She refused to see herself as the wife of a drunk. She refused to be a victim of her circumstances. She calmly acknowledged the disasters of her life, but she would not submit to them. She also managed to raise 10 children. Just another stereotypical, dim-witted housewife? Try again.
Evelyn Ryan managed to keep her family above water by writing contest-winning commercial jingles in the 1950s. She also remained an eternal optimist, even though she was living with a drunk and violent husband, Kelly.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio portrays real-life housewife Ryan (Julianne Moore) as the perfect go-getter without the sappiness that would make the audience revisit lunch all over its shoes.
Adapted by writer/director Jane Anderson (The Baby Dance and HBO's Normal), Prize Winner is based on Ryan's biography, which was written by her daughter, Terry, who lived through the tumultuous yet triumphant times.
As the pages of Terry's memoir are turned on screen, Evelyn's optimism grows stronger in the face of ever-present doom from Kelly (well-played by a chubby Woody Harrelson). The audience is not overwhelmed with grief or sympathy for her; instead, viewers find themselves standing up with her unwavering wit and radiance.
Moore shines as she takes on and conquers the difficult role of Evelyn. Not to be compared to previous films in which Moore portrayed domestic, 1950s housewives (Far From Heaven or The Hours), Prize Winner portrays the extraordinary talents and resourcefulness of a woman deeply devoted to her family, but stuck in the wrong decade and, therefore, confined to the house.
Moore's abilities as a versatile actress come through when she happily presents a new freezer that Kelly attacks due to his inability to fill it with food. Or better, when she stoically stands up from a puddle of blood-splattered spilt milk filled with broken glass, after Kelly throws her to the floor.
This film celebrates the "overworked housewife" and her "under-worked wits" without making Evelyn a saint (just a hero) or Kelly a beast.
Kelly, once a charismatic crooner who romanced Evelyn, is forced to take a job as a machinist when a car accident destroys both his singing voice and dignity. Kelly lets his failure as the breadwinner of the family fester while he buries himself in depression. He often takes his aggression out on the steadfast Evelyn, who acknowledges "he lost his voice while she kept hers."
It would have been easy to make Kelly out to be another cantankerous drunkard (like every other on-screen alcoholic husband), but it is far more difficult to show him as a complex person with real problems. When Kelly is sober, he is a tender husband and caring father.
Harrelson's performance is diverse and layered as he portrays a pathetic, yet kind-hearted father. Harrelson plays Kelly realistically, allowing the audience to understand why Evelyn didn't leave him.
In an interview with The Beacon, Anderson showed her down-to-earth spirit and affinity for youth by inviting student journalists up to her swanky suite on the ninth floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel because the conference room assigned was "just too cold!"
Anderson said her interest in directing this film had a lot to do with being a mother. It is not often that Hollywood allots a big budget to a picture honoring the ordinary housewife, according to Anderson. She used to dismiss the 50s as a superficial time that was just a pause before the next big revolution. But, when she read Prize Winner, she was surprised and inspired because she "had never read anything that celebrates a housewife."
"It was tragic that women were stuck in the house," Anderson said. "And as someone who grew up in the feminist era, I learned to feel horribly sorry for housewives. That's why this was such a revelation to me, that here was a highly intelligent, gifted woman who was stuck in the middle of nowhere but she found happiness regardless, and that's the ultimate lesson."
The choice to pick Moore to play the strong and diverse character was an easy one for Anderson.
"She has such intelligence as an actress and it's very hard to play an optimist convincingly," Anderson said. "I knew as an actor she'd be able to walk that very delicate line between optimism and realism. You saw her deliberately deciding to take the higher road."
As optimistic as Evelyn was, it is important for the audience to see her realistically and clearly as only human, Anderson said. In the 50s, there were few alternatives for battered housewives. Many women could not leave the home and get jobs. Instead of being defined by her circumstances in life, Evelyn chose to be happy.
"If Evelyn could have changed [her situation] she would have," Anderson said. "The message of the film is change whatever you can, but if you can't, find the happiness."
It is easy for people today to criticize housewives for staying in abusive marriages or call them nothing more than mindless, barefoot baby machines, but Prize Winner shines a light on the unsung heroism of the housewife. Evelyn Ryan made the best out of a bad and worsening life and was able to provide for her children and keep her chin up.