by Sam Juliano
“….Idgy used to do all kinds of crazy harebrained things just to get a laugh. She put poker chips in the collection basket at the Baptist Church once. She was a character all right, but how anybody could have ever thought that she killed that man is beyond me…” -Fanny Flagg
The rap against the film version of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by a sizable minority has always been that it significantly toned down the lesbian romance of its two central characters. In view of the fact that Flagg’s novel is only marginally more implicit, the argument seems to lose most of its credibility. Still, the 1991 movie, sporting the streamlined title of Fried Green Tomatoes, has often been brought up as evidence for those who rightly accused Hollywood of cowering away from provocative sexual themes. For a bastion always seen as ultra-liberal this has always been more than a curious example of bias, if not outright homophobia. Jon Avnet’s film version to be sure, does straddle the line between benign platonic affection and a more lustier and controlling kind of regard. It probably had the most suggestive lesbian context of any mainstream film released in the early 90’s or until the sway of sexual acceptance took stronger root in the cultural consciousness. The story of Idgie and Ruth yields numerous instances make it abundantly clear that these women love each other far more than is normal for most friends. There a few scenes and instances in the plot that persuasively connect the two romantically without the need to inject the presentation with blatant erotic encounters. If Flagg’s critically-lauded Pulitzer prize-nominated novel gave a more compelling picture of a gay romance, it ultimately had more to do with the ability of a literary work to flesh out the details of some narrative strands and relationships that could never make the final cut in a relatively shorter screen adaptation. The bottom line is this: I read Flagg’s novel back in the day, and have seen the film a number of times over the years, and have come away with the perception that neither presents an overtly lesbian context nor a physical portrait of two lovers overcome by lust. Both book and film are benign in this sense, but there is still never a doubt that a gay romance is the center of this wistful, charming and nostalgic work which is drenched in feeling and period flavor, and guided by the inexorable bond of friendship. Still, I can at least partially buy the argument that Avnet played it safe to ensure the wider audience this work so richly deserves by stressing the aspect of platonic devotion, even if the undercurrents are way too potent to dismiss.
The theme of friendship as a affair of coincidence that transcends race, class and age was the order of business in Bruce Beresford’s beautiful and moving film adaptation of Driving Miss Daisy, the Oscar winner based on Alfred Uhry’s celebrated stage work. A cantankerous retired schoolteacher, Daisy Werthan slowly becomes dependent on her African-American chauffeur, who wears down his client with humility, patience and kindness. Because Driving Miss Daisy is roughly set in the same rustic southern locale and at approximately the same era in time, there is a natural inclination to compare them, even before the further thematic kinship is examined. Other critics and/or moviegoers have referred to Fried Green Tomatoes as a “click flick” and have offered up a number of female bonding movies, of which 1989’s Steel Magnolia’s is the most prominently posed because of the southern setting. I have always rejected that notion myself, perceiving the Hollywood overload on display as cloying and superficial.
The time frame chronicled in Fried Green Tomatoes, like it’s source, spans from the 1920’s till the early 1980’s. It is chiefly two stories with a normally cliched narrative device of a character in the present telling another person the events of the past, visualized by a series of flashbacks. Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is the 1980’s housewife who lives in Birmingham, Alabama. She is unhappy with her marriage to an obese, male chauvinist couch potato who has long moved on from sexual interest, and is mired in depression over her own weight problems, never having held a job, nor any children. An innocent visit one afternoon to the nursing home where her husband’s aunt is being cared for results in a an ongoing life-changing experience. After she is unceremoniously thrown out of her aunt’s room by the obsolescent crank, she chances upon another octogenarian resident of the institution, an utterly delightful and effervescent motormouth named Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy). Initially Evelyn is taken aback and uninterested in the stories Ninny regales her with, but slowly the older woman’s homespun and colorful remembrances take hold. Ninny tells her about her life in the small town of Whistle Stop many years ago, and the unforgettable cast of characters she lived and interacted with – first off that she grew up in a home of her foster parents, Alice and Papa Threadgoode, and the two hyperactive and beloved children, the cheeky teenage son Buddy, and the incorrigible tomboy Idgie (later seen as the blond spitfire Mary Stuart Masterton). A unspeakable tragedy enters into the proceedings – Buddy is accidentally killed on the railroad tracks – causing an inconsolable Idgy to withdraw from life. Shortly thereafter, as if an emotional panacea were sent by providence a young Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) arrives in the town, and Idgy is quickly romantically smitten. Over the course of that summer the two became inseparable after Idgy’s mother urges Ruth to spend time to tame her wild daughter, and instill some ladylike behavior. The girls spend time gathering wild honey, going on picnics and taking midnight swims. Later on in the film’s most suggestive scene they share an erotically-charged food fight in the cafe. Idgy teaches Ruth how to play baseball, and they engage in dialogue that is typical of a domestic partnership. During the aforementioned wild honey foray Idgie brings some of the sweet stiff to Ruth, telling her “I got it just for you!” Idgy’s appearance is strictly butch: she keeps her hair short and wears pants and ties.
