4 Sep

In 1996, Frances McDormand earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for bringing to life one of the most original characters in recent memory (or what seemed like recent memory 15 years ago, but I digress), and that would be Fargo‘s plucky, pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson.  McDormand’s Marge is simply irresistible: pleasant disposition, empathic when necessary, determined, acute ability to analyze a crime scene and form an accurate hypothesis, handy with a weapon, and, of course, there’s that cute Minnesotan accent. Oh ya. McDormand is so absolutely perfect in the role that it’s inconceivable to think of anyone else playing it; moreover, the cultural impact of the character was/is so strong that I think McDormand would have won the Oscar no matter what year Fargo had been released, as evidenced by the fact that her Sheriff Gunderson was named #34 on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest Heroes.

Even so, McDormand didn’t win in just any year; she won in a year in which the race for even a nomination was especially crowded, so much so that a handful of exceptional performances–which would have likely been guaranteed nominations in a less competitive year–were unavoidably overlooked. Chief among the also-rans are Madonna, singing AND acting the role of a lifetime, in Evita, and Debbie Reynolds, enjoying a marvelous comeback in Albert Brooks’s Mother–a wry, well-textured performance which far outshines the film itself.  Other personal favorites include Illeana Douglas (Grace of My Heart), Winona Ryder (The Crucible), and Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) [1]. Perhaps best of all among the rest of the pack is none other than Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth, a performance which brings to mind only one word: fearless.

In addition to Dern, Payne, and Taylor, the  Citizen Ruth DVD also features lively audio commentary by production designer Jane Ann Stewart which is quite illuminating. Of special note is the wastebasket seen above on the left.

What’s so fearless about Dern’s Ruth Stoops is that the actress is not afraid to just lose herself in that rarest of characters, and that is a protagonist with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Ruth is an addict, and her vice of choice is “hazardous vapor inhalation” (or “smelling drugs” to quote one of her many would-be saviors), to the point that she’s willing to experiment with any common household product she can find (sealant, spray paint, modeling glue, cleaning solutions, etc.). Ruth is also equally non-discriminatory regarding alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, she has been arrested so many times that she can’t even remember the exact number–not even close. Additionally, she’s been legally declared “unfit” as a mother and struggles to piece together the exact circumstances under which she lost custody of one of her four children.  Ruth isn’t especially bright, often missing the point of what people trying to help her are saying. She doesn’t even know when it’s best to be quiet while standing before a clearly agitated judge. On the other hand, yes, she possesses street smarts, or survival instincts if you will, but that often entails a brazen lack of gratitude and repeatedly abusing the trust of anyone who reaches out to her:  manipulating, stealing, etc.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for filmmakers to trot out super-villains with no greater motive than to destroy anyone or anything that crosses his/her path. A classic example would be Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard (1988) or the hit-man played by Oscar winner Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (2007), and, of course, the boogie men in countless slasher flicks. It’s quite another thing for a director and/or screenwriter to trust an audience enough to present a protagonist without some easily understood motivation, a sympathetic trait, or other endearing quality.  Certainly, Monster (2003), the movie about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos (played to Oscar winning glory by Charlize Theron) works as well as it does because writer director Patty Jenkins–with magnificent assist from Theron–works hard to humanize Wuornos, showing that even a murderer, however frightening, is not created in a vacuum. Of course, Wuornos’s actions are abhorrent, to say the least, but she is not presented as purely evil. She comes from a background of abuse, is under-educated, suffers from a lack of credible job experience, and despite her best intentions, is unable (like so many other women) to get ahead in life, so she turns to the dangerous business of  prostitution and eventually retaliates against the men who abuse her. Furthermore, Monster goes to great lengths to show again that, however twisted, Wuornos is capable of feeling love for another person (in the form of the character played by Christina Ricci). In contrast, even though Citizen Ruth is a comedy, Alexander Payne (director and co-writer) and Jim Taylor (co-writer) [2] make no such efforts to soften Ruth’s recklessness, which is part of what makes the film so entertaining. It’s fun to watch what this guileless creature does next.

Ruth’s predicament in a nutshell is thus: after Ruth is arrested for the umpteenth time in less than two years, a jail house physician informs her that she is pregnant. Again. At Ruth’s arraignment, the presiding judge is so incensed by the expectant mother’s lack of regard for the safety of her unborn fetus, he threatens her with the felony charge. He later makes a verbal agreement with Ruth to the effect that the charges will be dropped if she agrees to visit a doctor and take care of the matter, thus relieving the world of yet another unwanted child taking up space in “the system.” The doctor never says the word, “abortion,” but his message is clear: terminate the pregnancy STAT! To Ruth’s rescue comes a band of stalwart do-gooders led by Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, and Swoosie Kurtz.  This merry troupe is part of  a Christian-based, cultish fellowship with  an unshakable belief in the rights of the unborn. After drumming up their every last cent to pay Ruth’s bail, Gail and Norm Stoney (Place and Smith) invite the indigent young woman to stay in their basement while strategizing a way to persuade her to keep the child, thereby sending a message to the judge–who also has a less than amicable relationship with the group known as the Baby Savers. The problem is that Ruth, like many women who are misled about such “pregnancy centers,” believes that she  is being taken to an abortion clinic and reacts rather hostilely when she finds out otherwise; moreover, she soon finds that the Stoneys are shielding her from the press, refusing to allow her to speak for herself, and are instead inventing appropriate sound bites and feeding them to the press.

