Towanda! Universal Pictures’ quintessential American cinema classic Fried Green Tomatoes based on the bestselling novel by Fannie Flagg (whom also wrote the screenplay) is a heartwarming unapologetically sentimental film that reminds us that the best thing in life is “friends, best friends.” The film is also an early breakthrough for queer cinema because it contains a subtextual world of queer thematic elements and symbolism. In Flagg’s novel, there was an explicit romance between two of our main characters; but the film toned it down in order to attract a wider audience at the time. Moreover, this film also takes on the important task of providing commentary on racism and sexism. A message that was as important then as it is now. Fried Green Tomatoes is the type of drama that will leave you feeling inspired to be the kind of friends that you see in the film. The film contains two important storylines (present and past) that are woven seamlessly into one another by theme and plot derived from character. Each story is captivating! Because of the two stories being told concurrently, it takes a little while for this film to grab hold of you; but when it does, you will be hooked on the homespun humanity, intimacy, romance, and yes even a murder mystery. Of course, it’s a murder that Angela Lansbury could solve in her sleep. Twenty-seven years later, this film is still charming the bees, and continues to be a favorite among those who love a heartwarming story with deep meaning and impact.
A woman learns the value of friendship as she hears the story of two women and how their friendship shaped their lives in this warm comedy-drama. Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is an emotionally repressed housewife with a habit of drowning her sorrows in candy bars. Her husband Ed barely acknowledges her existence. One week, while waiting out Ed’s visit of his aunt at the nursing home, Evelyn meets Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), a frail but feisty old woman who lives at the same nursing home and loves to tell stories. Over the span of several months, she spins a whopper about one of her relatives, Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and her friend Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker). Idgie and Ruth are two unlikely friends that form a strong friendship in 1930s Alabama; together they face an abusive marriage, open a business, and find themselves involved in an unsolved murder. Evelyn finds herself looking forward to her weekly visits with Ninny, and is inspired by her story to take a new pride in herself and assert her independence from Ed.
Not sure about you, but I am not entirely a fan of movies that feature a couple of people sitting around in the present and talk about a story from the past. And, all the while, we get flashbacks to that earlier story. What is the point? Why not just tell the story from the past and let that be your movie? I don’t get it. There are some exceptions…take Citizen Kane for instance–it worked! But contrary to my predisposed dislike for movies that principally rely upon flashbacks to tell the story, this movie surpasses all expectations! The story in the present features Mrs. Ninny Threadgoode and Evelyn Couch. Evelyn encounters Ninny by accident while visiting her husband’s mean-tempered aunt. The confident Ninny and the plump, unhappily married Evelyn develop a fast friendship, one that helps Evelyn escape the doldrums of her early 1990s domestic married life by learning to care deeply about a relative stranger. Ninny tells Evelyn a story from her hometown that follows Idgie and Ruth through a wide range of bittersweet events that test their loyalty to each other. In the process, it also offers a portrait of a lulling, rustic, Klan-ridden Alabama in which the characters’ willful innocence often gives way to harsh racial realities. The film tries to develop some suspense around the question of how these two plots are connected, but the answer will strike no one as a surprise. One of the reasons Director Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes survives the flashback structure is that it devises an interesting character to be the listener to the long-ago tale. In a manner of speaking, the audience is asked to be a participant in the film.
Although the screenplay is very close to the original novel, there is one element conspicuously missing from the movie–well, directly anyway. It’s presented very clearly in the novel that Idgie is a lesbian and she and Ruth are a couple despite the mores in the South at the time (and still to this day somewhat). The movie brings these elements out indirectly through powerful subtext that is not exactly trying to hide, interestingly enough. Because the movie was released prior to films showing healthy homosexual relationships as just as normal as heterosexual ones, the film got creative in how to acknowledge it while not polarizing audiences at the time. By in large, the small town of Whistle Stop was certainly not small-minded. Showing the progressive nature of this “knock-about place” in how it largely feels about minority communities, the town accepts the two of them and no questions are ever asked about their relationship. Idgie and Ruth in particularly display extremely progressive ideals, for the day, because two of their closest friends are members of the town’s black community. Big George and Sipsy (played by Cicely Tyson) are important to Idgie and Ruth, and both would do anything for them.
The story from the past is not the one with social-commentary, the story from the present is also one that has an important message for women or anyone who feels that they cannot be progressive, independent, and successful because of the antiquated ways of a relationship. With Ninny and her stories as inspiration, Evelyn learns that she can be more than her girdle-wearing, dinner-making, frumpy dress self. Evelyn is so fired up by Ninny’s stories of Idgie’s escapades, that she begins to take control of her life. She gives up her candy bars for aerobics, stops trying to please her misogynistic redneck of a husband and begins a career as a Mary Kay sales professional. Through her many visits to spend time with Ninny, she also becomes as passionately devoted to Ninny as Ruth was to Idgie, with this one being truly platonic friendship.
If you enjoy great dialog and excellent character development, you will fall in love with this movie even if you have yet to do so. Fried Green Tomatoes was based on the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by actress-turned-author Fannie Flagg. The four leading ladies deliver outstanding performances! It is of no surprise that this movie has stood the test of time. Clearly, this is one of the best movies about strength, character, and friendship ever produced.