A bombshell follows with the revelation that Ruth is to be married at the end of the summer to a man named Frank. Idgy soon acts like the jilted lover and refuses to attend the wedding. She does spy though and eventually saves the day with the help of a few of the locales, among them an adoring Smokey Lonesome, a vagrant Ruth treated with compassion, and the black maid Sipsy, who possesses the same kind of family loyalty as Gone with the Wind’s Nanny. Ruth, then with her young son is coaxed into returning to Whistle Stop to run the cafe with Idgy. Thus, the love relationship plays out like any that might be plainer – there was a period of “courting,” a time of absence (which makes the heart grow fonder) and the mutual raising of a young child. Sadly, cancer then intrudes to wreck the ultimate devastation on the Whistle Stop community. All spiced into to this irresistible southern culinary dish are the dogged intrusion of a smug detective who hears Sipsey (Cicely Tyson) tell him “the secret is in the sauce!”, while telling the object of his investigation Idgy “You ain’t foolin’ me girly-girl” and the murder that exonerates Idgy and her loyal manservant Big George (Stan Shaw) from any role in the killing.
Meanwhile, back in the present Evelyn is fired up by the independent and resourceful women who lived at Whistle Stop that she embarks on her own road to self discovery and transformation by taking control of her life. She gives up her adored candy bars for aerobics, ends her subservience to her louse of a husband -the scene where she appears at the door in Saran Wrap to gain her hubby’s attention is a hoot, though definitely over-the-top – and begins a career as a cosmetic saleswoman. She develops an even stronger bond with Idgy by inviting the elderly woman to live in her home, and by making the time she spends with her the most valuable in her life.
The film version, which was actually scripted by Flagg and Caril Sobieski, like the novel, downplays the brutal racial prejudice that was integral part of life in the south for well over half the twentieth century. Flagg could well have examined this theme as many other southern writers have with the small-town microcosm angle (Harper Lee’s landmark To Kill A Mockingbird is usually the first word on this subject) In Whistle Stop the lines are drawn. The more compassionate and open-mined consider the blacks as their very good friends, while the rednecks are always causing dangerous possibilities by waving their shotguns while riding around in beat-up pick up trucks. The matter of racism is widened to include a general attitude of intolerance with any kind fo non-conformity, but the film is really too bust examining these ever-fascinating character’s lives than to indict society like many other novels and films set in the deep south. Fried Green Tomatoes serves as a nostalgic homage to the past where love and devotion are the most powerful yearnings. Though the very perception borders on cliche, Fried Green Tomatoes is a testament to the human spirit though it’s elements of humorous camaraderie, devotion and a special friendship that survives the inherent hostilities of time and place.
The film boasts a splendid cast led by the spunky, gloriously insubordinate Ms. Masterton, an actress with charm, magnetism and very good looks. She brings the right kind of spirit to the film’s central and most fascinating character. Her bee charming stunt pretty much defines her enterprising nature. As Ruth Ms. Parker, another beauty, is properly angelic, more laid back and operating in the shadow of Idgy’s dominant personality. As Evelyn Kathy Bates has the broader role and some of the funniest scenes, as well as the one character who undergoes the most telling metamorphosis during the course of the narrative. Bates, in one of her finer performances develops some real mettle by the end, and a real appreciation for the friendship with the elderly Idgy. As that oldest incarnation of Flagg’s feminist heroine, Jessica Tandy, coming off her Oscar winning role as Daisy (where she played the opposite kind of character) is marvelous as a women, seasoned by age, but unwavering in her fondness for the greatest years of her life and the memory of those who inhabited it. Tandy, without make-up is a natural for the role. The family servants Shaw and Tyson are given little to do by way of words, but they certainly do look the parts.
Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography has a homespun, airy feel that managed to transcends some of the more claustrophobic environs of the novel, and a special mention should go to Barbara Ling’s production design which brings a rustic authenticity of Ms. Flagg’s alluring locales.
The prolific film composer Thomas Newman – youngest son of the legendary Alfred, and part of the Newman family musical dynasty- had previously wrote the memorable scores for The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty, but his scores for Fried Green Tomatoes and a lesser known film The Horse Whisperer are probably his best. Newman crafts a deeply personal, if exceedingly sentimental symphonic score that is driven by rapturous melodic lines and bold arrangements. The music bleeds with nostalgia, and is hugely successful in capturing the sounds one associates with the post-reconstruction South -with the dominance of a barrel house piano and the intense vocals of the great Marion Williams, whose beautiful work is heard on the soundtrack at least four times. The film’s elegiac main theme, which segues into Williams’s bluesy “Ghost Train” is the most extraordinary composition Newman has ever written. Not only does it pierce the heart with aching poignancy but it provides a musical commentary under the segments of the film it aurally underlines.
In any event those who visit the Whistle Stop Cafe might find it hard not to return there at some point.