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'Citizen Ruth': Pregnant Truths

By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1997

The righteous extremes on both sides of the abortion issue get knocked around in the brave, funny and thoroughly irreverent "Citizen Ruth." Such wit hasn't graced screens since Tim Robbins sauteed American politics in 1992's "Bob Roberts."

The film paints diehard activists on both sides of the abortion issue as dogmatic, fanatic know-nothings who stick their fingers in their ears any time the other side tries to make a point.

Director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne achieves a fine level of absurdity simply by having his actors play it straight no matter how bizarre their actions. And he's so sure-handed that they're still recognizable, reflecting just enough of what we recognize about extremists on both sides. Then, instead of bringing in some cynical third party to give a "pox on both your houses" speech, he plunks down among these yahoos an innocent -- of sorts -- in the form of feckless Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern).

Set in the white-bread-and-mayonnaise heartland, the fable begins as Ruth, a pallid, paint-sniffing producer of illegitimate babies, is tossed out by an abusive boyfriend. She wanders into an alley, blasts a dose of stolen spray paint into a paper bag and inhales the fumes. Her mouth ringed with paint, she blacks out, soon to be picked up for the umpteenth time by police.

The judge, upon learning that she's pregnant again (a brother has her other four kids and won't let her near them), charges Ruth with criminal endangerment of her fetus. Then, he offers her leniency if, while in jail, she sees a doctor and "takes care of this problem" -- that is, has an abortion.

Gaunt and hollow-eyed, her lips cracked from chemical inhalation, Ruth is a social worker's nightmare. In a role that would have tempted many actors into spasms of Method-y angst, Laura Dern gives an egoless, unmannered and thoroughly convincing performance. She plays Ruth as a touch brain-damaged from her habit, but also vulnerable, flirtatious, self-pitying and cunning. (Like any junkie, she knows how to con people.) If you saw Dern's Ruth Stoops near your door, you'd hide the paint thinner and turn the deadbolt.

On her own, Ruth is a sad figure. But when confronted with the pro- and anti-abortion activists, her blank-faced ignorance becomes deliciously comical. She's our Greek chorus, our Everywoman, dumbfounded by the frenzied behavior of those who claim to want to help her.

In jail Ruth meets some women from the Baby Savers -- Christian fundamentalists of ever-smiling piety who have been arrested for accosting patients at an abortion clinic. Their leader, Gail Stoney (a perfectly unctuous Mary Kay Place), and her husband, Norm (Kurtwood Smith), bail Ruth out and bring her into their modest split-level. She hogs the bathroom and is too crass to be grateful, but they make her and her unborn baby their cause celebre. They take her to a pro-life clinic where she sees mind-numbing movies that compare abortion to the Holocaust. Things go reasonably well until Ruth takes a swing at their son (Sebastian Anzaldo III).

After her falling-out with the Stoneys, in a clever but unrevealable plot twist, she staggers into the protection of radical pro-choice lesbians led by Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) and guarded by a cadre of leather-clad male bikers. Instead of singing hymns to Jesus, the lesbians pay obeisance to the Goddess Mother and sing New Age hymns to the moon.

As the lesbians and the fundamentalists battle for Ruth's heart, mind and fetus, the news media launch themselves into a frenzy and the national leaders of both pro and anti groups show up to do some demagoguery. Burt Reynolds is at his oiliest for the Baby Savers and Tippi Hedren (Hitchcock's heroine from "The Birds," 1963) smiles tightly for the pro-choicers.

Both groups offer Ruth money, either to have or abort the baby, and she seems willing to do the bidding of whoever pays the most. In a deliciously ironic coup, director Payne uses Ruth Stoops to conquer them all.

His little film isn't too slick and the acting is diamond-pure. It has the low-budget, gritty look of news footage, which is just right. As in the glitzier but equally cheeky "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Citizen Ruth" focuses on someone from the edges of society to make a point about the rest of us, about individual freedom, about fanaticism and about our refusal to face up to society's real crises.

Ruth is even less of a model citizen than Larry Flynt, yet both the pro- and anti-abortion fringe in the movie want her as their mascot. They must be crazy. And Payne rests his case.

Citizen Ruth is rated R and contains a graphic sexual situation, drug use, profanity and crude language.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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