Movie of the Month: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Hanna, Brandon, and Boomer watch Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

Britnee: Growing up, my main sources of movies were cable TV, Debra’s Movie World (a local video rental store in my hometown), and the local public library.  The highlight of my weekend was checking out the TV guide in the newspaper to see what movies were going to be on TV (mostly the TNT, TBS, and USA channels) and taking a trip to Debra’s or the library to browse through the racks of VHS tapes.  When borrowing movies from the library, I was limited to two.  My first pick was always a film I had never seen before, and my second pick was always reserved for one of my go-to movies.  Almost every time, that go-to movie was Fried Green Tomatoes.  The film is adapted from Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I was also a fan of.  I even did a book report on it when I was in the seventh or eighth grade!  I was, and still am, very much in love with this movie, and I’m so excited to share it with the Swampflix crew for our April Movie of the Month.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a heartfelt, hilarious, tearjerking masterpiece that focuses on the relationships and lives of Southern women.  Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is a housewife in early 1990s Alabama.  She’s riddled with low self-esteem and is desperately trying to add life back into her dull marriage.  One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Evelyn fantasizes about wrapping herself in a cellophane dress to seduce her husband but, sadly, he’s even just as boring in her fantasies as he is in real life and isn’t into it.  While visiting her husband’s aunt at a nursing home, who really doesn’t enjoy Evelyn’s company,  Evelyn meets Ms. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy).  Ms. Threadgoode begins to tell her stories about the lives of the residents of a small town named Whistle Stop during the Depression Era.  The two stars of her stories are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), two women who are in an obvious lesbian relationship even though it’s never blatantly stated.  Evelyn becomes obsessed with hearing these stories and starts making regular visits to the nursing home to hear Ms. Threadgoode tell them.  The stories bring Evelyn back to life and inspire her take control of her life, all in the name of Tawanda!

The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is both beautiful and tragic.  The two women are soulmates who are known throughout the town of Whistle Stop as “really good friends” beacause, well, this is the South in the 1920s.  Both women run The Whistle Stop Cafe (yay for female business owners!), serving pies, BBQ, and you guessed it, fried green tomatoes.  Fun Fact: The Whistle Stop Cafe building used for the film was actually turned into a real restaurant Juliette, Georgia.  It still looks just like the restaurant in the movie and serves up fried green tomatoes and BBQ (hopefully not like the “secret sauce” BBQ in the movie).  Prior to the cafe, Ruth was in an abusive marriage, and when Idgie discovers Ruth is both pregnant and being beaten, she rescues her.  The two women start their own life together, and Idgie helps Ruth raise her child.  Everything seems to being going okay for the two until Ruth’s husband goes missing, and Idgie is a suspect for his murder.

Boomer, this film has received criticism for glossing over the lesbian relationship between Idgie and Ruth.  What are your thoughts on this?

Boomer: I was really excited when Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for Movie of the Month, because I just read the book last October and was itching to talk about the book with pretty much everyone I knew.  The film was also a treasure of a different kind, albeit one that made me turn to my friend with whom I was watching it and say “In the book . . . ” at least twenty times.

The nature of film is different from that of literature, and some excisions are to be expected.  For one thing, the novel is much more realistic in its presentation of period accurate language, which is a polite way of saying that I’m completely comfortable with the fact that studios decided it wouldn’t be much fun to watch beloved actors and actresses say the n-word with the frequency it appears in the novel, even in the mouths of characters we otherwise like and admire, simply to be more historically correct.  Those who have only ever seen the film would also likely be surprised to learn just what a large part of the novel focuses on Sipsey’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the hardships of the pre- and post-King civil rights movements as seen through their eyes.  Of particular note are Big George’s two sons, one of whom is light-skinned and other darker, and how life is harder for the latter than the former despite their identical lineage; one becomes a train porter who lives long enough for his modern grandchildren to be critical of his attitude towards white people (remarking behind the old man’s back that his “bowing and scraping” to white people is “embarrassing”) while the other lives a shorter, more tragic life that involves a self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration following an initial arrest that is extremely unjust, even for its time.  This excision also leaves out, as a consequence, one of my favorite little touches of the novel: Evelyn’s visit to the black church in the novel (unaccompanied by Ninny) involves her sharing a pew with and shaking the hand of one of Sipsey’s great-granddaughters, with no one but the omniscient voice of the author to recognize this serendipitous connection and meeting.

