Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) portrays a small town in the rural South of the 1920s and 1930s that tolerates and supports a relationship between two women whom today we would describe as lesbians. That statement needs scrutiny: what would such a community know of a lesbian relationship, which would take place behind closed doors? Would it necessarily be seen as unusual, by prevailing standards of the day? Or would it simply be seen as a matter of two unmarried women living and working together for the sake of convenience, like a Boston marriage? Because no one names their relationship, no one has to react or pass judgment.

At any rate, the two women at the center of this film, and their family, tolerate individuality and eccentricity. They are not what the film presents as the prevailing Southern norm. The norm is Ruth Jamison's abusive husband. The norm is the Klan, which attacks the Whistle Stop Café for its too tolerant attitude towards a black employee. But mostly, it seems, the community simply ignores or doesn't think about or doesn't understand Idgie and Ruth's private life. The town simply accepts them. When Idgie is put on trial for killing Ruth's husband, Ruth is asked why she left her husband to go live with Idgie: she answers that Idgie "is the best friend I've ever had. I love her." The townspeople see the relationship as a friendship, and the film portrays it that way, although there is enough information to allow us to infer a deeper bond.

Like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Intruder in the Dust (1949), and other films, Fried Green Tomatoes examines the South through characters and situations that are exceptional rather than representative. Yet it argues that exceptions such as Ruth and Idgie are part of the community because of a fundamental tolerance for variation and eccentricity. The South is, after all, according to a fundamental stereotype, full of eccentrics and individuals. Shouldn't it be accepting of them? As the film makes clear, such tolerance extends within but not across racial boundaries.

The film has a double-plot structure. A modern housewife named Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is unhappy with her marriage and her life in general and is suffering a personal crisis. She meets an elderly woman living in a nursing home named Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) who tells her stories from her earlier days in a nearby town called Whistle Stop. These stories mainly concern Idgie and Ruth. They inspire Evelyn to get her life in order, to be more assertive, and to stand up to her husband. I found the Evelyn Couch scenes deadly dull and uninteresting. Kathy Bates overplays her character and is more a cartoon than a realistic figure. The Ruth and Idgie story is far more interesting. Evelyn's life provides a frame that enables Ruth and Idgie's story to be told (a frame similar to what we find in Princess Bride, 1987, and Edward Scissorhands, 1990).

This film is often grouped pejoratively with other films about Southern women such as Steel Magnolias (1989). The grouping isn't accurate—Fried Green Tomatoes is a better film primarily because of the writing, the narrative coherence, the characters, and the actors. Mary Stuart Masterson (Idgie) and Mary-Louise Parker (Julie) are excellent in their roles, though there is, admittedly, a Hallmark Hallof Fame sheen to both of them. As much as it is a kind of fairy tale about an idyllic Southern past, Fried Green Tomatoes is not (unlike Steel Magnolias) a conglomeration of stereotypes and parodies. It is a portrait of a close and deep friendship and the community around it. Interestingly, both films use the death of a main character as a dramatic focus. Julie's death seems a way by which the film evades long-term issues about her relationship with Idgie.

Fried Green Tomatoes is also, like many Southern films, a nostalgic excursion, told from a future vantage point in time, looking back towards a past that some might prefer to the present day. In the old days, the film implies, Ninny would not have been left in a nursing home. Friends and relatives would have taken Ninny in, as Evelyn seems ready to do at the end of the film. The past is clearly past—times have changed. This is an underlying premise of Ninny's stories about the old days in Whistle Stop. The café closes, and Whistle Stop withers away after the train no longer stops there. This signifies the passage of the old order.

Ironically, the train is the source of the town's economic life, yet it is also a threat from the beginning. Idgie's brother Buddy is killed in an early scene when a train kills him after his shoe becomes stuck between the tracks.

Fried Green Tomatoes depends on notions of Southern local color and quaintness for much of its secondary interest. It is about a former time and place, an enclave of isolation from modernity and all of its inhospitable elements.

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