Film

STAINLESS STEEL MAGNOLIAS

From lady miners to supermoms, real-life renegades get a Hollywood makeover

Brian D. Johnson October 24 2005
Film

STAINLESS STEEL MAGNOLIAS

From lady miners to supermoms, real-life renegades get a Hollywood makeover

Brian D. Johnson October 24 2005

STAINLESS STEEL MAGNOLIAS

From lady miners to supermoms, real-life renegades get a Hollywood makeover

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Film

SOME ADVICE if you’re an actress gold-digging for an Oscar: star in a movie based on the true story of a tormented yet fierce working woman who challenges male supremacy with an indomitable spirit. Blame it on Sally Field. She set the template in 1979 with her Oscar-wining turn as a blue-collar firebrand in Norma Rae, which was followed the next year by Sissy Spacek’s triumph as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. More recently, four of the best-actress winners in the past six years portrayed real-life renegades famous for incinerating female stereotypes. Just look down the list: Hilary Swank as cross-gendered martyr Tina Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry; Julia Roberts as a ferocious whistle-blower in Erin Brockovich; Nicole Kidman as gender-bending author Virginia Woolf in The Hours; and Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. This year Swank won for a second time, as a white-trash boxer in Million Dollar Baby, and although that movie wasn’t a true story, it played like a biopic.

This month a similar pattern is emerging, with three dramas of true-grit heroines inspired by real-life characters. In North Country, Theron again blunts her natural glamour, donning coveralls to portray a tormented Minnesota miner who launches the first class-action suit against sexual harassment.

In The Prize Winner of Defiance,

Ohio, Julianne Moore stars as Evelyn Ryan, a long-suffering suburban housewife with an alcoholic husband and 10 kids who keeps her family solvent by winning jingle contests in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In Domino, English rose Kiera Knighdy roughs up her image as Domino Harvey, the delinquent daughter of British acting legend Lawrence Harvey, who becomes a gun-toting bounty hunter.

Of the three movies, North Country stands out as a forceful, evocative piece of blue-collar drama. It also has the most solid pedigree, with a power trio of former Oscar winners—Theron, Frances McDormand and Spacek (who now comes full circle, from miner’s daughter to miner’s mother). Theron seems guaranteed another nomination. She proves that her Monster tour de force was no fluke. After a string of vapid roles as a perfect blond, from The Cider House Rules to The Legend ofBagger Vance, she appears to have liberated the acting beast from behind the opaque beauty. Even so—despite the natural acting, legions of extras recruited from the mines, and a vivid sense of place embedded in the harsh landscape of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range—North Country never quite lets us forget we’re watching a Hollywood movie. But then, that’s so often the case with semitrue stories onscreen. Filmmakers these days go to such excessive pains to get the physical details right, only to let the script sacrifice authenticity to the overzealous mandate of a moral fable.

North Country is a fictional tale inspired by events documented in the 2002 book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law. Jenson was one of four single mothers who found jobs at Min-

nesota’s EvelethTaconite mine in 1975, after a sexual discrimination suit forced the mine to employ women. In 1988, after enduring relentless abuse from male co-workers, she and 20 other women filed a harassment suit. Eight years later they won, but the judge refused to award punitive damages.

Jenson declined to co-operate with the filmmakers. But the movie’s episodes of abuse are lifted directly from her caseincluding crotch grabbing, threats of rape, dildos in lunch boxes, obscene graffiti and an incident of a man leaving his ejaculate on a woman’s sweater in her locker. Like Jenson, Theron’s “fictional” character, Josey, is a single mother who was a teenage victim of sexual assault. And although the notion of Theron as a miner may seem preposterous, the book describes Jenson as “a Scandinavian beauty” with “wavy blond hair, blue eyes and pale, clear skin.” She’s also described as “moral but flirtatious,” an intriguing contradiction that’s only hinted at in Theron’s character. The movie plays it safe; she’s never allowed to go beyond her role as a heroic victim.

The full-service script leaves no cliché unmined. The pack of abusive workers is led by Josey’s former high-school sweetheart. And as if the harassment story were not enough, it’s framed by a dark mystery surrounding their breakup. Josey’s white knight, meanwhile, is a hometown hockey hero turned lawyer, played by a rather selfpossessed Woody Harrelson. And as a truck driver and union rep, McDormand displays her usual cheeky candour—but she’s stuck with a soap-opera storyline.

Until the sentiment starts to clot, the drama has real power. Spacek and Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) tap subtle veins of emotion as Josey’s stoical mother and embittered dad. And New Zealand director

Niki Caro—who made the Maori feminist fable, Whale Rider— captures the world of open-pit mining with infernal grandeur. Her cinematographer, Chris Menges, finds a grim poetry in the Iron Range, framing epic vistas of scoured black landscapes ragged with snow. And the soundtrack features no less than four songs from Minnesota native Bob Dylan, including an original track. North Country may be rooted in fact, but its mission is mythology.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio explores an equally mythic landscape of working-class America, the faux-paradise of’50s suburbia. It’s the stranger-than-fiction tale of Evelyn Ryan, a mother with so many children she didn’t know what to do—so she entered jingle-writing contests and won thousands of dollars in prizes. Based on a book by her daughter Terry Ryan, the sixth of 10 children, the film offers a nostalgic panorama of the American Dream in its prime, a bread-and-circuses era of game shows, beauty contests and supermarket shopping sprees.

Moore, echoing her role in Far From. Heaven, is immaculately cast as Evelyn, a elever, hard-headed, boundless optimist. But as her lunch-bucket husband, an alcoholic deadbeat who feels emasculated by her winnings, a hambone Woody Harrelson sinks the movie with a cartoonish performance. You can see it start to happen from the first drunken tantrum: it’s as if he’s out to destroy not just the household, but the film. Directing her first feature, screenwriter Jane Anderson has to shoulder some blame for not getting the actor to take it down a notch. Her direction walks a jittery line between comedy and pathos. The film tries to be ironic and earnest, and the result is a pastel blend, like the salmon tint that forms when Evelyn’s blood mixes with spilt milk after her husband sends her flying with halfa-dozen milk bottles in her hands.

The movie is in love with its symbols. After Evelyn carts home a mountain of food from a shopping spree, her husband stubbornly forks Spam from the can while she nibbles caviar on Ritz crackers. Even if that’s exactly what happened, it feels contrived. By the time the final credits roll, when we meet the real family, our curiosity is piqued, and there’s a sudden sense of regret: if only they’d made a documentary.

The same could be said of Domino. But filmmakers seem proud of their choice to screw with the facts. Flash-and-trash maestro Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide) directs the living daylights out of this travesty, a dizzying blitzkrieg of rapid cuts and camera tricks. As Domino, Knightly, that sweet lass from Bend it Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean, tries to play the abrasive femme fatale, clutching a cigarette or an AK-47. But she’s posing, not acting. Mickey Rourke is richly typecast as a grizzled sleazebag. And as the Hollywood producer of Domino’s C.O.P.S.-like reality show, Christopher Walken unleashes a sharp parody. But the film plays like a feature-length trailer. And although the real-life subject did co-operate, she ruined the ending after the movie was wrapped—by turning up dead of a drug overdose in a bathtub. Odd. The only drug she does in the movie is nicotine.