Even though Fried Green Tomatoes was hailed as such a breakthrough that it received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in 1992, it’s surprising how understated the romance between Idgie and Ruth is, although it is explicitly and openly queer in a way that I’m surprised to see in such a mainstream film of the time (and which was such a big hit, grossing nearly $120 million against its $11 million budget).  Even more surprisingly, this isn’t that different from the book, which never uses the word “lesbian” or any derivatives which is for the best, as I would hate to have had to watch a scene of aged Jessica Tandy telling Kathy Bates “They were lesbians.”  The closest the text gets is in a scene between Ruth and Idgie’s mother in which the latter begs Ruth not to leave at the end of the summer in which she and Idgie first meet, with only Mama Threadgoode tells her that Idgie loves Ruth in her own Idgiosyncratic (sorry) way.  What the film adds is Ruth’s earlier love of Buddy, which layers on a Schrodinger’s Sexuality element that allows a more conservative audience to dismiss the queer undertones that discomfit them, getting them to unwittingly cheer a queer romance.  That Ruth and Idgie are in love is evident, both to the others in their town and to the reader and audience, without ever having to verbalize or label it, which is beautiful in its way.  It’s also not shot for the male gaze at all, either; although Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker are beautiful women, but there’s nothing salacious or sexualized about them.  I’d consider it a win across the board . . . were it not for that Buddy/Ruth added element.

So, uh, one thing I didn’t know about this narrative before reading the novel is that unwitting cannibalism is arguably the crux on which the entire story rests.  That was unexpected.  Brandon, what did you think of this development?  Did you foresee it at all; did it take you completely by surprise?  Do you think that a great and grievous wrong was committed against the people of Whistle Stop by feeding them human flesh without their knowledge?

Brandon:  I felt fully prepared for the cannibalism by the time it arrived in the story, but only because the movie trains you to be prepared for anything Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie on the surface, but it constantly veers into absurdist humor, grisly violence, and straight-up Gay Stuff that you don’t normally get to see in a Hollywood picture of this flavor.  Before starting the film, however, I never would have guessed that cannibalism would play such a central role in the story, since it looked from the outside to be a good-ol’-days, Simple Southern Living melodrama along the lines of Driving Miss Daisy or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  I even remember chuckling about how adorably quaint the tagline on the poster felt: “The secret of life?  The secret’s in the sauce.”  In retrospect—now knowing that the sauce’s recipe sometimes includes human flesh—that tagline is absolutely horrific, which is a perfectly illustrative example of how subtly bizarre this movie can be.

By the time the cannibalism arrives in the story, we’ve already been thrown for so many loops by Kathy Bates’s cellophane lingerie fantasies & mirror-squatting vagina workshops, the nearby train’s bloodthirsty quest to crush all children, and the local sheriff’s side hustle as a barroom drag queen that I was game for pretty much anything.  I wasn’t even especially aghast that they fed the beautifully barbequed corpse to their clientele, since the only customer we see chowing down on the stuff (in the movie, at least) is an evil cop we’ve been prompted to hiss at every time he appears at the café.  I love how the mystery of who among the main cast killed the KKK member that winds up on the Whistle Stop’s menu is given tons of breathing room to loom large over the plot, but the cooking & consumption of that monster’s body is practically a throwaway punchline.  It’s that exact emphasis on the conventional vs. underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that made Fried Green Tomatoes such a treat for me overall.  It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

While the murder mystery eventually gets settled (both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the audience), I think there’s a much more inconclusive mystery the movie leaves open for interpretation: Who, exactly, was Jessica Tandy playing?  From what I understand, the book is explicitly clear about who the old woman was at the periphery of the central romance (Idgie’s sister-in-law), but I think the movie is a little more ambiguous.  There’s enough evidence onscreen to implicate that the elderly Ninny Threadgoode was actually Idgie Threadgoode all-growed-up, not just some tertiary family member who watched Idgie’s life play out from a distance.  Hanna, how did you interpret Ninny’s identity?  Did you take her word at face-value that she was a distant relative of Idgie’s, or did you suspect that she might be Idgie herself?

Hanna: I was one thousand percent convinced that Ninny was Idgie.  In fact, part of my brain is still refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary that may be provided in the book.  It would have been pretty easy to establish Ninny’s selfhood outside of the Idgie’s story (e.g., “Idgie’s sister told me … ” “I was visiting my brother when I heard …”), especially considering that Ninny’s identity is made clear in the source material. More than that, I would like to keep myself blissfully ignorant because I like the idea of Idgie telling her own story disguised as a secondary source; I feel like that mischief is in keeping with Idgie’s character in general.

I also have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of the queer romance. I really didn’t know that much about Fried Green Tomatoes except that “Were Idgie and Ruth lovers in Fried Green Tomatoes?” is apparently a popular question on Google. Based on the need to ask the question, I assumed that the love would be purely subtext, projection, and wishful thinking; I was surprised by the tender sensuality between the two, especially in that bee scene!  I do wish the relationship had been pushed further, I think it was a pretty perfect depiction of what a lesbian love would look like during that period of time.

