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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (10/10)

by Tony Medley

I had no sooner awarded the 2005 Best Actress award to Gwenyth Paltrow for her scintillating performance in “Proof,” when I saw Julianne Moore playing Evelyn Ryan, the mother of 10 in this moving story based on her daughter, Terry Ryan’s, book “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 kids on 25 Words or Less.”

Evelyn was married to Kelly Ryan (Woody Harrelson), who was an underachieving drunk, psychologically brutalizing Evelyn and their ten children. Evelyn is the personification of Emerson’s dictum, “The mind in and of itself, can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell.” She takes all of Kelly’s abuse with a smile and lets it slide off her shoulders.

Highlighted by exceptional performances by Moore and Harrelson, Kelly spends all the money he makes as a machinist on booze. In order to make ends meet, Evelyn enters contest after contest. “25 words or less” contests were popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Evelyn was a whiz at it. Amazingly, she supported her family through her winnings.

But that’s not what makes this film so memorable. Evelyn was a truly saintly person, an apparently unremarkable person living a remarkable life. The world would never have known of her life but for the book written by her daughter and this film.

She never seemed to think of herself. She didn’t take things personally. When she confides in a priest to get some counseling on how to handle Kelly, he tells her, “You have to make him a good home.” She says, “I do.” He replies, “Well, you’ll have to try a little harder.”

Her constant happiness got on Kelly’s nerves. But she does show some normal human emotion when Kelly tells her that all he ever wanted was to make her happy. She replies, “I don’t need you to make me happy. I just need you to leave me alone when I am.”

She rarely left Defiance. Often she didn’t even have enough money to pay the milkman for the 8 quarts of milk she needed each week.

What I liked about this movie is that it’s about a woman whose devotion was to her family, to raising her children and supporting her husband. This is a movie with no sex, no infidelity, no profanity, no ambition to be something other than a mother to make her life meaningful. What could be more meaningful than raising your children? I can tell you I would rather have raised a bunch of my own children than to have practiced law or developed real estate or written a bunch of books or reviewed movies.

Forget Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine (Lion in Winter, 1968) and Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939) Julianne Moore as Evelyn Ryan is as strong a woman as you’ll ever see in a movie.

September 19, 2005