish lip-biting, delivering the film’s only on-screen orgasm, and proudly disrupting an entire town’s routine by parading in a flagrantly feminine strut while wearing a skin-tight flapper costume. Although Rose is much sweeter than the violently selfish Ruth, she’s got a similarly hedonistic view on life, a one-track mind that supplants Ruth’s quest for huffing spray paint with a quest for sex, something I have a hard time believing she doesn’t enjoy no matter how much moralizing the film does in lines like, “Sex ain’t nothing but a mosquito bite.” Rose is, of course, much sweeter than Ruth, but she’s just as humorously air-headed, as typified by her assertion, “I am only a human girl person!” Both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose use this (to put it generously) naiveté to their narrative advantage, constructing scenarios where Dern’s protagonists have little to no say over their own bodies & personal freedoms in a world full of men & political pundits looking to manipulate her to their own will. The difference is that Rambling Rose makes the mistake of telling its story through the men’s POV. Citizen Ruth actually centers its conflict on Ruth’s POV as she’s caught in the middle of others’ meddling, and it’s a much better film for that choice (among so many others).

The most recent entry in Dern’s top billing trilogy provided her a character much more active in her own destiny. The question of what that destiny is or what it means is largely up for interpretation, though, as David Lynch’s Inland Empire is an entirely incomprehensible work of deliberate art house obfuscation, a complex puzzle in which there is no possible answer to be found. To date, Inland Empire is Lynch’s latest & most incomprehensible work (a very crowded field on that latter point). It’s also the ugliest movie I’ve ever endured, a confusing experiment in standard definition photography that recalls the flip phone videos from last year’s documentary Amy, except stretched to feature length. In her third collaboration with the increasingly stylistically hostile director, Laura Dern plays a wealthy, confident actress that more closely resembles her personal life than her lead roles typically do. That’s about the only thing that resembles reality in this deliberate mess of Lynchian self-parody, a three hour (and some change) long masochistic trudge through Mathew Barney-esque art gallery nonsense. At times I enjoyed trying to wrap my head around its sprawling, yet insular narrative experimentation, but another part of me kept praying for David Yow’s shotgun-wielding psychopath from Southbound to crash the scene & yell “Quit being so fucking mysterious!” I like a little genre film formula mixed in with my art house abstraction & Inland Empire feels very little need to meet me halfway on that expectation of entertainment value.

I don’t mean to make the film sound like it’s entirely unhinged from any semblance of an A-B narrative. There is a central story at work here in which Dern’s successful actress protagonist is cast in a “remake” of a fictional film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, that was never completed because the original cast was murdered. At first this premise sounds like it’s setting up Lynch’s version of a Maps to the Stars style Hollywood satire, one riffing on a famed “cursed” script like Don Quixote or Confederacy of Dunces. The truth, of course, is much stranger than that as Dern’s troubled actress experiences a Persona-esque psychological break where she becomes unstuck in time & reality, alternating between her “real” life as a wealthy actress & the movie-within-the-movie role as an impoverished sex worker/adulteress in an art house narrative swirl that somehow lands between Slaughterhouse FiveThe Last Action Hero. Hardcore Lynch fans often list Inland Empire as one of the best films of the 2000s & Dern’s lead role as the artistic high point of her career. Although I find the film structurally fascinating, it’s hard for me to match the enthusiasm there. Between all of the film’s sex worker dance parties, pet monkeys, and humanoid rabbit sitcoms, I feel like Dern’s performance is mostly lost in the chaos & Lynch’s vision is similarly lost up its own ass. You could argue that Dern is afforded a wide range here, playing both a gussied up movie star & a violently discarded sex worker, but I think she knows a similar range in both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose and those films both have the added benefit of not looking like they were filmed on the unwashed backup cam of a used SUV.

