Adapted from Terry Ryan’s popular memoir, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio casts an acutely insightful, though always loving eye on those less-than-perfect days which gave birth to present-day consumer society. Julianne Moore plays the buoyantly unsinkable Evelyn Ryan, a mother of ten children with an irrepressible knack for words. Her husband Kelly (played intelligently by Woody Harrelson) is an angry man with a drinking problem. His aspirations for a career as a crooner cut short by a terrible automobile accident, Kelly has been forced to join the ranks of manufacturing labor to support a wife and a rapidly growing (Irish-Catholic) family. Kelly and Evelyn Ryan are of the generation that gave birth to the baby boomers, the last to be yoked to an older, harsher ethic, ironically unable to move on to the brand-new-and-improved American Dream.
Director Jane Anderson paints a masterpiece in miniature of lower-middle-class America during the 1950s and 1960s by layering several social landscapes into the film. The great manufacturing plant that was post-War America was sustained by appealing to the dreams and aspirations of Kelly and Evelyn and millions of poor working-class families like them. Like Tantalus, Kelly is tormented, whipped into self-hatred, alcohol-fueled feelings of inadequacy. At the gates of the new corporate society of men in gray flannel suits, Kelly knows he is still being forced to use the tradesmen’s entrance around the corner. As a study in American masculinity, Harrelson’s portrayal of Kelly Ryan builds upon Michael Douglas’s portrayal of the unemployed defense industry drone William (“D-FENS”) Foster in Falling Down.
On the other hand, more (and indirectly) like Lois Wilson (wife of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson and founder in her own right of the original Al-Anon program for wives of alcoholics), Evelyn Ryan naturally (if not effortlessly) sees the world not only with amazing clarity, but boundless American optimism, playful inventiveness and practicality. The cheerful, but hollow siren song of the American Dream never seduces her. Ironically, Evelyn’s gift for writing contest-winning jingles, and thereby winning free products (which were often resold for cash) was the only thing that kept their family intact. In fact, it seems as if Evelyn is heeding the advice of another pre-women’s lib mother, Anna, to her son in the classically 1950s Broadway musical The King and I, to “whistle a happy tune … so no one will suspect you’re afraid.”
Evelyn’s knack for winning every imaginable prize, from socks to washer and dryer, from a lifetime supply of birdseed to a sports car, becomes a metaphor for the eternally deferred American Dream. But she knows, as few do, that the dream of happiness is achieved in living life as it comes, not in “more stuff.” Anderson makes the point in 1950s terms, with a visual cue to Queen for a Day. In this emblematically fifties contest show, hosted by the much-beloved Jack Bailey, miserably sad and dreary housewives (usually) competed with each other to be judged the most pathetic and therefore most deserving of a cornucopia of consumer items. A “contestant” might ask for a wheelchair, and, if found to be the winner by a show of the (blithely rigged) “applause meter,” would be showered with a stage full of irrelevant consumer goods. (The patently neediest did not necessarily win, if they had not asked specifically for the kind of merchandise show promoters were offering. Thus pleas for legal or medical help stood little chance of “winning.”)
High, state-of-the-art production values, mixing of visual media and visual languages, a constant dialog of formal film values between then and now (a kind of capsule history of pop culture pre- and post-MTV), along with plenty of cultural historical observation, make this is a densely layered, and intelligent film. Striking a satisfying balance between nostalgia, camp, and gravity, The Prize Winner from Defiance, Ohio returns some meaty realities of social class history to what has been a long and monotonous stream of self-salubrious mass-media cotton-candy fluff that currently passes as “memories” of the 1950s.