The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio written and directed by Jane Anderson, from Terry Ryan's novel, with Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Ellary Porterfield. 99 minutes. A DreamWorks release. Opens Friday (October 14). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
If director Jane Anderson were competing in a beauty pageant, she'd be crowned Miss Congeniality. Relentlessly optimistic, Anderson has the kind of cheery disposition that should come with pigtails and pompoms. Big surprise that on the rainiest day Toronto has seen in months, I enter Anderson's Four Seasons suite and find her wearing a blouse printed with bright blue sky and puffy white clouds.
It's hard to miss the symmetry of Anderson directing The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio, the true story of Evelyn Ryan, a housewife who supported her 10 kids by winning endless jingle-writing contests, never letting her alcoholic husband rob her of her joie de vivre.
"To me, the film is about a woman who deliberately, intelligently chooses to be happy. It's such an important way to live a life. I used to be fairly cynical. I thought that was the smart way to be, and intellectuals and artists are naturally pessimistic. But especially as a mother, I found that no longer served me. It brought me down, it didn't make me a productive person."
Productive is an understatement. The greatest writer/director you've never heard of, Anderson began her career acting for David Mamet. She's now an acclaimed playwright of 10 lauded works, including Looking For Normal, about a transgendered husband, which she recently adapted into the multi-nominated TV film Normal, and the darkly comic HBO film The Positively True Adventures Of The Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, for which she won an Emmy.
Anderson's prolific work and candour regarding her sexuality even got her listed in 2001 as one of the top 10 gay women in show business by the Power Up women's group.
Anderson looks embarrassed. "It was so silly. It was some made-up award that some organization did. I don't think I am or ever was one of the top 10 lesbian power women." Somewhat wistfully, she adds, "I think they were just hard up for names."
Though she's written scripts for How To Make An American Quilt and It Could Happen To You, this is her feature directorial debut. Diva moments are few and far between, but I do get an emphatic grin when we discuss her preference for being a writer/director over being a screenwriter.
Not above the thrill of winning awards, she does reveal that afore-mentioned cynicism when she says, "What people don't realize is that at all these awards shows at the end of the night, three quarters of the audience is pissed because they've had to sit through this whole show and don't walk away with any gold."
Pollyanna returns just as suddenly. "But I consider the Emmy the delicious icing on an already rich cake. I love my job. Being a filmmaker is such a privilege. Getting to make a film is a miracle in itself."
Just when I'm about to have sugar overload, I'm saved by a discussion of the recent decline in movie-going audiences. "Some people will see the film, some won't. I can't focus on that or worry."
Anderson speaks frankly. "I don't know how it is for all of you up here, because you're a little safer than us Americans, but we live in a constant state of dread, always wondering when the next big thing is going to happen. So I just have to keep going and cherish the day.
"Truly, when you're trying to get a film made, you just get on a tractor and plow the field. I just have to keep plowing and forget about everything else."
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio D: Jane Anderson. Rating: NNN
Julianne Moore is always effortless in her craft, but as Evelyn Ryan, the ever-enduring mother of 10 who supports her kids and alcoholic husband (Woody Harrelson) by winning jingle-writing contests, Moore takes what could be the ultimate martyr and turns her into something much more real.
Based on the novel written by Ryan's daughter Terry (beautifully portrayed by newcomer Ellary Porterfield), this strong feature directorial debut by writer/director Anderson works on two levels. The direct addresses to the camera play with the kitschy cuteness of 1950s commercials, but more importantly let Ryan be spokeswoman for her own life. Nice work by all, especially Laura Dern as Ryan's fellow jingle-winning friend. The exception is the normally good Harrelson, with his one-note portrayal of always-drunk Kelly Ryan. The only prize he's winning is a Razzie.