A few months before “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” came out on film, the publisher and releasing studio (Dreamworks) sent me the book, Terry Ryan’s memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional yet functioning family in the 1950s and ’60s.
The film was poorly distributed and didn’t really get its due in 2005, not even playing the big market where I was living and reviewing. I didn’t get around to seeing it when it hit video as, well, you could tell what it was going to be just from the book and the casting.
It would be sentimental, old fashioned and nostalgic, a memoir of having a plucky mother raising 10 kids in a Catholic family whose creative outlet — after motherhood — was concocting winning jingles, poems, slogans and the like in the contest-crazy America of the “I Like Ike” ’50s.
Julianne Moore, the very face of white American motherhood in the ’50s (“Far From Heaven”) stars, with Woody Harrelson as the hapless husband who never quite earns enough to prop them up, and who occasionally drowns his responsibilities and dashed dreams in drink — a repentant but abusive drunk.
Mom’s prize winnings kept them afloat for decades, until that era of contests that rewarded creativity and not mere chance passed.
I felt as if I’d seen it before seeing it. But coming across up leading up to Mother’s Day, I got around to it and watched it with my mother.
Adapter-director Jane Anderson’s film has a vivid “Christmas Story” sense of place and stars three future Oscar winners. Julianne and Laura Dern, a fellow contest fanatic, would collects statuettes. And Harrelson’s on the short list of the best characters actors to never have won one…yet.
Anderson already had an Emmy (“The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-murdering Mom”) and would win another for “Olive Kitteridge”). She wrote “The Wife,” which landed Glenn Close an Oscar nomination.
Her “Prize Winner” is predictable in its theme, the saintly mother overcoming all, including a husband her kids suggest she kick out (their priest won’t hear of it).
But it gets by on pluck and charm and that “Stella Dallas” mom-as-martyr thing that works every single time.
As “Dad” says (like the Pences, these archaic Ohioans call each other “Mother” and “Dad”) — “You know what your problem is?”
“No Dad, I don’t.”
“You’re too damn happy.”
The kids aren’t entirely colorless — none have gone on to fame in the acting field.
And the story lurches from crisis to crisis, Mother living that life of “a dream deferred” as trips she wins are passed up, a Triumph TR-3 she collects as a prize must be sold, and Dad drinking and lashing out at the glories and cash this one-time aspiring poet and small town newspaper writers brings to the household.
But Moore makes this caricature of 1950s motherhood a down-to-Earth delight.
“Let’s go to bed. I’m tired of this day. I need a new one.”
Dern lends her radiant presence to the third act. And Harrelson does what Harrelson always does — make the hateful or pathetic charming and sympathetic.
“Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” may not speak to younger generations. But to anybody looking for how hard working mom’s had it back in the day, the struggle their mothers and grandmothers lived through pre-“liberation,” you couldn’t ask for a better Mother’s Day movie.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing images and language
Cast: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ellary Porterfield, Trevor Morgan and Laura Dern.
Credits: Written and directed by Jane Anderson, based on the Terry Ryan memoir. A Dreamworks release on Roku, Tubi, Amazon Prime.