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The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio Movie Review
You might enjoy the occasional sweepstakes or maybe you're an avid sweepstaker. But have you ever had to engage in sweepstaking to keep your family afloat financially? Evelyn Ryan, a witty resident of Defiance, Ohio, did—in the 1950s and with 10 kids to boot! The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio is the film adaptation of a memoir of the same name written by Evelyn's daughter, Terry Ryan.
Julianne Moore portrays Evelyn who has made a bad match in her marriage to Kelly Ryan, portrayed by Woddy Harrelson, whose alcoholism overshadowed his relationship with his wife and kids. He's a failed singer due to an accident and perpetually feels humiliated by his wife's ability to save the family from financial ruin rather than himself through her witty jingles which win contest after contest. Theirs is a typical abuser-codependent relationship. The film could constantly beat this topic with a stick but it's handled more subtly than that.
There are light jabs at 1950s culture without condemning it. One of the best lines of the film that epitomizes the hypocrisy Evelyn is dealing with is delivered from her young son. After Kelly has a particularly abusive alcoholic tantrum, the family's priest comes to counsel her. He tells her that her husband has so much to deal with and that she should just "try harder" to make a better home for him so he wouldn't be so stressed that he has to drink alcohol. She takes that bit of advice like a stereotypical 50s wife—quietly—but when the priest goes to leave and bends over to talk to her son, the boy later innocently says, "his breath smells like dad's."
Some reviewers have said that Evelyn is portrayed as too perfect, but I think Moore did a beautiful job of showing a character that was genuinely good-natured but disappointed in life while trying to keep her family together during a time socially where the norm wasn't for a woman to go out and get a job or defy the church. I'm not saying that a woman or children should ever have to put up with such abuse. I just believe that some viewers may see weakness in Evelyn simply because of Moore's understated performance and not place her situation in the context of the times. Evelyn encourages all of her children to be anything their hearts and minds tell them they can be while making many sacrifices for them. If the movie is true to the book, then her daughter must have written a loving, honest memoir in honor of her mother.
There's a tendency today to see only women of that era who stepped out of the housewife role as the only kind of feminist there should be. But I see a strand of positive feminism in Evelyn when after years of her husband belittling her for being "too happy" he claims after a particularly abusive scene that he has always been ashamed he couldn't be the one to make her happy. She says, "I don't need you to make me happy. I just need you to leave me alone when I am." That's not the way things should be, but I think we should see Evelyn not just as a product of her times, but as a woman who made the best of her circumstances as she understood them. While the film used the jarring technique of Moore brightly interjecting narration for Evelyn's life, I didn't find Moore's portrayal to be plastic in any way.
On the surface, the film may seem to make light of 1950s sexism and alcoholism. But you see a glimpse of other "contesting" wives who use their hobby as a means to work out their desperation of having no other outlet to put their potential to good use all the while smiling beneath an obvious veneer of the happy wife. Even with the dark subject matter, The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio still seems to empathize with the ever optimistic Evelyn without turning her into a caricature of 1950s wives or sweepstakers.
FTC and Amazon.com disclaimer: I watched this film on Netflix and haven't been compensated for this review. I do receive affiliate income from items purchased from Amazon links in this article.
You can watch the movie instantly or buy the book from the links below:
The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio
Tthe Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less
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