Monday, 2 January 2012

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1991)

Dir. Jon Avnet
Starring: Kathy Bates, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jessica Tandy

At the end of the film Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café the character of Ninny Threadgoode states “I found out what the secret to life is: friends”. And to me that is what this movie is about: friends, or – more generally – community.

The Depression-era village of Whistle Stop, Alabama, is rich with a sense of community. Ninny reckons that the trackside café owned by Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) and Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) was at the heart of the community, but that concern for and support of the other townsfolk is evident at times of stress. Hobo Smokey Lonesome (Tim Scott) is given shelter and compassion. Reverend Scroggins (Richard Riehle) lies in court to protect his frequent tormentor Idgie and Big George (Stan Shaw). And while it is made clear that Idgie’s would-be suitor Sheriff Grady Kilgore (Gary Basaraba) is a member of the local Ku Klux Klan who does not appreciate the local blacks dining at the café he steps up to defend George when the town is invaded by Klansmen from Georgia.

It is, however, the friendship between tomboy Idgie and battered wife Ruth that forms the real emotional core of the film. Their friendship is a real partnership of souls despite their very different outlooks on life. In the original novel of the same name upon which the film was based the author Fannie Flagg makes the nature of their relationship clearer. I’m not sure what the female equivalent of ‘homoeroticism’ is but upon release the film was criticised for underplaying it. That may be the case, but it would take a very blinkered soul not to read an entire story in the wonderful expression Masterson paints on Idgie’s face when Ruth drunkenly kisses her on the cheek.

Idgie and Ruth, proving that opposites do attract

The internal story about interwar Whistle Stop is, however, framed within a certain narrative device. In the modern-day Kathy Bates’s frumpy, dumpy housewife Evelyn Couch (even the name brings to mind a sedentary, overstuffed individual) is regaled with tales of long-gone Whistle Stop by nursing-home resident Ninny (Jessica Tandy). These stories spark a fire of devil-may-care individuality within Evelyn. As the film progresses she loses the timidity and curlers and picks up a power-suit and a sledgehammer. While Ed Couch (Gailard Sartain) is not physically abusive like Ruth’s husband Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy) he is certainly emotionally negligent, his set routine consisting of coming home, picking his cooked dinner up from its place on the table, and crossing over to the TV to watch sport. Towards the end we begin to see that the feistiness Evelyn has picked up from Idgie may be the key to turning their marriage around.

Despite that, the modern-day element does not work. There is a disconnect. The start of the story is too obviously literary. I thought that I was really going to hate the film. Once the characters were established and Ninny’s narration is cut back the central tale sang along for itself. But I felt that every transition back from the drama of love, death and race to the comedy set-pieces of the modern-day (the self-help group being asked to examine their vaginas with mirrors, Evelyn smashing a hole in her wall with a sledgehammer, Evelyn falling in love with road rage when pipped to a car park spot) was clumsily managed. The two different tones jarred. May be it was partly because I have never before seen Kathy Bates play anything other than a ballsy take-no-prisoners sort of character before – seeing her as a repressed and suppressed housewife took some getting used to. The modern soundtrack of Paul Young and Jodeci also served to distract from the real meat of the tale. I might also say that I found the revelation of what actually happened to Frank Bennett quite stomach-turning.

What have I learnt about Alabama?
Certainly in the idealised town of Whistle Stop there is a sense of community – a community that has vanished with the closure of the café and the cessation of rail services. Like Ninny’s condemned house, it belonged to an era that is now gone. There were race issues – though none apparently in the present day. The blacks could cook at the Whistle Stop Café but they had to eat out back, and Grady has a matter of fact attitude to the notion that if Big George were to go to trial in Georgia for killing a white man he would be hung (or is ‘lynched’ the operative word?). Perhaps most upsetting is the ‘boy’-‘sir’ exchange between the bullying Curtis Smoote (Raynor Scheine) and the subdued George. Yet the dislike of strangers is stronger still. Or possibly, it’s just the dislike of Georgians, none of whom (with the possible exception of the judge) are portrayed at all sympathetically. Frank is by turns smarmy, violent and drunken. Smoote is an unpleasant, greedy weasel of a man who rejoices in his position of authority. And the court prosecutor is a bombastic, blinkered demagogue.

Can we go there?
Yes you can! The Whistle Stop Café is open for business, and, yes, they do serve fried green tomatoes – though I may steer clear of ‘Bennet’s Barbecue’… The entire main street of ‘Whistle Stop’ has been preserved as a tourist attraction. Yet while the fictional town was supposedly based upon Irondale, on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, the film was not shot there. Grady Kilgore and his boys must be turning in their graves, but the film was shot in the town of Juliette. In Georgia. Roughly half-way between Atlanta and Macon. Ouch. Bizarrely enough Juliette also stood in for Alabama in a couple of scenes from the film The Tuskogee Airmen. Although in the film A Killing Affair it was in West Virginia. How confusing!

Overall Rating: 2/5

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