This month, AfterEllen.com is bringing you reviews of several newer lesbian classics. We’ve all heard of Desert Hearts, but what came after?
Fried Green Tomatoes is something of an anomaly in modern film, a de-gayed version of a lesbian classic that still resonates 16 years after its initial release. Based on the 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, the 1991 film still presents the book’s message of love and empowerment, despite the toned-down approach to the lesbian story line and an occasionally clumsy pace.
The film opens on Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a depressed Southern housewife, as she journeys to a nursing home to visit her husband’s aunt. After being thrown out of the rather cranky aunt’s room, she is approached by kindly old Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), who proceeds to tell her juicy tales about the colorful folks surrounding the mysterious Whistle Stop Cafe, a landmark that caught Evelyn’s eye on her way to the nursing home.
The film, which was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, is divided into two separate narratives: the present-day story of Evelyn, who gains inspiration from her visits with Ninny, and the meatier sections set in the past, telling the tale of love and "friendship" between Igdie and Ruth. It’s a well-worn technique, even bordering on cliché, but it serves to keep the film moving and breaks the complex narrative into manageable chunks.
The story begins with Ruth and Igdie’s fateful first meeting, surrounded by the tragedy of Idgie’s brother Buddy’s death. In the next section from the past, Igdie’s mother persuades Ruth to spend time with her "wild" daughter, hoping some ladylike influence will rub off. The girls spend the summer together gathering wild honey, going swimming at midnight, and — if the subtext is to be believed — falling in love.
This section of the film features more long, smoldering stares and drunken kisses on the cheek than an average episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. The girls even go on a romantic picnic wherein Igdie gathers wild honey for Ruth, proclaiming, "I got it just for you!"
Later on, Igdie teaches Ruth to play baseball and drink liquor, culminating in a midnight swim and Ruth’s shocking declaration that she’s set to be married at the end of the summer, much to Igdie’s dismay.
Igdie refuses to go to the wedding, but she does spy from afar, appearing every bit like a jilted lover. When she finds out that the husband has been abusing Ruth, she swoops in and saves the day, rescuing Ruth and bringing her back to Whistle Stop, where they open the café. Soon afterward, Ruth gives birth to a son (whom the women raise together), and they find themselves the center of their little town, running a bustling business while sharing their lives with each other.
Breaking up the action are present-day segments in which Evelyn tries to extricate herself from her boring marriage and her depression. She takes self-empowerment classes and begins to take charge over her body and her life. She is inspired by Igdie and Ruth, and makes use of Igdie’s war cry of "Towanda!" whenever she needs a little motivator.
While these scenes are well-done and often rather amusing, the real action is happening in Whistle Stop. One gets the feeling that the audience is meant to be just as anxious as Evelyn is to hear about the next chapter in Ruth and Igdie’s life.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the ambiguous nature of Ruth and Igdie’s relationship. In the novel, the two women are romantically involved; there is no ambiguity. In the film version, the relationship still plays out like a romance, with all of the clear signs of a love relationship. There is a period of courting, a short absence and then a long span where the two women live together and raise a child together. Despite the lack of love scenes — though there is a food fight that smacks of erotic energy — Ruth and Igdie behave like domestic partners in every way.