“The notion of a once thriving town rendered lifeless and stilled by time is moving to me. The enduring values of friendship and family should never be lost in the continuum of time.”
– John Avnet
There are a lot of good movies out there; even a goodly number of great ones. But the truly extraordinary moments in cinema have no equal, for they transcend both the time in which they were made and even the medium of film itself; entering our collective consciousness as more art than ‘memory’ to leave a lasting impression behind; once seen, never forgotten. In as much as great art defines an era, a lasting memory retains its ability to be rekindled in our hearts and minds for all time; like the uncorking of a mental fragrance made more potently sweet and familiar with the passage of time.
John Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) is a very fragrant memory, indeed – its’ greatness perhaps not immediately apparent; its two sets of separate, yet enduring friendships increasingly running a parallel course, converging on a lyrically resonant verisimilitude. Avnet, who so obviously has fallen in love with Fannie Flagg’s Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece ‘Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle Stop Café’ – a book first brought to his attention by producer Lisa Lindstrom - spent five years embracing its characters with pre-production monies acquired through Norman Lear. At the end of this extended pre-production Avnet was emotionally exhausted, still without a finished script. Eventually, he turned to Flagg – who had never written a screenplay before - and later, to Carol Sobieski who would round out the prose.
“To me, Fried Green Tomatoes is nostalgic to the point that it deals with love and respect for those who live fruitful lives,” Avnet has said, “Today’s society tends to discount the contributions that its older generation have made and continue to make.” The film is undeniably a celebration of the most enduring of these influences – friendship – and its ability to transform a middle-aged frump’s relatively lackluster marriage and life into yet another finely interwoven thread in this trans-generational tapestry. At its heart, Fried Green Tomatoes manages to preserve an almost forgotten – or rather, set aside – oral tradition, evolving a closeness between its characters that is impossible to fake.
The movie’s ace in the hole is Jessica Tandy, whose career dates all the way back to the tender age of eight and who had long-since been considered First Lady of the American Theater; if for nothing else than her iconic turn as Broadway’s Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Tandy lends personal integrity that elevates the entire story from mere melodrama/comedy to what Avnet has coined ‘a moment of discovery’. Of course, she did not do this alone. Tandy’s cohorts, Kathy Bates, Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson are every bit her contemporaries herein; women embracing the lives of their alter egos as people brought into their own intangible realities through an intuitive dedication in their work; more ‘moments of discovery’ offering rare and continuous illumination long after the cameras have stopped rolling.
For the most part, Avnet was to encounter few setbacks once principle photography began. Production Designer Barbara Ling’s transformation of the sleepy hamlet of East Juliette, Georgia into the mythical southern enclave of Whistle Stop did much more than resurrect a bygone era for the movie. It all but gave birth to tourism cottage industry that continues to sustain the town to this day. The hub of activity remains the Whistle Stop Café, the fictional restaurant owned by lifelong friends, Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jameson (Mary-Louise Parker). With its horseshoe-shaped counter area, spacious backroom kitchen and outdoor barbeque – the latter at the crux of ‘the great mystery’ surrounding the disappearance of one Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy); the café is as much a living entity as the human inhabitance who populate this sparse ramshackle of ivy-covered storefronts.
Production commenced in June under stifling heat and humidity. Cast and crew endured plagues of mosquitos, harrowing assaults by water moccasins and leeches, and a staged interplay with 50,000 bees. Avnet employed bee keeper, Dr. Norman Gary, and a stunt double to perform the sequence where Idgie goes to a hollow tree to obtain fresh honey as a token of friendship for Ruth. However, the double refused to perform this sequence as scheduled after observing the working conditions – despite assurances the bees would not attack without provocation. Instead, Mary Stuart Masterson elected to perform the stunt herself; endowed with a few drops of bee pheromone to ensure that the swarm would cover her blouse and hair while filming commenced.
