Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


My mother was born and raised in Defiance—actually on a farm nearby—so naturally I had to see this. What a lovely little town it is! Full of 1950s Hudsons, Packards, Studebakers, tree-lined streets, small mid-western houses … and of course it was all filmed in Ontario, Canada.

Robert A. Heinlein, in his novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, had his hero Kip Russell enter a contest to win a trip to the moon. All you had to do was come up with a new slogan for Skyway Soap. “Highway and byway, there’s no soap like Skyway!” Reading it today, it all seems highly unlikely … but it’s true. Before “No Skill Needed!” contests like Publishers Clearing House completely took over the market, America was flooded with this sort of contest where you actually had to write something, and the entries were actually judged. And there were people who devoted themselves to this pursuit and made a fairly good living at it, picking up small consolation prizes here and there and every once in a while getting a big winner. Car, trip to Europe, major appliances, stuff like that. Naturally, you ended up with a closet full of pogo sticks and toasters, too, but you just sold those. (Kip entered about 1000 times, and won a spacesuit …)

Evelyn Ryan did this in the ’50s, and managed to support her eight children that way for years. Nine children, if you count her husband. And you must count her husband. He only earns enough, when he’s working, to pay for the oceans of booze he consumes. Naturally, her winning all this stuff threatens his shaky manhood, naturally it makes him feel like a worthless, self-pitying, childish, puling, whining, piece-of-shit loser. That’s probably because he is a worthless, self-pitying, childish, puling, whining, piece-of-shit loser. He is something Evelyn stepped in when she was young, and should have wiped off her shoes shortly afterward, but before you know it she had eight children …

This is the ’50s, after all, and you just don’t walk out on your family. The cops are on his side, the priest advises her to suck it up and be a better wife. She is sunny and positive in the face of hardships that would make Job or Candide slit their wrists.

This is a true story, and several things made it work very well for me. For one, all the children recognize that their father is a worthless, self-pitying, childish, puling, whining, piece-of-shit loser. I’m so glad none of them defended him. For another, though Evelyn’s way of coping with her life wouldn’t be my way, nor the way of most women today (I hope), it was the ’50s, and the production design and the whole feel of the film is spot on. That whole chrome-plated, big hair, high heels and petticoat, tail fin, inane black-and-white TV advertising jingle era is evoked flawlessly. The film is narrated by Julianne Moore as Evelyn, who pops into scenes that she herself is in to comment on the action, one of many very clever uses of special effects that enhance the movie rather than seem to be showing off. It is funny, and heartbreaking, sometimes both at the same time. Like:

She’s made soup from the last scraps of stuff in the cupboard. The kids are looking at it dubiously.

“There’s bugs in this soup.”
“Those aren’t bugs, those are spices.”
“Spices don’t have legs.”

But they eat the soup. They love their mother that much. I laughed, as I cried.