Those viewers who are firmly in the pro-choice camp will no doubt take delight in the way the filmmakers mock the Stoneys, their beliefs, and their entire banal existence: Norm’s dead-end job at a hardware store as well as his sexual hypocrisy, a quaint home full of tacky furnishings in which Gail takes enormous pride; Gail’s insistence on referring to the child born of her own accidental mid-life pregnancy as a “miracle;” both parents’ ignorance and/or denial about their teenage hellion daughter, the naivete of their faith, and their single-minded quest to make anyone and everyone follow their god and share their values.  What’s not to love about such blatant absurdity? There’s something freakishly entertaining about watching Ruth’s utter and deliberate disregard for her would-be saviors, especially given their self-righteous zealotry; however, just when the story seems to hit its peak, it takes a nifty turn and becomes an even richer tale because of it.

Of course, I don’t want to give away all the movie’s surprises, but Ruth is soon caught in a game of tug of war between the snarling pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing known as the Baby Savers and an equally formidable network of  Pro-Choice Activists, a group as militant in its own way as the Baby Savers but with a much more inviting vibe: foot massages, satellite TV, etc. Now, here’s where things get a little tricky, and some viewers might argue that the movie collapses on itself by attempting too much, or for not landing squarely in one camp or another. First of all, the presentation of the lesbian couple that rescues Ruth (yet again) is a bit mean-spirited, and that’s hard to take at first; however, given what the movie ultimately accomplishes, it seems only fitting that the filmmakers should have a little fun lampooning both groups of do-gooders. After all, as Payne and Taylor offer in the DVD commentary, “good deed do-ers” do not always act in purely selfless ways. They expect a little gratitude and are often stunned when they don’t get it. You see, Ruth really never hits “rock bottom” in the classic way that characters with addictions do in movies–and in the same way as real-life addicts. Hitting rock bottom usually entails said addict finally realizing that s/he has lost control and must change his/her behavior in order to be free from the trap of addiction. Ruth will have none of that. She has plenty of dark, anguished filled moments, but she rebounds quickly and moves on to the next distraction, leaving others stupefied in her wake.

No, Ruth is not terribly bright, and, no, she doesn’t ever reach that point of utter humiliation, debasement, and remorse that would prompt her to change her ways and become an honest upright person; however, she does come to realize at some point that she is being used as a pawn in a highly political struggle, and that it is likely–very likely–that members of both camps are more interested in her unborn baby than they are in her. There’s something ironic about a person as recklessly impulsive as Ruth whining that she never gets what she wants, but she does seem to have a point in this particular case.  Sure, she’s a colossal failure as a human being, and, yes, she routinely makes bad choices, but she sees her current situation for what it is: a means to an end for others with no little or no regard for her well being. With that in mind, she basically plays one side against the other in order to secure her best interests, and, frankly, I think audiences root for her to cut through all the noise and just get on with her life (I know I do) though I worry that she’ll be back on hard times sooner rather than later. I also think that in spite of some of the script’s lapses, the film makes the case that Ruth’s choice should be hers and hers alone, thereby reaffirming a woman’s right to choose, so we can all exhale.

Ready for her close-up: fearless Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth

Dern’s performance proves a constant revelation. She isn’t afraid of showing just how pathetic and nasty “huffing” is, yet at the same time she also shows the great enjoyment Ruth derives from it, and Payne doesn’t shy away from putting the camera right up in Ruth’s face, so the audience can see the anticipation and the intensity of the high in her eyes. Plus, she isn’t afraid to play stupid, as in her scene with the judge when she conducts herself with the emotional, and perhaps intellectual, maturity of a seventh-grader. She looks like hell throughout most of the movie too even though she she’s treated to a–ghastly–makeover by Place’s Gail Stoney. Of course, there are plenty of moments in which Ruth bawls her eyes out, either in outright despair, or something akin to a juvenile fit, or even a pretend crying jag, and Dern plays them all expertly. Think about that. How many times is an actor/actress asked to play three different levels of hysterical sobbing? Finally, next to the scene with the judge, Ruth’s utter cluelessness is best displayed during the anti-abortion counseling session. Her reaction to the chirpy pair played by Kathleen Noone and the recently deceased Kenneth Mars is an absolute howl, especially when Ruth spews out what has to be one of the most outrageous lines in movie history (a line that is almost topped by her final blow to a not so disinterested party in one of the movie’s final scenes). Again, Dern is fearless. It’s hard to imagine that too many actresses would be willing to go as far as Ruth/Dern does in this movie–and not worry about career repercussions as a result. By the way: besides Dern, Kurtz, Mars, Noone, Place and Smith,  Citizen Ruth also features a doozy of a performance by Kelly Preston, virtually unrecognizable as Jerry Maguire‘s ambitious, career oriented ex-fiancee from the same moviegoing season, as well as solid support from M.C.Gainey and spot-on cameos from Burt Reynolds and Tippi Hedren.