Besides the queer Southern lady romance, the mythos of Whistle Stop is one of my favorite aspects of the movie: the shadow of the ever-present Trauma Train, for example, or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ruth’s horrific ex-husband.  Idgie is nestled at the center of all of these myths, and she weaves her own, too: she robs trains and Robin Hoods the spoils away!  She is a friend to bees!  She’s a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, Southern lesbian!  She’s like a considerate version of Tom Sawyer, embodying the spirit of wildly compassionate independence; her unconventional bravery raises her as a kind of folk hero in the eyes of her community, and just as much in Ninny/Idgie’s stories for Evelyn decades later.  I think this is another reason I’m prone to believe that the sisters-in-law are the same person: I am in love with the idea of an elderly Idgie leaving an offering of honey for her lady and disappearing into the woods at the end, cementing her status as the grand ghost of Whistle Stop.


Lagniappe

Brandon:  I also found it incredibly refreshing how open this film was about the romantic spark between Idigie & Ruth . . . up to a point.  There’s an early scene where Idgie takes Ruth on a picnic to pull honey for her directly out of a beehive (a total show-off move that invites horrific My Girl flashbacks) where I thought “Is this a date?,” but I initially brushed it off.  Later, when Ruth kisses Idgie on the cheek after a round of drunken nightswimming, I was astonished that we were actually Going There.  And then the movie just kinda drops it.  The two women eventually establish a Boston Marriage version of domesticity while running the Whistle Stop Cafe, but we never get to see them share that kind of intimacy again after the kiss.  The closest we get is some light sploshing during a flirty foodfight scene in the Whistle Stop kitchen.  Otherwise, their daily routine mostly consists of Ruth looking after her baby at home while Idgie tends the store, together but separate.  I’m not saying that I was aching for a passionate on-screen love affair, but over time I did come to miss the private, intimate conversations between the two women, since their connection was one of the main anchors of the story (before it evolves into a murder mystery, at least).

Speaking of Lesbian Content, I was not at all shocked to learn that Fannie Flagg was at one time in a relationship with feminist author Rita Mae Brown.  Brown’s landmark lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle is not as wildly chaotic as Fried Green Tomatoes in tone or narrative, but their settings & thick Southern drawls are remarkably similar.  I suspect that a movie adaptation of Rubyfruit Jungle would resemble this film a great deal; it would just have to swap out the cannibalism for explicit lesbian sex.

Hanna: Usually in these Present/Past movies, one of the two storylines drags a little bit, and it’s typically the present (e.g., Big Fish, although the final with the father still gets me).  Evelyn’s story, on the other hand, is just as delightful as the Idgie storyline.  I would watch a whole movie about Evelyn ramming the cars of youngin’s in the parking lot, attempting to familiarize herself with her vagina, and bashing down the walls of her own house in the name of Towanda (decked out in her fabulous 90s prints, of course).

Boomer: (Content Warning: mention of Sexual Assault)
My favorite thing that was in the novel but not in the film is the fact that Frank Bennett (Ruth’s abusive husband, who is also a gangrapist in the novel) has a glass eye.  It’s so well made that he makes a habit of challenging strangers to a bet to see if they can guess which one is real, and he never loses.  Until, that is, a homeless man correctly identifies the glass eye; when asked how he knew, he admits that the manufactured glass eye was the only one of the two that had a glimmer of humanity in it.  It’s as poetic an indictment of a character as I’ve ever read.

I also love that, in the novel, the judge presiding at the trial is actually Curtis Smoote, who had years before been the one investigating Bennett’s disappearance.  He sees straight through Idgie and Company’s ruse from the very beginning, but the omniscient narrator tells us that his own daughter had been a victim of Bennett’s, even fathering a child with her and then beating her when she came to him for help for the baby, so he lets the farce play out.  The world won’t miss an asshole like Frank Bennett, and there’s a kind of justice that supersedes the law.

I only get five channels clearly with my TV antenna, and one of them is Buzzr, a game show whose most up-to-date regularly aired program is Supermarket Sweep.  I’ve seen many an hour of The Match Game and author Fannie Flagg is consistently one of the funniest contestants.  Nobody asked, but my dream Match Game lineup is  Scoey Mitchell, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the top row and Marcia Wallace, Dick Martin, and Fannie in the bottom row.  I swear that I am in fact 32 and not actually in my 80s, and I will be taking no follow up questions on this subject at this time.

