Prize-Winning Strength

Friday, October 14, 2005

If Julianne Moore's most notable performances recently have been as women representing the shadow material of the 1950s -- first as the wife of a repressed homosexual in "Far From Heaven" and next as a woman suffocating as wife and mother in "The Hours" -- in "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" she brings the era cheerily into the light.

The movie has been adapted from Terry Ryan's best-selling memoir of her mother, Evelyn, a woman of endless optimism who reared 10 children and supported an alcoholic and abusive husband by entering jingle-writing contests. As one of her kids observes in the film, were it not for the sexism of the era, Evelyn would have been running an ad agency or penning her own column for the Chicago Tribune. But it was the 1950s (and early 1960s), so Evelyn built her career in quips and squibs, each one a proto-feminist step on what would later become a far louder and longer march.

"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" isn't very cinematic -- Jane Anderson, who also wrote the script, tries to inject visual interest with lots of kitschy collage effects. But it has its own subversive power, as it elevates one family's struggle for working-class survival and valorizes a woman of simple faith and inner strength. During a conversation with her husband (Woody Harrelson, looking suspiciously like Willem Dafoe in "Mississippi Burning"), Evelyn at one point insists that she's no saint. This warm, moving tribute suggests otherwise.

-- Ann Hornaday

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