In early 1997, Entertainment Weekly  published its second annual Oscar race preview issue, handicapping the major races before the nominees were even announced. Besides weighing the chances of McDormand, Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies), Diane Keaton (Marvin’s Room), Madonna, Reynolds and a few other high profile contenders, the editors singled out Dern as a “Loveable Longshot” in a special sidebar, which is how I first found out about Citizen Ruth though I scarcely recognized Dern in the accompanying photo. Here is a quote from the text: “Few people have seen LAURA DERN in Citizen Ruth. That’s a shame, because in a season full of actresses taking big risks, her blunt, unsentimental performance is the bravest, funniest high-wire act of all. As the screwy, incorrigibly stupid pawn of both anti-abortion fundamentalists and pro-choice lesbians, Dern is a heroine worth rooting for. That’s more than acting — it’s alchemy”[3].  Thanks to the EW blurb, I made a beeline to see the flick as soon as it opened at the old UA Ciné. Thanks, EW!  Okay, so Dern wasn’t nominated by the Academy. I get it; I just don’t get how she was overlooked for as much as an Independent Spirit Award or even recognition at the Sundance Film Festival. No, Dern’s only award came from the judges of the Montreal Film Festival, which is better than nothing but still seems like small potatoes. I guess that’s why the work sometimes has to be its own reward. Fifteen years later, I’m still singing its praises, right?

A 1991/92 Best Actress nominee for Rambling Rose (a movie produced by her then s.o., Renny Harlin, and co-starring her mother Diane Ladd, also Oscar nominated), Dern’s greatest impact has arguably been been felt on TV, including a recent Golden Globe award along with Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her performance as Florida election official Katherine Harris in Recount, the HBO docudrama about the debacle known as the 2000 presidential election. [She also boasts an Emmy nod for her HBO series Enlightened.]  That noted, her film resumé is none too shabby, what with the likes of Jurassic Park (1993), and a pair of high profile offerings from David Lynch, Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). Of course, with a meager budget of–only–three million, and a box office gross of barely one hundred grand (as reported on the IMDb via Box Office Mojo), Citizen Ruth is worlds removed from the stratospheric success of Jurassic Park, but given the choice of watching Dern duke it out against blood curdling dinosaurs in a jungle wonderland, or  against bloodthirsty do-gooders in the barren, wintry landscape of Omaha, Nebraska, I choose the latter. Now, that’s what I call fearless.

[1]  I also think a case could also be made for Heather Matarazzo, all of 11 years old when she filmed Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse; she was around 13 when the film was released in 1996.  Matarazzo packs a wallop as a junior high misfit who really can’t seem to catch a break between being mercilessly bullied at school and chronically misunderstood by her parents. Of course, she’s a middle child. At any rate, Matarazzo is as fearless in her own way in Solondz’s dark comedy as Dern is in Citizen Ruth; however, back in 1996/97, well before Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider (2003)  and Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), it seemed a huge, huge leap to think that a juvenile star would make the final cut in a leading performance category. On the other hand, I do remember writing at the time that there wasn’t a trophy big enough to honor what Matarazzo achieved in her film–but I digress.

[2] Citizen Ruth was the first feature film from the team of Payne and Taylor, who eventually shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2004’s Sideways. Furthermore, Payne’s care with performers, already evident with Dern in Citizen Ruth, becomes even more apparent with each subsequent film, beginning with Reese Witherspoon’s lauded turn as Tracy Flick in Election (1999), and on up through the Oscar nominated performances of Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates in About Schmidt (2002), as well as those of Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen in Sideways.

Since I wrote this piece, Alexander Payne has made yet another trip to the Oscars with 2011’s The Descendants starring George Clooney. The movie was nominated in a number of categories, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. It earned Best Adapted Screenplay honors for Payne along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; Payne’s usual collaborator Jim Taylor was on board as a co-producer. Since then,  Faxon and Rash have enjoyed success with The  Way Way Back. Furthermore, it looks like Payne and company could be heading back to the Oscars with Nebraska, which nabbed Best Actor honors for no less than Bruce Dern (yep, Laura’s dad, a longtime Hollywood veteran and former Oscar nominee–for 1978’s Coming Home) at the most recent Cannes film fest.

[3] To read more about Entertainment Weekly‘s preview of the 1996/97 Oscar campaigns, please click here: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,286471,00.html


One Response to “Fearless.”

  1. listen2uraunt 02 September 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Movie Queen and commented:

    I’m reposting this piece from almost exactly two years ago, not because I think we need more debate about reproductive rights, but because I’ve had time to reflect on a thing or two and because this filmmaker is generating more awards buzz. I’ve added a few notes, in italics, at the end of the piece. Oh, and happy Labor Day! Ha!

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