Bonus Features: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, is a deceptive work of broad commercial appeal that also carries out a wicked subversive streak just below the polite charms of its genteel surface. Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie aimed to stoke mainstream America’s nostalgia for “The Good Old Days” of the vintage American South. That bait-and-switch allows the film to constantly veer into abrupt bursts of absurdist humor, grisly violence, and heartfelt lesbian romance without much of an uproar from its Normie audience. It’s that exact clash between the conventional vs. an underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that makes the movie such a treat for me. It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

It would be difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films that pull off that exact balancing act between tradition & subversion. Luckily, though, Fried Green Tomatoes is not the only film around that heavily relies on the traditional charms of fierce Southern Women to sneak its own hidden agendas & indulgences past mainstream audiences’ defenses. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that falls on the quietly dark side of Southern twang.

Crazy in Alabama (1999)

In my mind, the clearest parallel to Fried Green Tomatoes‘s clash between the conventional & the morbidly bizarre is the 1999 black comedy Crazy in Alabama. The only major difference is that Fried Green Tomatoes is subtly subversive, while Crazy in Alabama is gleefully over-the-top. Melanie Griffith is flamboyant as the anchor to the film’s violent side, playing a kooky Southern Woman who poisons & decapitates her abusive husband so she can run off to become a Hollywood star (a straight-up trial-run for her future role as Honey Whitlock in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented). Lucas Black costars as her favorite nephew, whom she left back home to deal with the exponential civil unrest of the Civil Rights 1960s. These two disparate storylines—one where an over-the-top Hollywood starlet regularly converses with her husband’s severed head (which she carries around in a hatbox) and one where a young white boy becomes a local hero by bravely declaring “Racism is bad” and attending fictional Martin Luther King, Jr rallies—are only flimsily connected by occasional phone calls shared between these two unlikely leads. It’s the same bifurcated, traditional vs. absurdist story structure as Fried Green Tomatoes, except that there’s nothing subtle at all about what it’s doing. Everything is on the surface and cranked incredibly loud (which suits my sensibilities just fine).

If you need any convincing that these movies make a good pairing, consider that Fannie Flagg, the novelist who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, has an extended cameo as a roadside diner waitress in Crazy in Alabama. Flagg’s entire purpose in her one featured scene is to cheer on Griffith’s crazed, wanted-murderer protagonist out of admiration for her breaking out of an abusive marriage in the way she personally saw best (sawing off her husband’s head). The audience has to share that baseline appreciation for wild Southern Women at their most hyper-violent to be fully on-board with either of these titles, which is partly what makes them a perfect match. Just don’t go into Crazy in Alabama expecting the same quiet, controlled hand that doles out the absurdist tangents in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s the first feature film directed by Antonio Banderas and he eagerly allows the space for his then-spouse, Griffith, to run as wild as she pleases.

Now and Then (1995)

This suggestion is something of a cheat, since Now and Then is technically set in Indiana. However, it was filmed in Georgia and looks & feels entirely Southern to my Louisianan eyes. Like Fried Green Tomatoes, its story is bifurcated between two timelines: the increasingly cynical days of the 1990s and a rose-tinted view of a simpler past that was both more dangerous and more romantically Authentic. It even begins its feature-length flashback to “The Good Old Days” by explaining that children used to have to go on adventures & get into mischief to entertain themselves “in the days before MTV & Nintendo . . .” While the adult versions of our central group of childhood friends indulge in a distinctly 90s brand of Gen-X sarcasm (especially among Rosie O’Donnell & Demi Moore’s moody banter), their childhood versions purely ascribe to a gee-willickers coming-of-age adventurism that’s purely heartfelt & sentimental (as portrayed by child actor superstars like Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, and Gaby Hoffman). From the crisply uniform tableaus of freshly built cookie-cutter suburbs to the sequences of young girls singing Motown hits in unison while riding bicycles down dirt roads, the nostalgia on display here is lethally potent, to the point where I genuinely could not tell if this is the first time I’ve seen it. Now and Then is the exact kind of VHS-era lazy afternoon comfort viewing that feels as if it’s always been part of your DNA.

Unlike Fried Green Tomatoes & Crazy in Alabama, Now and Then doesn’t use this nostalgic charm as a cover for extreme dips into subversively morbid subject matter. If anything, it ultimately plays more like a softer, safer variation on Steven King’s nostalgia-classic Stand By Me, complete with the wistful narration track from a jaded adult who’s “seen it all.” The childhood friends at the center of the picture do launch their own D.I.Y. investigation of an unsolved murder from decades into their town’s past, one that invites ghostly seances, potentially dangerous strangers, and brief moments of lethal peril into their otherwise safe suburban lives. Mostly, though, the threats that arise during this murder mystery aren’t meant to elicit a genuine in-the-moment danger so much as they’re meant to highlight the conflicts & insecurities that haunt the girls’ variously troubled home lives and internal struggles with self-esteem. I’d most recommend Now and Then to Fried Green Tomatoes fans who’re more into that film’s nursing home visits & nightswimming intimacies than its freak train accidents and wild swerves into cannibalism. It’s a much better-behaved film overall, but an equally nostalgic one in its scene-to-scene details (including the ultra-specific 90s Girl™ fantasy of getting to smoke cigarettes with a young Brendan Fraser at his beefcakiest).

