The Singing Defective

Washington City Paper | October 14, 2005
Everyone knows that the ideal ’50s housewife reared her children, kept a spotless home, pampered her husband, and was perfectly pressed, coiffed, and made-up while doing it all. But according to The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, this suburban legend also managed one other feat: instantly defusing her spouse’s alcoholic rages, with a quip, a bright smile, or, when things got especially tense, maybe a flung bowl of Jell-O.

As portrayed in writer-director Jane Anderson’s debut feature film, this type of woman—forever to be played by Julianne Moore—is plucky, yes, but also a bit psychotic. Moxie is one thing. But laughing in the face of a desperately self-hating man when he’s drunk? Moore’s Evelyn Ryan does just that—and more: She ignores him while giggling with the kids, condescendingly but chirpily says, “Yes, I can hear you!” when he freaks about not being listened to, and dismisses him with “Really, where do you come up with these things?” when he hisses out what he thinks her problem is.

Such moments aren’t emphasized in Prize Winner, but they do make the apple-cheeked Evelyn just a mite harder to buy as an example of human perfection. The film is the true tale of Evelyn Ryan, a mother of 10 who kept her household afloat by obsessively entering jingle contests that awarded big bucks or prizes. The script, adapted by Anderson from a book by Evelyn’s daughter, Terry “Tuff” Ryan (here portrayed as a teenager by Ellary Porterfield), strains mightily to at least justify Evelyn’s sometimes shabby treatment of her husband, if not excuse it entirely.

While husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson), a former singer forced to punch a clock after an accident ruined his vocal chords, spends every paycheck on alcohol, Evelyn wins the cars, cash, and supermarket sprees that allow the couple to buy their first home and keep food on the table. There’s not much more to the plot than that. Of course, Evelyn keeps a stiff upper lip while suffering—through Kelly’s tantrums, through the lack of sympathy for her plight from policemen and even members of the clergy, through her inability to attend a weekly out-of-town gathering of other jingle-happy housewives (led by Laura Dern’s chipper Dortha Schaefer) because of Kelly’s refusal to drive her.

Cinematically, Prize Winner is pure sunshine, as bouncily stylized as the wordplay in Evelyn’s jingles. (Sample line: “My frisk-the-Frigidaire, clean-the-cupboards-bare sandwich.”) Moore sometimes addresses the camera directly as her character provides narration, often while standing next to herself; there are frequent whimsical touches such as Evelyn’s riding an envelope as she explains the judging process of her contests, and backup singers who appear whenever Evelyn or Dortha are sharing their jingle entries. Period print ads brightly decorate the opening credits; the soundtrack includes such saccharine ’50s pop songs as “Bye Bye Blues” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.”

Of course, it’s all presided over by Moore’s preternaturally cheery—and, after very similar turns in Far From Heaven and The Hours, now probably rote—domestic goddess. Mercifully, just when Evelyn’s strenuous smileyness and prim reserve start seeming ludicrous, she gets to show a human side. Moore, as ever, expertly portrays her character’s cracking façade. Evelyn’s is a quietly tearful desperation; even her gut-wrenchingly sudden breakdowns are remarkable for their restraint.

If only Anderson had the same discipline. But soon after Prize Winner finally counters its gimmickry with a dash of realism, the film goes past the expected last-act feel-goodness with an appearance by the actual Ryan children, in a move that’s blatantly tear-jerking and borderline maudlin. You get the feeling that the real Evelyn, never one to go for the obvious in her craft, would not approve.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100