One of the caveats of Movie of the Month selections is that the film has to be one that no one else in the group has seen before (it’s right there in our charter), and I was positive I never had, but there was one scene that I had seen some time in my primordial memory was Buddy getting stuck in the train tracks.  That scene imprinted on me pretty heavily, and over the years I folded that memory and the scene in Stand By Me when the kids run from a train into one and “stuck” this scene there in my mind.  When I rewatched Stand By Me recently, I was struck by the fact that I had fully inserted a scene in it which did not exist, and thought, “Well, that must have been in The Journey of Natty Gann.”  But nope!  Here it was, waiting for me to rediscover it in Fried Green Tomatoes after all this time.

Britnee: One of the most beautiful scenes in Fried Green Tomatoes is when Idgie retrieves honey from a tree for Ruth.  This is how she gets her romantic Bee Charmer nickname.  Mary Stuart Masterson actually did the bee scene 100% herself without a stunt double.  Her stunt double quit before the bee scene because she was too afraid to do it, so Masterson performed the stunt herself.  There’s a great article about the scene from the blog of the Asheville Bee Charmer honey shop where they speak with one of the location scouts from Fried Green Tomatoes.  The shop is owned by a lesbian couple, and the name of the shop was inspired by the film.  Fried Green Tomatoes lives on!  Tawanda!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)

-The Swampflix Crew

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

The Boss (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

My expectations may have been a little too high for The Boss. I geeked out pretty hard last year when I finally caught up with Melissa McCarthy’s first feature film team-up with her husband Ben Falcone, Tammy, which I called in my review “the culmination of what McCarthy has been building towards since her long line of hot mess characters began in 2011.” That’s a lot for a sophomore follow-up to live up to, so it was unlikely that I was ever going to enjoy the McCarthy-Falcone production The Boss quite as much as I did Tammy. It’s a funny, serviceable, occasionally absurd comedy that McCarthy & Falcone obviously had a great time bringing to the screen, but it’s difficult to get too excited about the film because I’ve already seen them do so much better. There’s a darkness & go-for-broke inanity to Tammy that I feel is somewhat lacking in the much more restrained The Boss and the resulting film feels a little generic in its absence.

Part of the problem might be that The Boss takes a little too long to get rolling. The titular pure id monster Tammy is entirely recognizable as a complete character almost as soon as she’s introduced. The Boss‘s Michelle Darnell (a character McCarthy developed many years back in The Groundlings), on the other hand, requires a little groundwork. A product of group homes & orphanages, Darnell is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps cliche that became a wealthy, deeply strange cocktail of Nancy Grace, Paula Dean, Martha Stewart and any self-motivation guru you could think of who would write a book titled Money Talks Bullshit Walks through sheer gumption & will. You have to wait for her to get to the top, get knocked off her throne (by some well-deserved insider trading charges), and then find a second life as an entrepreneur helming a Girl Scouts knockoff that sells treats for profits instead of charity (in blatant violation of child labor laws) before the film really gets rolling. There’s a good fifteen, twenty minutes of labored exposition required to get Darnell in full swing and once she gets there the quiet moments between her sadistically self-absorbed, petty line of dark humor soften the film’s punch & pace more than I’d like. There’s a movie just as subversively dark & self-deprecating as Tammy hiding somewhere in The Boss, but it’s noticeably bogged down & muddled in a way its predecessor wasn’t.

McCarthy is still funny here whenever she’s allowed fully misbehave & indulge in oversexed, money-obsessed misanthropy. The Boss also has a great back-up crew of small role supporting actors in Peter Dinklage, Cecily Strong, Kathy Bates, Kristen Schaal, and Neptune, Caifornia’s own Kristen Bell. Reno 911‘s Cedric Yardbrough has a wonderfully absurd, one-note bit role as a surreally agreeable yes-man named Tito that nearly steals the show, but isn’t given enough screen time to fully commit (there’s a moment at the climax where I was pretty bummed that Tito didn’t swoop back in on a helicopter to save the day despite the fact that it would’ve made very little sense narratively). Besides the talent on deck, The Boss also has a great central message about the value of camaraderie among women & the unexpected ways make-shift families can form around even the most undeserving. I like it okay as a generic comedy with a talented lead & a wickedly petty mean streak, but Tammy felt like a much more special moment in McCarthy’s career (not that it did any better with mainstream outlets & audiences critically-speaking). I like to think that this film was wish-fulfillment for McCarthy & Falcone, who obviously were proud to bring Darnell to such a wide audience, but that they have much more subversive, sadistic comedy work still ahead of them. I’ve seen them pull it off before.

-Brandon Ledet