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Our one major stipulation for Movie of the Month selections is that they must be films that no one else in the crew has seen. Because bits & pieces of Fried Green Tomatoes were constantly looping on television when I was a kid, I honestly wasn’t sure if I had ever seen it all the way through before or not. Once I got into the lesbian & cannibal tangents that distinguish the film from its fellow works in the Southern Women Nostalgia canon, though, it was clear that I hadn’t actually seen it – at least not as a complete picture. In fact, I had been mistaking my memories of the title with another, unrelated work that similarly got the round-the-clock television broadcast treatment in the 1990s: Steel Magnolias.

Having now watched Fried Green Tomatoes & Steel Magnolias back-to-back in their entirety, I can confirm that they’re really nothing alike, except that they’re about the lives of fierce Southern Women. I much preferred Fried Green Tomatoes out of the pair, but Steel Magnolias was still charming in its own way. Adapted from a stage play, the film is mostly centered on the life & times of a small clique of heavily-accented women who frequent the same beauty shop (run by matriarch beautician Dolly Parton). Like a hetero precursor to Sordid Lives, much of the film’s humor derives from the Southern idiosyncrasies in the women’s mannerisms & idle banter as they gossip in the beauty salon between dye jobs & perms. The darkness that creeps into the frame springs from the women’s lives outside the salon, particularly the medical drama of a fiercely protective mother (Sally Fields) and her severely diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts) who pushes her body too far in order to live up to the Southern ideal of a traditional housewife.

The details of the medical melodrama that drives Steel Magnolias fall more into tear-jerking weepie territory than the wildly violent mood swings of Fried Green Tomatoes, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. The most outrageous the film gets in any one scene is a moment of crisis when Sally Fields has to force-feed orange juice to a deliriously over-acting Julia Roberts in the middle of a diabetic seizure. Her repeated shouts of “Drink the juice, Shelby!” had me howling, and I’m sure that scene is just as iconic in some irony circles as “No wire hangers, ever!” is in others. All told, though, that storyline is too sobering & sad to mock at length, and you have to genuinely buy into the dramatic tragedy of the narrative to appreciate the film on its own terms. I won’t say it’s as convincing of a dramatic core as the unspoken lesbian romance of Fried Green Tomatoes, but it’s effective in its own, smaller way. Anyone with endless room in their hearts for Southern Women as a cultural archetype should be able to appreciate both films enough for Steel Magnolias to survive the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Exit to Eden (1994)

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I’ve been both curious about and terrified of the Garry Marshall BDSM comedy Exit to Eden for some time now, but never worked up the nerve to actually watch it until late last week. Then there were just too many recent prompts to ignore them all. Not only did we at Swampflix cover the more questionable career choices of Exit to Eden’s stars Rosie O’Donnell & Dan Aykroyd last week, but the entire pop culture world was flooded with endless news & buzz for the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey film, the first mainstream Hollywood BDSM film since the “erotic thriller” genre’s heyday in the mid-90s. In addition to selling absurd numbers of pre-order tickets before it’s even released, 50 Shades is also receiving a huge amount of flak from the BDSM community for its portrayal of an abusive relationship that misses the point of kink entirely. I thought, “Well, it can’t miss the point any more than Exit to Eden” and finally gave the film a watch. I might be right.

Exit to Eden may not confuse kink with abuse the same way 50 Shades has been accused of, but it still manages to be insulting to the BDSM community. This is a world where people are into kink because they were spanked as children, need therapy, and can’t manage lasting, meaningful relationships. This is a world where dominatrixes go into business because they were emotionally manipulated by men, but all they really want is for the right Australian stud to seduce them so they can put down the whip forever. The film’s head dominatrix (played by Dana Delany) confesses, “I like to cuddle & giggle. After a hard day of smacking people, I like to cuddle.” This is a world where plain old cunnilingus is treated as just as outrageously adventurous as a violent flogging. When a character facetiously delivers the line, “‘Alternative lifestyle’ is just a phrase deviants use to cover up their sex lives,” you have to wonder if the film were being more sincere than it lets on.

There’s also a dismissive, above-it-all tinge to the “jokes” delivered by Rosie O’Donnell’s narrator/undercover cop that would make you think the movie wasn’t at all titillated by its kinkier proceedings, but it totally is! The shameless/outlandish erotica of the Anne Rice source material frequently pokes through O’Donnell’s snark and makes for a really uncomfortable clash of sentiments. On one hand you have O’Donnell basically shouting “Get a load of these freaks!” every few seconds and on the other there are long, leering scenes involving Dana Delany spanking a male sub & trying on bondage gear for the first time while soft rock plays in the background. It’s about as tone-deaf and self-contradictory as you would imagine a Garry Marshall BDSM comedy would be.