When Fried Green Tomatoes had its theatrical premiere it was missing an integral moment of discovery since reinstated for this home video release; Marion Williams’ devote, foot-stomping gospel rendition of ‘Listen to the Rain’. Avnet, who had long admired Williams’ voice - widely regarded as the premiere soloist of her generation – gingerly coaxed her to appear in the film during an affecting scene where Ninny and Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) attend Sunday mass amongst the all-black congregation. A religious woman, mighty in her convictions, Williams agreed to be in Avnet’s movie, but insisted she only sang for God – not money.
Fried Green Tomatoes commences in the present as Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a timid and dissatisfied frump, inadvertently discovers a kindred spirit in 98 year old Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) while visiting a relative inside a Birmingham Alabama nursing home. Just prior to their ‘cute meet’ Evelyn and her husband Ed (Gailard Sartain) were lost in the dead end backwater of Whistle Stop. Thus, when Ninny confides in Evelyn that she is from that town – having come to stay with her elder friend, Miss Otis (whom we never see) while she convalesces – Evelyn feels an immediate connection to her.
From here we regress to the first of several extended flashbacks; far removed from Evelyn’s contemporary angst. We are introduced to the characters of Idgie Threadgoode (Nancy Atchison) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) on the afternoon of Idgie’s elder sister, Leona’s (Afton Smith) wedding. The bride is spoilt and a nervous wreck. While mama (Lois Smith) and papa (Danny Nelson) attempt damage control, son Julian (Reid Binion) threatens to upset the whole affair by humiliating the willful Idgie for wearing a dress. A tomboy at heart, Idgie is much beloved by her elder brother, Buddy (Chris O’Donnell) whom everyone suspects will one day marry Ruth. Indeed, Ruth’s heart is set on the congenial young man who is all too eager to impress both his ladies by chasing after Ruth’s runaway straw hat along the railroad tracks.
As fate would have it, Buddy’s foot becomes jammed between the rails. He is struck and killed by an oncoming train as Ruth and Idgie helplessly look on. Avnet spares us the more gruesome details of having to identify Buddy’s remains; hired man Big George (Stan Shaw) looking after Idgie as she retreats into her loneliness – spending most of her time alone in the woods and resentful of Ruth’s return to the Threadgoode household some years later. Idgie’s mother hopes that the straight-laced Ruth will be a positive influence.
But Idgie (now played by Mary-Louise Parker) is stubborn and uncouth. Despite their polar opposite personalities, Ruth endeavors to become Idgie’s friend, sacrificing her prudish morality by drinking liquor from a local moonshine distillery, smoking, play poker and baseball with the local men – all while under the influence. Idgie introduces Ruth to the shanty town hobos she frequents with food stolen off a moving train. One in particular, Smokey Lonesome (Tim Scott) comes to regard ‘Miss Ruth’ as a very fine lady.
In the present, Evelyn takes these stories to heart. The people Ninny’s known seem to live from within. Moreover, they foster a newfound appreciation inside Evelyn to begin to live her own life more fully and arguably, on her own terms. These aspirations are not embraced by Ed who is shocked and outraged to come home from work one afternoon and find his wife bedecked in a stunning dress she has made entirely from cellophane, presumably a precursor to some grander seduction that never takes place. In fact, try as she might, Evelyn cannot inspire Ed to partake of anything more than his nightly dinners she has dutifully prepared, eaten in front of the TV. Thankfully, Evelyn is not without a friend, returning to the nursing home time and again without Ed to bask in the continuing saga of Ninny’s personal history.
We regress into the past again. Ruth has married Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy); a man who promised her the world but has since taken to regularly beating her for the slightest marital infraction. Idgie, who previously impressed Ruth by fetching a jar full of fresh honey from a swarm-infested tree, arrives at the isolated Bennett homestead after an absence of some years to rekindle their friendship, only to realize just how bad things have become between Ruth and Frank.
Employing Big George and Julian (now played by Haynes Brooke) to help move Ruth back into town, their departure is momentarily foiled by Frank who strikes Ruth in the stomach and is then attacked by Idgie. She threatens to kill him if he ever lays a hand on either of them again. Next, Idgie and Ruth set up shop with Sipsey (Cicely Tyson), opening the Whistle Stop Café – a diner that quickly establishes itself as the premiere eatery in town, famous for its barbeque managed by Big George.
