Last year, there were so few strong roles for women in Hollywood movies that the Oscar for best actress went to Jessica Lange for a film that hardly anyone saw (Blue Sky). This year already looks better, with Meryl Streep getting Clint Eastwood to help with the dishes in The Bridges of Madison County and Nicole Kidman getting away with murder as a fame-obsessed femme fatale in To Die For. And then there are the new “women’s movies,” which cram as many strong female roles as possible into a single script—films such as How to Make an American Quilt or Moonlight and Valentino.
Both are bittersweet dramas about women turning to each other for solace, women who have been widowed, divorced, deserted, betrayed or neglected. And in both films, the only truly sympathetic guy is a male bimbo who barely talks, a bluecollar god whose only purpose is to take off his shirt—and fulfill the fantasy of a woman hoping to find a little uncomplicated sex just once in her life.
How to Make an American Quilt is the better of the two movies. Based on the 1991 novel by Whitney Otto, it is an elegant patchwork of stories in which seven women involved in a contemporary quilting bee reminisce about lost romance. Providing the narrative thread is a young woman anxious about her engagement, a graduate student named Finn (Winona Ryder) who takes a break from her fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) to spend the summer with her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and great aunt (Anne Bancroft).
Their house, a quiet California retreat surrounded by orange groves, serves as home to the quilting bee, a ritual that has been passed down through the generations. As Finn’s elders sew her wedding quilt, she hears them unravel their tales of romantic woe. She, meanwhile, works on a quilt of her own, a master’s thesis on women’s handiwork in tribal cultures. Her one distraction is a Hispanic hunk, a farm worker who offers to feed her strawberries, and his body, both still warm from the sun.
As a cross-generational weave of women’s tales, the movie bears an obvious resem-
blance to The Joy Luck Club (1993). But American Quilt’s dramatic fabric is more delicate, its fibre softened by whimsy. In one comic scene, the sisters played by Burstyn and Bancroft sit on the porch and light up a joint before unearthing a sad memory of marital infidelity. The incongruity of aged women quilting and toking is left unexplained, although they are in California, where presumably anything goes.
The film’s ensemble cast has remarkable depth. It includes screen veteran Jean Simmons, as the long-suffering wife of a philandering artist; Kate Nelligan, as a quietly despairing widow who comes between them; poet Maya Angelou, as the master quilter who was once a maid in the sisters’ household; and Alfre Woodard, who plays her mercurial daughter. A series of flashbacks feature a whole
second tier of actresses playing the quilters as young women.
Amid the crowded cast, Ryder holds her own, bringing a natural blend of vulnerability and grace to a slender lead role. And Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse CProof) stitches the disparate shreds into a harmonious, if lightweight, fabric. As the film would have it, patching together a quilt, a romance or a movie requires the same homespun philosophy: in the words of one character, “You have to choose your combination carefully, go by instinct and be brave.”
Clinging to conventional wisdom, American Quilt is more safe than brave. And, as a piece of ersatz folk art, it seems more devoted to design than to instinct. But the combinations work. Although each story just skims the surface of a life, drawing out a few threads, together they exert a surprising tug on the heartstrings, creating a picture that proves to be more than the sum of its parts.
Moonlight and Valentino offers a much simpler premise. Beginning with the tragic death of a husband, who is hit by a car while jogging, it unfolds as a kind of upbeat movie about mourning—a weepie in reverse. The film is scripted by Ellen Simon (daughter of playwright Neil), who based it on her play, which was in turn based on her own experience of losing a husband.
As Rebecca, a widowed poetry teacher, Elizabeth Perkins gives a fine performance, capturing the resentment and skittish humor that get profanely mixed up with grieving. But the story degenerates into the dramatic equivalent of a 12-step program. Rebecca’s higher power is a sexy house painter played by rock star Jon Bon Jovi. And her support group includes a virginal kid sister (Gwyneth Paltrow), an overbearing ex-stepmother (Kathleen Turner) and a flaky best friend (Whoopi Goldberg).
Once the widow agrees to let the painter-god spruce up her siding, it is only a matter of time before he refurbishes her sex drive. Sex, apparently, is the antidote to tragedy. And how is Jon Bon Jovi’s acting debut? Cool, understated—and much less preposterous than the movie.
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