Judge Jennifer Malkowski and Mary-Louise Parker see eye-to-eye on fried foods: "I would eat anything fried. If you fried this carpet, I would eat it."
"It's funny how a little place like this brought so many people together."
In my opinion, the greatest "chick flick" of all time, Fried Green Tomatoes, should become one of the enduring classics of the '90s. Whether despite or because of its high estrogen levels—depending on who you ask—the film is far, far better than most of the humdrum, testosterone-saturated fare celebrated as classics by institutions such as the American Film Institute.
Facts of the Case
Based on Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the film begins when an undersatisfied, middle-aged Southern woman named Evelyn (Kathy Bates) meets a lively old lady named Ninny (Jessica Tandy) in a nursing home. Evelyn gets hooked on Ninny's stories about people and adventures years ago in her hometown of Whistle Stop, Alabama. Through Ninny's stories, Evelyn gets the courage to revolutionize her own life—even unleashing her inner feminist avenger, Towanda, a little bit.
The stories Ninny tells—which form the bulk of the film—center around two extraordinary young women: the tomboyish Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and the wryly sweet Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker). Ruth comes into Idgie's wild life at the request of Idgie's mother, who wants her daughter to settle down and thinks the prim, religious Ruth can tame her. The two end up changing each other, with Ruth drawing Idgie into a community of caring people and Idgie teaching Ruth how to loosen up and have some fun. The women fall in love and, with a few twists and turns, end up building a life together (those of you scratching their heads and not remembering this plot point weren't paying enough attention—the novel was full of lesbian content which was diluted in the film adaptation). Their story is ostensibly structured around a mystery: who killed Frank Bennett, Ruth's abusive husband?
Fried Green Tomatoes, like the title food, is so rich and sumptuous that it is always almost too much. Constantly teetering on the edge of schmaltziness, the film almost always stops just short of that line and really earns its many, many weepy moments. It's a big little romance of the bygone South that's not afraid to be an unabashed tearjerker. It really goes for the small-town Southern nostalgia as fully as it does the sympathy-for-an-old-lady tears. The town of Whistle Stop is just what it should be: quaint, charming, lively, and perfect in that way that only remembered places can be.
Considering the great number of characters the film features, most are developed so efficiently and effectively that one cares about them very quickly. This feat is largely accomplished by the four leading ladies who are really a dream cast for the film. Mary-Louise Parker has a subtle air of sarcasm and knowing wisdom about her that keeps her goody-two-shoes character from getting dull. She maintains this quirky likeability along with her saintliness, so that when Idgie announces that "there are angels masquerading as people walkin' around this planet and [Ruth] is the bravest one of those," we don't so much as snicker. Mary Stuart Masterson is undeniably charming as "the bee charmer from Alabama"—and, by the way, she did her own stunts in that bee scene! I did notice that Masterson looks the most dated of anyone in the film; one can easily pick out her early '90s look from the more authentic Alabama-in-the-'30s lineup. Idgie and Ruth treat everyone well and inspire fierce loyalty from the town's band of quirky supporting characters, but they are so fun-loving and unique as characters that we don't ever resent their moral perfection.
Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy have considerably less screen time than the younger women, but they are every bit as enjoyable, if not more so. Both are phenomenal actresses and the two have an easy chemistry that really sells their quick, deep friendship. Tandy, who is so dignified, embraces an offbeat goofiness in Ninny Threadgoode that makes her a joy to watch. Bates has just the right facial expressions for Evelyn, a weary wife "too old to be young and too young to be old" who frequently wears that look of "how is this my life?" Plus, Bates nails the transition into Towanda, a throwback to the kind of spirited second-wave feminist empowerment that is hard to pull off in the movies. Here's her plan for world domination, as delivered to a bewildered Ninny:
"And after I take out all the punks, I'll take on all the wife beaters—like Frank Bennett!—and machine gun their genitals! [makes machine gun motion and sound effects] Towanda is on the rampage! And I'll put little bombs in Penthouse and Playboy so that they explode when you open them! And I'll ban all fashion models who weigh less than 130 pounds! And I'll give half the military budget to people over 65 and declare wrinkles sexually desirable!"