There are a few narrative similarities you can draw across all three of Laura Dern’s top bill performances. For starters, all three works cast her protagonists as hopelessly stuck in a world dominated & controlled by men, whether it be the national politics of abortion rights, the Old South, or the Hollywood industry gossip machine. Oddly enough, all three roles also include an uncompleted pregnancy in their narratives, a coincidental, but telling detail that reveals a lot about the vulnerable kinds of lead roles Dern typically lands. Much like a lot of details in Lynch’s Inland Empire, Dern’s portrayal of a top-of-the-world actor is unfortunately detached from reality. Dern has had much more success headlining projects on television (an environment that’s a lot less hostile to women in general), including several made-for-TV movies and the well-regarded HBO series Enlightened. In cinema, it seems the industry is less sure what to do with her. By no stretch is her career at all flailing. In fact, she’s slated to appear in Episode VIII of Star Wars next year and has been consistently working as a lead actor for decades. It’s just weird to me how few roles in that time span have been top-billed and how the three that have aren’t quite sure what to do with her Shelley Duvall style of offbeat, dorky femininity. If you need any proof that Laura Dern should be headlining more feature films, you needn’t look any further than her devastating & humorous turn in Citizen Ruth. The deeply flawed Rambling Rose & Inland Empire do little but support that idea by proving she can remain charming & competent in even the most confounding productions. As a trio, Dern’s top billed performances typify a career that Hollywood could be serving far better in the way in the way it utilizes her talents. Dern is too capable of a performer to be so often cast as a supporting player. I’d love to see more roles for her where her name is perched at the very top of the movie poster. She’s earned that slot many times over.

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 & last week’s look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

Citizen Ruth (1996), Obvious Child (2014), and the Trajectory of the Modern Abortion Comedy

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July’s Movie of the Month, writer-director  Alexander Payne’s debut feature film Citizen Ruth, is a pitch black comedy about a woman pressured to have (or not to have) an abortion by political activists who care far less about her right to choose (or her unborn fetus’s right to life) than they do about scoring political points in the mass media. Payne intentionally chose the abortion rights debate as the moral crisis centerpiece of his film because he knew it was a hot button topic that would elicit strong reactions from his audience, one he could use to discuss the way a person’s humanity is stripped once they’re exploited as an issue instead of treated as an individual. This approach to abortion as a plot device in comedy is fairly typical. Movies that utilize abortion as a thematic focal point will often derive all of their dramatic weight from the decision about whether or not to have the procedure in this way, leaving the romance & humor of their narratives to separately function as relief from what is generally portrayed as a traumatic, life-changing experience. From classic examples like Fast Times at Ridgemont High & Dirty Dancing to recent comedies like Juno, Knocked Up, and Leslye Headland’s (sadly underappreciated) Bachelorette, abortion is almost always portrayed in cinema, even in comedy, as A Big Deal,  A Life-Changing Event, An Insurmountable Trauma. Citizen Ruth‘s major variation on that standard, besides its excruciatingly frank & honest discussion, is that it points the finger back at the political pundits that make abortion such a huge ordeal in the first place for the (fictional) woman who endures their grandstanding manipulation & exploitation.

The only comedy I’ve ever seen that casually engages with abortion as a normal, everyday subject instead of a life-altering crisis is 2014’s unconventional romcom Obvious Child. When we included Obvious Child on our Top Films of 2014 list, we praised it for “approaching a sensitive subject from a sincere & deeply empathetic place” and declared that it “deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time great romantic comedies. Or at least one of the best in recent memory.” In the film Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comedian who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a one night stand with a nice Midwestern boy who she knows essentially nothing about. Unlike all of the other abortion titles cited here, this film’s central crisis isn’t whether or not to have the abortion (a decision that’s made quickly & decisively), but how to negotiate its impact on the would-be mother’s social & familial circles, a question that’s complicated when she finds herself falling in love with the would-be father. Obvious Child may be the only abortion comedy to date where its central procedure is presented as not a big deal, just another aspect of a complicated, nuanced life, which is in itself a sort of political statement (though not one as loud or as pointed as Citizen Ruth‘s). The film borrows a little bit of Citizen Ruth‘s blunt honesty & dark humor, but in its protagonist’s particular story arc a terminated pregnancy is presented as a solution to a problem instead of the source of one. It’s a refreshing change from the bleak  norm of cinematic moralizing & browbeating typical to the abortion comedy, one both Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child manage to criticize in their own respective ways: either by examining the intent of that browbeating or by sidestepping it entirely.

