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

Little Modern Women

It used to be a matter of course that a new big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women would go into production every few years. As cinema jumped from silence to sound, from black & white to color, a new version of the same story would grace the screen – ensuring that each new generation of young readers in love with Alcott’s setting & characters could experience them in the flesh. Sadly, that tradition dried up after the 1940s version (featuring Elizabeth Taylor as an overgrown Amy, the littlest woman), leaving a forty-five-year gap before Little Women would be refreshed in adaptation for a new generation. The two major productions that ended that drought—1994’s Gillian Armstrong adaptation and the 2019 Greta Gerwig remix—had a lot of catching up to do, then. It wouldn’t be enough to just revive the same story with the updated stars & filmmaking tech of the modern day. Armstrong & Gerwig instead had to overhaul the material in a drastic display to make up for all the lost time. Both resulting films are great works in their own respects, but only one of the pair truly swung for the fences in its attempt to launch Little Women into the modern world.

On its surface, the 1994 version of Little Women appears to play it safe in its duties as a literary adaptation. Like the Old Hollywood adaptations that came before it, it tells the story of the fictional March sisters’ coming-of-age during the leanest years of the Civil War (an apparently autobiographical account of Alcott’s own youth) in a traditional, linear narrative. The will-they/won’t-they drama of its protagonist’s potentially romantic friendship with the wealthy boy next door drives the heart of the story. Meanwhile, the incidental episodes amongst her sisters that make the novel such a recognizably genuine depiction of childhood (which is almost entirely a series of incidental episodes, at least in memory) fill out the frame around that structural romantic storyline, so that Amstrong’s take on the material is practically a hangout film as much as it is a costume drama. Like in the previous routine of adaptations, the major overhaul in Armstrong’s picture was in seeing up-to-date actors breathe fresh air into iconic scenes from the long-familiar source material. The star-power appeal of 90s-specific heavy-hitters like Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and baby-faced newsie Christian Bale is the major update to the source material in Armstrong’s adaptation, same as in the previous revisions. The only difference (besides sound & color no longer being new inventions) is in just how much that youth-culture casting was allowed to reshape the text.

In particular, Winona Ryder’s starring role as Jo March is the casting choice that really jolts Alcott’s writing into a 90s era sensibility. As a hopeless 90s Kid™ myself, my love for Winona Ryder as a screen presence predates even my earliest childhood memories – thanks largely to her collaborations with Tim Burton in Beetlejuice & Edward Scissorhands. I still wouldn’t exactly call her approach to acting “versatile,” though. Like fellow Gen-X icons Keanu Reeves, Christina Ricci, and Jeanine Garofalo, Ryder more or less always gives the same performance no matter the project; the trick is just casting her in the exact right role. The brilliance of casting Ryder as Jo March is that her schtick fits both the original profile of the character (a powder keg mix of dorky enthusiasm within her home & righteous disgust with the ways of the world at large) and is distinctly of her own time – effortlessly conveying a sardonic wit central to Gen-X cynicism. If nothing else, the way she rants about the ills of the outside world and indulges in oddball slang like “Capital!” & “Christopher Columbus!” from her writing desk can’t help but recall the parallel narration of Ryder’s career-defining role in Heathers. If Armstrong’s Little Women were made just a few years later it might have updated the setting around Ryder to 1990s suburbia, the way Emma was transformed into Clueless or The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. As is, Ryder is doing all of that modernization work herself, performing Alcott’s century-old text with a 90s attitude & inflection.

Greta Gerwig’s more recent, currently Oscar-nominated take on Little Women was much more stylistically aggressive in its attempts to modernize Alcott’s novel. At the very least, it doesn’t rely entirely on the 2010s indie darlings of its cast (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet) to do all of its heavy lifting in refreshing the material. Instead, Gerwig violently shakes the story loose from the page – assuming that audiences are familiar enough with the source material to appreciate it scrambled out of sequence. In her version, the audience is informed up-front that Jo turned down the well-off heartthrob next door, essentially stripping the story of its will-they/won’t-they drama to push through to other concerns. Instead of following a linear retelling of the entire novel, we watch an adult Jo from the second volume reflect on childhood memories from the first. Meanwhile, debates between Jo and her publisher in New York City prompt metatextual speculations on how, exactly, Little Women relates to Louisa May Alcott’s actual life and what biographical events may have been altered to please her own Male publishers’ demands – forever reshaping how the original text will be interpreted for the screen in the future. In many ways, this recent adaptation of Little Women is about the very act of adapting Little Women – a much headier, more exclusively cinematic approach to the material than the versions that preceded it.

