In a world where so many moms juggle jobs and babies, working out impossible pie charts for how much of their time, energy or soul they need to devote to each in a given day, the '50s housewife often seems like a faded image from some long-ago cave painting. Because we can hardly imagine what her life must have been like, it's often difficult to make out her distinguishing characteristics: We see her as a pitiable creature who never realized her intellectual potential, an idealized superhero who kept a spotless house and put a good meal on the table every night, or an enviable, coddled airhead who didn't know how good she had it. And sometimes we see her as a jumble of all three.
"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" is based on the true story of '50s-era housewife Evelyn Ryan (played by Julianne Moore), a mother of 10 who kept her family fed, clothed and housed on the money and prizes she won in advertising-jingle contests. (The script was adapted from the memoir of the same name, written by Evelyn's daughter Terry.) Evelyn's husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson), loves his wife and kids -- this is established early on, as we see him stop by his infant son's highchair to give him a swig from his baby bottle. But he is, for reasons that are explained in the movie and yet are still not fully explicable, a crushed man.
Kelly is employed as a machine worker, but he drinks much of his income away, and spends his evenings throwing noisy, sometimes violent tantrums that alarm Evelyn and scare the kids: These outbursts represent his thinly disguised resentment at the fact that his wife brings in more money than he does, and is obviously smarter, too. "You know what your problem is?" he says to her at one point, from within his bubble of bleary-eyed rage. "You're too damn happy." The whole family looks at him blankly, at first unable to process his peculiar logic and then realizing how howlingly funny it is. They all laugh, and he does, too: He at least has a sense of humor about his own misery.
Evelyn, on the other hand, is persistently cheerful and capable, running her household efficiently on pennies a day while managing to dole out acceptable proportions of attention and affection to each of her kids. The doorbell rings (it's the milkman, whom she doesn't have the money to pay), and she scoops up the infant whose diaper she's just changed and rushes to the door, followed by two little girls who have just washed their hands -- they follow her mindlessly and cheerfully, like barnyard chicks, drying their mitts on the back of her dress as if that were its intended purpose.
Terry Ryan's book was clearly intended as a daughter's tribute to a remarkable mother. But the writer and director of "Prize Winner," Jane Anderson (who wrote the hugely entertaining and surprisingly multilayered HBO-movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom"), is going for something more than mere beatification. The picture is occasionally, and intentionally, cartoonish: At several points, we see two Evelyns on-screen, one tending to the hustle and bustle of her family, the other addressing the camera directly, explaining the whats and wherefores of "contesting" and how she uses her wit with words to keep her family supplied with things they need. Just as one of the kids announces that the toaster is broken, a sparkling new one (enhanced by a CGI twinkle) appears in the hands of Evelyn the narrator. She hands it briskly to the back of the frame, where Evelyn the character accepts it with businesslike gratitude.
I laughed at that little bit of whimsy, but I worried that the rest of the picture might have too much of that self-conscious gleam. And it is self-conscious in places, particularly when Anderson has to wrap up the movie's big "You can do anything you set your mind to do!" message.
And yet even though "Prize Winner" ultimately asks us to swallow that golfball-size happy pill, Anderson and her not-so-secret weapon Moore are actually clawing their way toward something deeper and far more complex than a cheerful, embroidered slogan. The '50s housewife in that cave painting in our heads is an unenlightened mouse who didn't dare, or have the means, to take charge of her own life. And yet Anderson, without being in any way revisionist, suggests the laziness of that kind of thinking. Before feminism was a movement, it was a vibe of self-determination, a way of taking care of the business around you -- a home, a husband, children, or all of those things -- with efficiency and confidence.
Of course, martyrdom and self-sacrifice come with that package, too, and no matter how much Evelyn does for her family, at every turn she has to give up something she really wants just because little Johnny needs her for something or other. But even though Evelyn earns our sympathy immediately, Anderson has clearly written her with the intent that we should never condescend to her. And as Moore plays her, we never feel the need to. In one scene, we see Kelly being subdued by the police, who have been called after he's made a ruckus in the kitchen, bashing in the top of the large freezer Evelyn has just won. The cops yak with him, manly-like, chatting about baseball scores, and everything seems to be OK. But Evelyn, as a good Catholic, wants to confer with her parish priest about the incident.
So she sits down with him and explains some of her frustrations: Kelly works hard, but he doesn't bring home enough of the money; he's emotionally -- and, the suggestion is made more than once, physically -- abusive when he's drunk.
The priest listens patiently, and then suggests how hard it must be for Kelly to carry the responsibility for supporting all those kids. "Try to make him a good home," the priest urges, adding what he surely believes is a comforting footnote: "No one ever said that life is easy."
Moore's Evelyn listens to him as he speaks, taking it all in with openhearted earnestness. But when he gets to that line, the camera captures the change that shades her face. Her eyes, which just an instant ago were alert, intelligent, and sparkling from somewhere deep inside her, take on a cold, flat blackness. Something inside her has shut off: Suddenly, we realize that she long ago saw through the lie of the happy housewife, and now here's a man of the cloth, sitting at her own table, trying to feed her a line of baloney. That's a lot for an actress to pack into one look, but it's all there.
Evelyn doesn't challenge him, but she doesn't need to. She sees the underlying menace in his cluelessness about the way real people -- real women -- live. Her skill at jingle writing is the sort of thing we might laugh at, a silly talent that she happens to have cultivated. But the whole phenomenon of jingle-writing contests suggests that those old-time advertising men knew that housewives had something invaluable: These women could speak for, and to, their peers. Why not harness them as cheap labor, for the price of a new toaster or coffee pot or all-expenses-paid trip for two to New York City?
But for Evelyn, and for the clever coterie of fellow jingle contestants she eventually meets (a ring of housewives led by the breezily sharp Laura Dern), the joke is on the menfolk. Who's more gullible: housewives who might be potentially swayed by a catchy advertising slogan, or men who need to believe in the stupidity and inferiority of those women? And so when Evelyn faces that priest, his genial hypocrisy hits her like the insult it is. She refuses to countenance it, instead maintaining her polite, cheerful facade. Meanwhile, he walks away believing he's done a service to humanity -- he's just been sold a line of goods by an unassuming housewife, and he doesn't even have the brains to see it. Of the two of them, he's the one who probably really believes that Dash makes his washer 10 feet tall.