Once again, we return to Evelyn. Having been imbued with the free spirit of Tawanda – a feminist mantra told to her by Ninny, Evelyn confronts a pair of trashy young women (Kathy Larson, Missy Wolff) who have stolen her parking spot at the Piggly Wiggly. Taking out her frustrations by repeatedly bashing in the back of their flashy red Volkswagen Beetle with her more solidly built, if conservatively tan-colored Buick, Evelyn confidently informs the petrified duo, “Face it, girls. I’m older and have more insurance!” Evelyn is having the time of her life. She returns to the nursing home, her transformation startling to Ninny who inquiries as to just how many hormones she is taking.
We return to the past. Ruth reveals to Idgie she is pregnant with Frank’s child, whom she names Buddy Jr. (Grayson Fricke). Frank, who has been keeping an eye on Idgie and Ruth makes plans to kidnap the baby while everyone is away at a town picnic. Sipsey tries to defend against Frank’s attack, as does Smokey Lonesome. Big George fetches Idgie from the picnic. She ultimately strikes Frank in the back of the head with a lethal blow using a shovel. To conceal the body, and keep the truth hidden from Ruth, Idgie declares ‘it’s hog boilin’ time’. Frank is dismembered and cooked, his remains served to the investigating sheriff, Curtis Smoote (Raynor Scheine) who declares it “the best damn barbeque” he’s ever had.
Unable to recover a body, Idgie and George are nevertheless arrested and brought to trial. But at the last possible moment the pair is offered a reprieve when Reverend Scroggins (Richard Riehle) lies under oath, declaring both Idgie and George were attending one of his four day tent revivals. Upon closer inspection it is revealed that Scroggins took this oath on a copy of Moby Dick – not the Bible! Buddy Jr. grows up and is involved in a similar accident along the railroad tracks, losing an arm in the process. Later, Ruth falls ill with cancer. The café is closed so that Idgie and Sipsey can care for her with regular injections of morphine.
In what is undeniably Fried Green Tomatoes most heartbreaking ‘moment of discovery’ Ruth lies on her deathbed, quietly asking Idgie to relay to her the absurd story Buddy once told them about a flock of ducks becoming frozen in a lake and thereafter flying away with the lake still stuck to their feet. Unable to attend her friend and tell this rather ridiculous story with a straight face, Idgie retreats into the next room while spouting off the particulars, only to realize too late that Ruth has died. As Idgie returns to Ruth’s bedside Sipsey quietly embraces and comforts her, saying “Miss Ruth was a lady. And a lady always knows when to leave.”
In the present, Evelyn returns to the nursing home intent on asking Ninny to come to live with her and Ed. Previously, Evelyn had been told by Nurse Janeen (LaTanya Richardson) that after Ninny had come to stay with Miss Otis her home was condemned and torn down. At first, Ed staunchly refuses to acquiesce to Evelyn’s request. But when Evelyn threatens even more mayhem – invoking the specter of ‘Tawanda’ – Ed half-heartedly agrees. Regrettably, when Evelyn arrives at the nursing home she finds a pair of orderlies dismantling the room where Ninny and Miss Otis were staying. Through a miscommunication, Evelyn assumes Ninny has died, when in fact Miss Otis has passed. Recovering from her shock, Evelyn is told the truth by Janeen – that Ninny has taken a Yellow Cab back to Whistle Stop.
Hurrying to the abandoned town, Evelyn finds Ninnny perplexed and seated on her suitcase before the empty space where once her home stood. “Eveyln!” Ninny declares, “Someone stole my house.” Explaining what has happened to Ninny, Evelyn is startled to find a jar of fresh honey carefully placed on a nearby tree stump. Ninny informs Evelyn that the most important commodity in life is friends, an astute observation concurred by Evelyn who, now suspects Ninny is really Idgie and has been telling Evelyn her own life story all along. The two stroll toward Evelyn’s car, presumably to return to Evelyn’s home.
