The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Pangloss or Pollyanna?

A chum in my 1960's college career regularly paid expenses by winning jingle contests, mostly limericks about a product such as soap powder or appliances. The new film Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio depicts a mother of 10 children winning such contests in order to keep her family going. Julianne Moore successfully plays Evelyn Ryan as an eternal optimist plagued by an abusive alcoholic husband, Kelly, in a turn that should earn Woody Harrelson a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Her mantra that anything is possible seems even more out of touch than that of Pangloss or Pollyanna.

Evelyn is reminiscent of Cathy Whitaker, the housewife Moore played in Far From Heaven, set in the fifties and fraught with social and sexual repression. Evelyn's life in Defiance is much simpler: Make enough to get along and add your husband to the list of children you take care of. The chance to win corporate prizes in contests was soon to cease, probably because the lottery style reached more contestants, because the literacy talent of Americans was waning quickly, and because of the emergence of professional marketing poets.

Prize Winner catches the innocence of the prosperous post-war years, uncomplicated by computers, drugs, and hyper marketing, in a time when one of the Ryan children caught stealing money could decide to do time or join the army--simple choices devoid of messy counseling or meddling attorneys. Even the parish priest is uncomplicated enough to suggest Evelyn's marriage would be better if she made a better home for her husband, even though one of the kids observes the priest's breath is like her dad's. The local police are pretty much the same in dealing with their sports buddy's alcoholic abuses.

The film could have been immeasurably helped by expanding the role of Lora Dern's Dortha Schaefer, a soul mate writer who heads the "Contester Club" of talented writers like Evelyn and by reducing Kelly's obnoxious presence, felt in almost every frame. Yet, it's Kelly who accurately describes the almost saintly character of his wife: "You know what your problem is? You're too damn happy." Happy days also gone but not forgotten by a current generation that tries to find a secret in the 50's it can apply to a contemporary age when just being witty, ambitious, and faithful is not enough to bring happiness.

By the way, my contest-winning friend from college left this life 20 years later from success acting in the porno industry, whose prize was a bad case of AIDS.