The major differences between what Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child accomplish might boil down to a question of genre. Alexander Payne’s 1996 political provocation is a true blue dark comedy, committing itself to Todd Solondz levels of inhuman cruelty & utter despair. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is a genre-faithful romantic comedy that just happens to center on a topic that the play-it-safe romcom formula usually won’t touch with a ten foot pole. Laura Dern & Jenny Slate’s respective protagonists in these two works aren’t all that different from one another and the the movies’ sources for humor start from a similarly bleak place. However, the severity of their circumstances are drastically dissimilar. Both Dern’s Ruth & Slate’s Donna begin their respective journeys as depressed addicts. Ruth is a homeless woman addicted to huffing household chemicals & Donna is a much more typical heartbroken alcoholic type trying to deal with the fallout of a recent breakup. Donna has a support system of caring friends & family who coach her through her unwanted pregnancy while Ruth is hopelessly alone in the world & thus vulnerable to anyone looking to exploit her for political gain. The father of Donna’s fetus is a genuinely nice guy the audience roots for her to date while Ruth’s baby’s father is an abusive monster the film thankfully avoids much contact with, except when Ruth gloriously jeers him with the John Waters-esque insult, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” from the window of a passing car. Even the reason for the two women’s delayed abortions is tonally telling: Ruth’s is delayed due to a national debate that supersedes her right to choose, while Donna is simply too early along in her pregnancy for the procedure.

I don’t mean to compare the two films’ disparate dramatic situations to claim that only one holds any significant weight and the other is a breeze. Donna has also suffered. She begins Obvious Child as a rejected lover unceremoniously dumped in a dive bar men’s room and suffers monetary dilemmas similar to (but not nearly as drastic as) the economic desperation that drives the plot of Citizen Ruth. I just mean to illustrate that Obvious Child stands as a tonal shift for the heavy-handed place abortion usually occupies in the modern comedy. Citizen Ruth represents an early moment of cinematic clarity where abortion is debated openly & honestly instead of being shamefully & superficially used as a plot device (or as shock value in throwaway gags, like in John Waters’s cult classic Polyester), as is typical for movies brave enough to approach it at all, including a lot of movies I greatly enjoy. Obvious Child latches onto that honesty & runs so much further with it, however, showing what it’s typically like for a woman (with a decent support network & a “livable” wage) to have an abortion & subsequently move on with her life. Donna & Ruth both start from a place of heartbreak & end on a note of open-ended success, but Donna’s journey is sadly funny in a much sweeter way, finding humor in details like sleeping with someone because they farted in your face or having to schedule an abortion on Valentine’s Day. The stakes are much lower than Citizen Ruth‘s life or death descent into poverty & addiction and, although it’s amazing that Payne was able to find humor in such a dark place, it’s much more encouraging that Obvious Child could move the conversation along while downplaying the abortion debate’s necessary emotional impact on a story.

The trajectory I’m detailing here is the same kind of effect as a Hollywood production passing homosexual romance off as no big deal instead of only portraying it as an inevitable tragedy where at least one of the characters involved dies & there’s no possible happy ending, as has been the Big Studio standard for decades. Citizen Ruth starts a frank & open conversation about abortion most comedies would typically exploit for dramatic or shock value beats. Obvious Child was yet another game changer that makes that need for a debate feel almost entirely insignificant in a modern context. It presents abortion as a normal, everyday thing people go through, opening the door for cinema to move on & let the debate die forever. Together, they help define the heights & boundaries of the abortion comedy as it stands today as well as the inevitable trajectory for a more honest, open-minded future (assuming that last bit’s not just wishful thinking on my part). We’re lucky to have them both.

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.

-Brandon Ledet