In this review, I have rather badly mangled the narrative structure of the film with a sort of ping-ponging reference to the past and present. The film is much more effective at melding these parallel narratives into one cohesive storyline. Moreover, as the plot progresses we are made acutely aware of these poignant parallels. For Fried Green Tomatoes is not a story of many lingering associations, but rather one enduring friendship carried over by Idgie’s oral history, never to be forgotten once passed along to the next generation. Thomas Newman’s sublime score captures the essence of this trans-generational bloodline. His evocative clarinet solo ultimately becomes the film’s central theme. Reportedly, Newman submitted many samples to Avnet during pre-production, merely tacking on the clarinet solo as an afterthought – one he was not entirely certain was worthy of inclusion. Evidently, Avnet felt quite differently about it, helping to reshape Newman’s score around this one piece of music.
Fried Green Tomatoes is a superior entertainment on practically every level. It strikes us in the gut and on a visceral level; exceptionally true to life. Avnet’s direction effortlessly bridges the narrative gap between 1919 and the mid-1980s; overlapping Fannie Flagg’s stories, visually realized by cinematographer, Geoffrey Simpson. The performances are more than uniformly solid. They are, in fact, teeming with an almost indescribable poignancy that could only happen when the actresses committed to their characters also share in an unerring mutual respect for one another.
Indeed, Tandy, Bates, Parker and Masterson were to become the very best of friends while making the movie – a friendship that endures, despite the loss of Tandy in 1994. To be sure, there have been other movies dedicated to friendship (and food – the other narrative thread consistently woven throughout Flagg’s original story and the film; the ultimate signifier of ‘southern hospitality’). But Fried Green Tomatoes is a movie about the afterlife that only the most meaningful friendships take on – unexpectedly perhaps, but destined to endure.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray leaves much to be desired. After a stellar 100th anniversary that saw the release of a goodly number of catalogue titles given superior consideration in high-def Universal seems to be steadily slipping back into the doldrums of ‘hit or miss’ quality. Regrettably, Fried Green Tomatoes on Blu-ray is a miss. Yes, color fidelity has improved. Flesh tones look quite good, actually, and there are other colors in the spectrum, like the candy-apple red of Ruth Jameson’s umbrella or the green foliage adorning the Whistle Stop Café that are so ultra-vibrant they practically blind. And yes, contrast has become quite snappy too; although none of the aforementioned ‘improvements’ seem natural.
But Universal has used their auto sharpening tool herein the way some kids color with their Crayolas and the results are, tragically, all over the place! Edge enhancement, ringing halos, and a very unnatural, overall gritty appearance plague this release. I had hoped for something better. Alas – no.
At least the newly minted 5.1 DTS lossless is an improvement over the old Dolby Digital. Universal might have given us the ‘extended cut’ and original theatrical release, but again – they’ve bare-boned this beloved title. We only get the extended director’s cut. It adds 23 extra minutes of excised footage interspersed throughout the film’s run time. The newly inserted footage really doesn’t add or detract anything. The movie is just longer, thus prolonging our viewing experience – forgivable, since one visit to the Whistle Stop café is never enough.
Extras have all been imported from the DVD Special Edition and include a ‘making of’ featurette, printable recipes, a rather meandering audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. None of these features are in 1080p. I cannot understand Universal’s marketing mentality. In the good ole Laserdisc days, the studio's silver-packaged double discs took great pains to provide us with comprehensive documentaries on the making of some of their best movies. These documentaries are extraordinary. But they continue to be given short shrift on Blu-ray.
If you already own the DVD I don’t see much point in a repurchase. The image is marginally improved due to Blu-ray’s higher bit rate and some artificial manipulations of the color and contrast boosting. But Universal needs to rethink what it means to adhere to the visual fidelity of the original source materials before they start to advertise their Blu-rays with the erroneous claims to ‘HD picture and theater style sound’. Fried Green Tomatoes is rich and satisfying; an emotional treasure trove not to be missed. Were that only the case with this disc - a Frisbee, in my opinion. Pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)