Marshall is essentially King of the Hokey. His Happy Days/Odd Couple/Mork & Mindy roots don’t exactly read like the perfect résumé for a sleazy Anne Rice adaptation. As fascinating as Exit to Eden is in a “I can’t believe someone actually made this” context, it’s rarely actually funny. The cheery pop music & corny gags are so violently at war with the sensuality they share space with that it’s hard to imagine who the intended audience was. There are a few jokes that pay off, like when Marshall’s own off-screen voice demands that his mistress pay him attention (if you’re familiar with his voice it’s easy to imagine why that’d be amusing). Dan Aykroyd is also surprisingly funny considering the material he’s working with. He’s in full, uptight Dragnet mode here, which makes gags involving leaf blowers, vibrators, and rumors about his impressively large penis land beautifully. Still, most jokes in Exit to Eden made me roll my eyes so hard I was afraid I’d finish the film legally blind.

It’s okay that this comedy isn’t actually funny, though, because there’s enough inherent weirdness in its clashing concepts that genuine humor might have been a distraction. Take, for instance, the fact that Aykroyd & O’Donnell both separately don bondage gear for the camera. If you were actually laughing during those scenes, it might release the emotionally-scarring tension that feels similar to walking in on your aunt & uncle’s “play-time” without knocking first. If the jokes were actually funny, you might laugh over the horrendously inaccurate New Orleans accents that plague the film’s final scenes. No, the best way to “enjoy” the horror of Garry Marshall’s & Anne Rice’s dueling personalities refusing to cohesively mix in a sex “comedy” is to experience it in abject silence, mouth agape, eyes unable to fully convince your brain that the images before you are actually a real thing that very real people brought into this unfortunately real world. Exit to Eden should not exist, but it most definitely does. It’s not a successful comedy, but it is an undeniably memorable one.

-Brandon Ledet

Riding the Bus with My Sister (2005)

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“I’m not stupid, I’m just different.”

When I first learned that Riding the Bus with My Sister existed, I was both fascinated and frightened. Rosie O’Donnell playing a mentally challenged person whose main hobbies include riding the city bus and buying toilet seat covers held promise for sheer what-the-fuckness, but I knew that so-bad-it’s-good can end up being so-bad-it’s-really-bad real quick.

My worst fears were confirmed, unfortunately, in the opening credits as the words “Lifetime” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame” scrolled across the screen and were further solidified when Beth, waking from her disabled slumber, smiles into the mirror and in a loud, grating voice shouts, “Good Morning!” From that point forward, the WTF factor of seeing Rosie O’ Donnell play a mentally “retarded” woman with a heart of gold diminished every time she was on the screen.

Now I know it’s not politically correct to use the term “retarded” but it’s inexplicably used throughout Riding the Bus with My Sister, its negativity undermining many of the positive messages the film is trying to convey. One character even asks early on, “They still use that word?” It also doesn’t help that Beth is treated like crap the entire movie. In the first five minutes she is called a “hippo” by a downstairs neighbor, glared at with disgust by her fellow bus riders, and openly insulted for being lazy & living off the government. It would have been just as effective if director Anjelica Huston (Why?) flashed “People hate the handicapped” in bold red letters. For a simple woman who only wants to ride the bus, drink discount brand cola, and one day go to Disney World, she is treated as a drain on society.

The person who treats her the worst is her sister Rachel, a career woman living in New York who must leave behind her fashion photography business to take care of Beth after their father passes away. In a wholly unlikable performance, Andie MacDowell phones it in as the self-absorbed Rachel. MacDowell’s only job in the movie is to look nice & be annoyed by Beth’s antics. Rachel moves in with Beth to help her adapt to life on her own, but soon regrets it as Beth irritates her with conversation-starters like “Hey Rachael, I put seven red fishies inside of this can, do you think they can swim in cola? I sure hope so. I would hate to drown them.” Rachel’s characters arc (and the arc of the entire movie) amounts to the realization, “Hey, I’m kind of a piece of shit because I never really accepted my mentally challenged sister.” We learn this through a tedious parade of at least ten flashbacks of the sisters eating dirt, painting, even suffering seizures; all accompanied by sparse, acoustic guitar. This goes on for two hours.

The most frustrating thing about Riding the Bus With My Sister is that Beth is looked down on by Rachel but she seems to have life more figured out than her developmentally “superior” sister. She has her own place, lots of friends, and a routine she enjoys. She even has a similarly disabled boyfriend, Jessie, who treats her well, takes her out on dates, and has hobbies of his own like karate & riding his bike. Of course, in one of the many ways the movie manipulates viewers’ sentimentality, Jessie is beaten by a group of thugs towards the end of the film.

Kudos should be given to Rosie O’Donnell, though. While her performance mostly consists of rocking back and forth, shouting, and contorting her face, she does succeed in coming across as genuinely handicapped. In one of the film’s best scenes, Beth mourns the loss of her father by sobbing uncontrollably on a bench outside the hospital while eating a doughnut, drinking a cola, and wearing a kitty cat t-shirt. In another she talks about boning Will Smith. There are a few memorable moments like that in Riding the Bus with My Sister but with minimal plot development and a near-absence of likable characters the film falls apart. What could have been a heartfelt drama with camp value fails because the story doesn’t go anywhere. In the end, the viewer is left feeling as confused & unfairly abused as Beth is in the film.

-James Cohn