Here’s a thing that gets worse with old age: insomnia. You get creaky, the pain wakes you. You get fat, over-heating gets you. You hear a noise in the night or catch the vaguest hint of a blue light (thank you, Apple), and it’s you and a slowly ticking clock until dawn. Solution? Pad through the corridors, ignoring the snoring and the screams, hoping the TV room is clear. Sneak in and pop on a tale of goodly folk of the American South in the 1920s and ’90s. For with its homely atmosphere, disgruntled characters and undertone of lesbianism, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café awaits.
Okay, it’s so long and slow old Jack thought it’d knock me into R.E.M. sleep faster than one of Warrior Will’s anecdotes. But, no. I inadvertently watched the whole thing this last week and loved it.
FGTATWSC starts in the present day, in a Convalescent Home (and is a gazillion times better than Mrs Caldicot’s Cabbage War (2002), so don’t panic), where Kathy Bates is visiting. She is the subtly named Evelyn Couch, deeply unhappy in her marriage to the presumptuous and inattentive Ed (Gailard Sartain. Oh yes). Hurled gifts banish Evelyn to Reception where she happens upon first class anecdotalist Ninny Threadgoode played by first class Jessica Tandy. Many visits build Tandy’s tales into an empowerment course that drives Evelyn to improve her life. If only that’s how my anecdotes landed on the young…
In 1920s Alabama, says Ninny, Idgie Threadgoode loses her brother Buddy in a railway accident. Buddy has been getting on well with visitor Ruth Jamison. It takes a while, what with time needed to get over Buddy’s death and the pair to turn into Mary Stuart Masterson (Idgie – edgy and terrific) and Mary-Louise Parker (Ruth – 1920s floaty-wear, bobs and tension). One summer, Ruth is tasked with looking out for Idgie who has become unreachable by her family – and discovers a world of booze, jazz and fun. Friendship with a hint of oh-come-on-kiss-already. Apparently the book went further.
Old Jack here loved the atmosphere of the film. The South. Its saner residents. The tomboyish eccentricities of Idgie set against the currency and femininity of Ruth. Racial issues hang over the story, but are outweighed by unspoken lesbianism (silly, given this was made in the early 1990s – had we only got so far by then?) and the domestic violence that besets Ruth when she marries the ghastly Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy giving terrifying brute). Idgie and her handyman Big George (Stan Shaw giving stolid and true) get the desperate Ruth out of her domestic mess – vindicated by Frank throwing his pregnant wife down the stairs just as they leave.
And so to the Whistle Stop café, where the women set up in business with the help of the superb Cicely Tyson as Sipsey and Shaw’s Big George. Baby Buddy is born, they start selling fried green tomatoes (which…I mean…huh?), the café becomes the emotional hub of the town, Ruth shows kindness to a vagabond with drink issues (Tim Scott oozing diffident sympathy as Smokey Lonesome)…and you kind of wait for the plot to get going. I love the atmosphere, the unlikely liberalism presented of the time (in the face of the KKK scenes which…shit, this is our world), but it’s a welcome moment when evil Frank barges in, smashes Sipsey in the head and grabs his kid…
The second half of the film goes on a tad too long, but it’s all you need at 4 a.m. on a cold night. The two plot strands – then and now – pan out with grace and the occasional surprise. Kathy Bates’ Evelyn tries using the stories of female strength to shift the power balance in her marriage…but, again, it’s the past you care about the most.
Masterson makes off-kilter and stubborn Idgie a pleasing balance to Parker’s steadier, more tentative Ruth. I loved them both and was frustrated their friendship wasn’t allowed to grow into a fully-fledged romance. Tandy is clever and deft – and quite one of my favourite film oldsters – while Bates buys space for her cast mates by carrying the clumsier elements of comedy and, ugh, actualisation. And these leads are supported by a cast full of skill and character tics. My favourites are Shaw and Tyson who gift this film an emotional backbone and a dash of wisdom.
Ultimately, Ninny’s stories are about friendship and love. What happened to evil Frank doesn’t matter in the face of how Ruth and Idgie bond, how Big George is treated, Sipsey’s views on ladies, or unspoken romance between the lovers that should have been.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is a lousy antidote for insomnia. Its loveliness will keep you with it to the end.
Ninny: All these people live as long as you remember ’em.
And then you’ll be grumpy it’s over.