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‘How to Make an American Quilt’

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1995


Jocelyn Moorhouse
Winona Ryder;
Maya Angelou;
Anne Bancroft;
Ellen Burstyn;
Kate Capshaw;
Claire Danes;
Dermot Mulroney;
Kate Nelligan;
Jean Simmons;
Alfre Woodard;
Rip Torn;
Lois Smith;
Johnathon Schaech
some nudity, but artistically framed; moderate profanity and portrayals of marijuana use

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THERE IS A certain luxuriantly guilty pleasure to be had from a really extravagant junk food binge—demolishing a handful of Godiva truffles instead of M&Ms, for example—and there are certain movies that have a classy facade but whose plot and script are, at heart, embarrassingly hackneyed.

These films must either have some serendipitous saving grace, like the black humor that saved "Harold and Maude" from its own reverse May-December cliche; or the cast must display an almost shameless melodramatic abandon, its own extravagant indulgence. And that's pretty much what rescues "How to Make an American Quilt"—theatrical indulgence by a cast of stahs.

Not since "The Women" has a movie boasted an all-star list this weighty. Anne Bancroft, Kate Nelligan, Jean Simmons, Lois Smith, Ellen Burstyn, Maya Angelou, Esther Rolle, Kate Capshaw, Winona Ryder, Alfre Woodard—you could combine "Steel Magnolias" and "Fried Green Tomatoes" and you still wouldn't have enough knowing looks, worldly wisdom, hard knocks, ringing declarations of independence and ultimate regret for this film. But if you love those actresses, you'll probably love the film.

Based on a graduate thesis-turned-novel by Whitney Otto, the framing story involves a young woman with a "'60s hippie-kinda" neutral name, Finn (Ryder), who's working on her third potential graduate thesis, studying (notice, please) women's tribal social activities. She's also getting cold feet about marrying Sam (the blessedly restrained Dermot Mulroney), so she retreats to the home of her grandmother (Burstyn) and great-aunt (Bancroft) to create and contemplate. There the circle of quilters, led by Anna (Angelou), begins to make Finn and Sam a wedding quilt with panels that reflect their own love experiences. Naturally, they flash back. And naturally, they hit all the cultural touchstones.

The child Anna is made pregnant by a white guest of her employer; she has the child in Finn's grandmother's home. Burstyn has a quickie with her brother-in-law while her beloved husband lies dying. Bancroft banishes her husband and builds a plaster monument to their infidelity that still stands. Simmons's husband, an artist, seduces everything in sight, including Nelligan. Finn has her own brief affair. And so on.

Every one of these older women has either betrayed or been betrayed; so that logically, the "lessons" Finn learns should persuade her not to marry Sam. But the "truth" of this film is true love, so the only thread she really picks up on is a magical one—a crow who led the first quilter, Anna's grandmother, to her true love. Naturally the crow turns totem for Finn, too. And even more conveniently, her own feckless '60s hippie-kinda parents, who have been divorced almost since her birth, decide to remarry. It takes a sudden, violent storm to blow everything satisfyingly right.

Fortunately, not all of the acting is over the top, although Bancroft's is, well, right on the ceiling. Nelligan is tightly reined in and scathingly frank as a recent widow. Samantha Mathis is both bitter and eloquent as Lois Smith's younger self, a woman whose almost mystical grace in the water is snuffed out by marriage and motherhood. Capshaw is brashly human as Finn's mother, and Joanna Going, who portrays the Jean Simmons character as a young woman, is luminously beautiful.

But the usually delightful Ryder, whose "scribbling" scenes verge on a parody of "Little Women," seems for once to be acting, and not entirely comfortably. Maybe it was the brilliance of all those stars.

HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT (PG-13) — Contains some nudity, but artistically framed; moderate profanity and portrayals of marijuana use.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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