Sunday 12 August 2007

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1991) - ickleReview (DVD)

Watching Fried Green Tomatoes again has made me realize what a wonderful film it is. Even though I could remember the twist at the end, I could not remember all the twists in between. It's simply a wonderfully told and beautifully acted story. Well, two stories, actually.

Level one is set in present-day Alabama. Evelyn (Kathy Bates) goes with her husband, Ed (Gailard Sartain), to visit a sick elderly aunt in a nursery home. In the visitors' room she gets chatting to a chirpy octogenarian, Ninny (Jessica Tandy), who tells her stories about the people she used to know between the wars in Whistle Stop, an abandoned small town beside the railroad. Evelyn confides with Ninny about her marriage problems (Ed is more interested in watching sports on TV than spending quality time with her), her obesity (she eats a dozen candy bars a day), and her slide towards old age through the menopause. Ninny's stories and friendship give her a reason to live and the spirit to make her life better (hormones help as well).

Level two is the long flashbacks that Ninny narrates. They are about a local girl called Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) who was accused of the murder of Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy) from Georgia. We learn about Idgie's close relationship with her older brother, Buddy (Chris O'Donnell); her friendship with Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) and the Whistle Stop Cafe they ran together; and the events surrounding the murder of Frank Bennett.

The two narratives are brilliantly intertwined and each episode in the story is skillfully developed so that it never seems like a filler for what comes next. I am reluctant to go into too much detail because knowing too much would spoil the craft of the story as it is told. The screenplay is based on the novel by Fannie Flagg and follows in the long and proud tradition of Southern American folk tales that has produced writers such as William Faulkner and Richard Ford.

What makes this film so special is its characters and the superb performances by the actors. There are four exceptional female roles for Tandy, Bates, Masterson and Parker, all of whom excel. There is a short but sweet role of O'Donnell as the kind and caring older brother. Each character is so carefully developed without any of the clumsy, clich├ęd slap-dash that often spoils Hollywood movies. Idgie is a tomboy, an outcast, but a surprising do-gooder, who treats the family's black servants, Big George and Sipsey (played with quiet dignity by Stan Shaw and Cicely Tyson), with a respect that riles the local KKK gang.

It is supremely moving, funny, enlightened, embracing so many themes: love, death, family, marriage, racism, crime, memory, storytelling - without treating any of them lightly. I was frequently in tears of joyful poignancy. It is a weepie, but thoroughly uplifting.

The director Jon Avnet (Jon Who? I know) has not made anything of note since, but this in itself is a gem. I cannot fault this film.

Nugget: the inspiration behind the Whalenism "The Frying Pan", which I explain in another post. (SPOILER WARNING!)

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