The male characters get considerably less development, remaining on the edges of the story—arguably where they belong. Big George and Smokey Lonesome, for example, feel like little more than stock characters that fill in the background, while their roles are too important for how little they are fleshed out. The real treat in terms among the boys is Gailard Sartain as Evelyn's kind but clueless husband, Ed, whose idea of romance is to tell Evelyn she "got a real nice scald on that chicken," as he eats it in front of a baseball game on TV.
Like The Color Purple before it, the biggest problem with Fried Green Tomatoes is its rather cowardly submersion of the original novel's lesbian content. In his commentary track, director Jon Avnet claims to have been very interested in the desire between Idgie and Ruth. Not too interested, apparently, because he decided to ax most of the romantic implications in his screenplay, deciding that a more platonic relationship would work "better tonally." I must admit, though, that making the romance more subtextual ensures that the sexual nature of their relationship doesn't trample the nuances of female friendship that are at the heart of this story. When Ruth testifies in court that Idgie is "the best friend I ever had and I love 'er," the statement is so moving because of the strength of both of those elements: friendship and romantic love. Theirs is not the only unusual relationship in the film and despite the muted lesbian content, Avnet still preserves the theme of how loving and functional "abnormal," chosen families can be: Idgie and Ruth, Evelyn and Ninny, and all the people society looks down upon that these women welcome into their lives.
Now that I've sufficiently sung the praises of this marvelous film, I have to note that this "Anniversary Edition" appears to be nothing but a poorly conceived money-making scheme. There is a certain audacity in releasing the exact same "extended version" of a film released as an "extended version" DVD six years prior with the exact same extras and some missing. Because this site has never reviewed any version of this film, I feel obligated to give it full marks, but fans should note that there is absolutely no reason to purchase or rent this disc if you already have the 1999 edition.
Said extras are almost too extensive and can be quite dull. The Production Photographs are a huge collection of stills that my player could not navigate. This bonus item dares to ask the question, for how long can one reviewer sit and stare at still photographs of pies on her TV screen? The Director's Notes are even more excruciating, simply presenting pages of the screenplay one after another. Both the outtakes and the deleted scenes are quite short, though this extended edition contains seven minutes of integrated material not released with the theatrical version (though it was released in the last DVD release). The outtakes aren't really funny and there are only three deleted scenes. Both make a viewer realize how much effort goes into creating and maintaining picture quality because of how unbelievably flat and scratched up they are. Sipsey's Recipes are plentiful, but don't provide much cooking detail, and are reprinted directly from Flagg's pages. The Poster Campaign showcases the shocking number of posters that were designed for the film—probably around 25 in all. The bulkiest feature is the making-of featurette, which spans a staggering 70 minutes and features interviews with director Jon Avnet, Flagg, all four leading ladies, and many others. It was clearly made during the production of the film—or at least culled from those interviews for the 1999 release—making it a likely 15-year-old feature at this point. There are some good production stories in the featurette, but Avnet repeats all of them in his commentary track, making for some dull repetition. The commentary is decent, including a good mix of what Avnet was intending stylistically with stories about the production. At one point, I swear Avnet accidentally coins the term "helloquent"…
The picture quality nicely renders the muted greens and browns of the old Southern town and the print is nicely clean, though some grain is visible in the lighter areas of the frame. The sound is well mixed, showcasing the moving score by Thomas Newman. The audio on the extras is a lot less consistent.
Fannie Flagg sums up her book as her effort to "get back to where people were nice to each other" and tell a story about "people who quietly changed other people's lives…and never get credit." Fried Green Tomatoes itself is the best of a genre that also never gets credit—it's a real weepie of a movie that deserves a place among the best of its era. A new DVD release was wholly unnecessary, but it provides a nice excuse to revisit this wonderful film.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski sentences Fried Green Tomatoes to one year for every tissue she needed while watching—dag nab it, she lost count.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Jon Avnet
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