The major narrative innovation of Gerwig’s take on this story is in how it makes the adult half of Jo’s story more compelling by drawing direct parallels to the childhood half. The most iconic, memorable episodes of Little Women tend to fall in its first volume, which captures an enduring portrait of girlhood that allows the work to resonate & reverberate from generation to generation. Centering this adaptation on the adult end of the book is a bold choice, then, but it unlocks a lot of the untapped power of that second half by making direct in-the-moment connections to events from the first. As Jo returns home from New York City to care for a sister who’s taken ill, the familiar sights & personalities of her hometown trigger memories of the book’s most iconic childhood moments, revealing the power of the novel’s bifurcated structure. It also frees Gerwig to pick & choose what parts of the story she wants to emphasize thematically. Gerwig shifts the core story from focusing on Jo’s possible romance with her neighbor to instead exploring her combative relationship with her youngest, brattiest sister. Gerwig also searches for the border between truth & artifice in Alcott’s source material and interrogates how outside influences may have distorted the author’s original vision. While most adaptations lovingly stage Alcott’s exact narrative for the screen, Gerwig’s actively interprets it and its legacy.

There’s a brief image of young children playing pretend as pirates in the March sisters’ attic that flashes in the last minute or so of Gerwig’s Little Women that I cannot stop thinking about. After Jo’s debates with her publisher call into question what “really” happened in her story vs. what literary tastes of the time dictated should happen, I couldn’t help but puzzle over what that image was implying. Was it merely a memory from earlier in Jo’s childhood play than what the book or its resulting movies cover? Was it an implication of how Jo’s published memoir would influence the childhood play of her readers? Or was it a vision of How Things Really Were, as opposed to the distorted version of Jo’s memory that we had been watching the entire film? I don’t really want an Answer to this query. The more important thing is just appreciating how the film’s metatextual self-examination had my mind racing in its final minutes to the point where I got hung up on what, like, three seconds of footage “meant” within the larger story. I really liked how Gillian Armstrong updated Little Women for Generation X by handing the source material over to one of the era’s most distinct personalities (namely, Veronica Sawyer). This latest adaptation from Gerwig is far more adventurous in its own modernization efforts, though. There’s no single image in the 90s version of Little Women that incites personal interpretation or extrapolation the way Gerwig’s film does, which makes the newer film not only more modern but also more outright cinematic.

-Brandon Ledet

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.

The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.

-Brandon Ledet

Great Expectations (2013)

EPSON MFP image

three star

I have a real soft spot in my heart for modern movie adaptations of classic British literature. In fact, I think I’m one of those terrible people who likes watching these movies more than reading the books. Every time I see one on Netflix, I have to either put it on my list or if I have time, consume it right then and there.

Great Expectations is a book that I haven’t read in its full version. As a child, I had the abridged illustrated version (Great Illustrated Classics). I loved it. I think I must have read it four times. It’s interesting to have an illustrated edition of any book and then watch the movie. You have a very clear idea of the characters and the movie version either smashes that idea or surprises you with something better. I think in this case my childhood ideas were a little smashed but maybe I shouldn’t come into BBC productions with great expectations (whomp whomp).

Great Expectations is about Pip, an orphan boy raised by his cruel sister and her docile blacksmith husband, Joe. Pip meets a wild bunch of characters: Magwitch, an escaped convict; Miss Havisham, a crazed depressed shut-in who sits around in an old wedding dress; and Estella, Miss Havisham’s spoilt brat of an adopted daughter. He goes from being a poor boy apprenticed to a blacksmith, to a real gentleman living in London built on the funds from a kind, anonymous benefactor.

It’s with this cast of characters that I have a problem with. Ralph Fiennes feels awkward in his role of Magwitch. It may be because recently the only roles I’ve seen him in have been effeminate dandies, but I think his performance feels very forced. Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham is very hit or miss. She plays it up with her typical kookiness, but instead of being the haunting, old skeleton bride necessary for the role, she feels like something out of a My Chemical Romance music video. And Jeremy Irvine (of Stonewall infamy) I feel was too much of a pouty-lipped pretty boy for an adult Pip. Although I was glad to see Bebe Cave in it as young Biddy. I liked her so much in Tale of Tales it’s good to see other things she’s done.

Not everything’s wrong with this movie. Obviously if you’re watching movies like this for the right reasons, you’re in it for the sets and the costumes. I loved the way they played up the Gothic themes of the novel, Helena Bonham Carter aside. The inside of the Satis House, Miss Havisham’s spooky abode, is delightfully dilapidated. There are ghastly relatives sitting in chairs in the hallways, dust motes flying around, and a banquet table left to rot. The costumes are equally sombre, full of dark, subdued colors. Maybe a little too subtle for my tastes, but still good.

I may have gone into this movie with my preconceived notions of what the story should look like based off a children’s version of the novel I read 20 years ago, but I still think it was an average, yet faithful adaptation. It definitely satisfied the part of me that loves this sort of thing. Sometimes you just need to mindlessly watch the movie adaptations of great British classics you’ll never get around to reading.

-Alli Hobbs