The town of Defiance sits in the northwest corner of Ohio. I know this because I looked it up. After watching The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio—a screen adaptation of Terry Ryan's poignant memoir about her witty and resourceful mother—I was dubious that a town's name could be so perfectly suited to one of its residents. Perhaps the name was a bit of artistic license. But indeed, the town exists and it has to its credit the legacy of Mrs. Evelyn Ryan.
In 1956, Evelyn (Julianne Moore) delivered the last of her ten children and was perhaps the most clever and cheerful mother in all of Ohio, not to mention Defiance. Both of these traits were tested and refined daily in the course of her marriage to a frustrated singer turned machinist turned drunk, Kelly Ryan (Woody Harrelson). Despite the needs of his family, Kelly was more likely to spend his money at the liquor store than bring home the bacon.
Evelyn filled in the sizeable gaps by "contesting," a popular pastime in the '50s and '60s when corporations would conduct contests to generate interest their products. Coming up with catchy jingles and slogans was Evelyn's specialty, and it's amazing how many prizes she won, consistently beating out thousands, if not millions, of other entries. Thanks to her efforts, a few dollars often managed to show up in the mail just in time to pay for the week's milk. A new toaster just as the old one broke. Five thousand dollars to serve as a down payment on a home of their own, the same day the family had been evicted from their rental.
At the bank, while signing the papers for the new home that Evelyn had made possible, the audience is forcefully reminded of the gender politics of the era. Rather than put her name on the mortgage, her husband and banker encourage her that it's not necessary and she, with a knowing but thwarted expression, agrees. It's a concession that would come back to haunt her.
Indeed, Evelyn is a hero not just for the way she managed to raise her family in the shadow of her husband's emotional instability, but for the way she navigated the indignities afforded her simply by virtue of being a woman. After a drunken rage by her husband, the police tell her to let him sleep it off, with what seems to be little if any concern for her safety. Next she turns to a priest who tells her to try harder to make a good home. In other words, It's your fault he's this way. She can't even get any respect from the milkman, who berates her for laziness when she's short on milk money.
By the time one of her daughters asks her if she ever regrets marrying her husband, the audience is ready to yell "yes!" at the screen. But Evelyn, while candid, rejects the idea of wondering what might have been in favor of living fully in the present moment. It's a testament to Julianne Moore's performance that Evelyn's zeal for life comes across as wisdom, rather than naiveté.
And it's a testament to those that tell his story that Kelly is never demonized. He is a profoundly broken man, an outsider in his own family, an example of what can happen to a person who isn't willing to give up old dreams to create new ones. And in the end, perhaps, he is saved by Evelyn's empathy and ability to create new dreams of her own.
I say "perhaps" because there is no redemptive moment for Kelly in Prize Winner, and no victory for the family, or the audience. There is only more life (via voiceover), which is, in itself, a kind of victory to be sure. But this reality, coupled with final scenes that include the real Ryan kids looking very stiff and awkward in contrast to the highly stylized narrative, makes the moviegoing experience fall a bit flat at the end.
Nevertheless, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a winner for its smart portrayal of a resourceful woman who loved her family, loved words, and loved life.Discussion starters
- Given the behavior of her husband, was Evelyn right to stay with him? Was there ever a real danger to the family's physical well being? Would that have warranted a move? If so, what options would Evelyn have had in the 1950s and '60s?
- Discuss the reactions of the "authorities" in Evelyn's life—the police and the priest—to her plight. How and why did these men fail her? What should they have said or done?
- Why do you think Evelyn was able to continue to act graciously towards her husband, year after year?
- At one point, Evelyn encourages her daughter to forgive Kelly, "so you can embrace this truly remarkable day." Is there any situation in your own life to which the same advice could apply?
- Read Proverbs 31 and compare Evelyn Ryan to the description of a "wife of noble character." In what ways does she fit this profile?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing language and images. When Kelly gets drunk, he curses and acts violently. At one point he inadvertently shoves his wife, which causes her to slip, breaking glass, and cutting up her hands.
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Frequent Oscar nominee Julianne Moore is in yet another period piece playing yet another homemaker in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. But this time she gets to do something she's never done before: write jingles for commercials. This is the true story of Evelyn, the mother of 10 children who becomes a sensation composing the hooks for advertisements.
Mainstream critics are giving it mixed reviews.