On Friday night following a long and emotional week that included the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, I watched for the fifty millionth time (that might be an exaggeration) the 1991 classic Fried Green Tomatoes. I didn’t go looking for it, but when I was perusing the movie listings, it found me. More than mere entertainment, it takes a deep dive into the intricacies of the relationships between the characters over multiple generations. The same virulence that led to George Floyd’s death under the knee of his killer, is that which was evident in the movie.
The film, which emerged from the book written by Fanny Flagg, (she had a cameo in an edgy scene for its time) called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, has several overlapping themes: racism, sexism, loss, death, food, abuse, co-dependence, and an unspoken but obvious to anyone who has a particular lense of perception, a romantic relationship between the two female lead characters.
The first scene is of a rusted and water-logged car being hauled out of a muddy river. It had belonged to Frank Bennett, a KKK member and abusive husband who meets his demise in a mysterious manner that is unveiled at the end.
It then introduces the audience to Evelyn (Kathy Bates) and Ed Couch, a married couple who have gotten into a rut. She is a people-pleasing Southern housewife who does everything she can to get his loving attention, including having dinner on the table when he gets home from work each night, which he carries into the living room and gobbles down while watching sports on television. When multiple attempts including getting herself decked out in saran wrap and glitter, fail, she is encouraged by a friend to take enrichment classes for women.
The classes include pulling out a mirror and exploring her vulva. Hard to say if she follows through on that one since she excuses herself to wriggle out of her girdle that contained her extra curves and bulges. Evelyn self-medicates with food, as she admits that she has multiple candy bars hidden all over her house.
On one auspicious day, Evelyn and Ed pass through a tiny Alabama town called Whistlestop that once held a thriving community which included the cafe that served their classic barbecue and fried green tomatoes. They were on their way to visit Ed’s aunt in a nursing home. Less than delighted to see them, she scares a skittering Evelyn out of the room by throwing the gift they brought for her. While waiting and munching on what appears to be a Twix bar, she is approached by Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), a Resident in the home, who regales Evelyn with tales from her hometown….Whistlestop! She brings to life the Depression-era characters of sweet, spiritual, and obedient with a smidge of playfulness Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) and Idgie Threadgoode (Ninny’s sister-in-law) a feral child who grows into a wild woman (Mary Stuart Masterson). They meet on Idgie’s sister’s wedding day where celebration turns to tragedy with the death of her brother Buddy in a horrific accident. Ruth had been Buddy’s love interest and they had been flirting when his life was taken. Years pass and we see the grieving Idgie who lives out in the wild and engages in what would have been considered unacceptable for a woman at the time- drinking, smoking and gambling. Her mother reaches out to Ruth to bring her home.
As they untangle the threads of their shared grief they become friends and as the movie hints in sensual scenes, certainly much more. One, in particular, unveils one of Idgie’s talents, reaching into a buzzing beehive and pulling out the sticky honeycomb which she places in a jar and carries it, bees swarming but leaving her unharmed, to Ruth. That’s when Ruth dubs her ‘The Bee Charmer. It’s clear at that moment, that Idgie has charmed Ruth as well.
Ruth eventually marries Frank and moves with him to Georgia where she is the victim of his rages. When her mother, who had lived with them, dies, Ruth sends Idgie the obituary and clear as day bible passage from the Book of Ruth “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people.” She, along with one of her brothers and Sam, a larger-than-life Black man who with his mother Sipsey (Cicely Tyson), are part of their circle of friends, go to Ruth’s rescue. As they are finishing loading the car with her belongings, Frank arrives home and attempts to stop them from leaving. He assaults Idgie and scoops Ruth up over his shoulder and starts to carry her up the stairs. He is stopped by ‘Big Sam’ and Idgie’s brother and succumbs but doesn’t set Ruth down carefully. Instead, he pushes his newly pregnant wife down the stairs. At that, Idgie threatens to kill Frank if he ever touches her again.
They return to Whistlestop and open the cafe and serve customers without regard to their skin color, even though the Black visitors are relegated to eating outside. The KKK catches wind of their defiance against the norm of the day and arrive with torches blazing. They capture Sam and beat him, but the local sheriff, Grady, who has long had his heart set on capturing Idgie’s heart, chases them off. Another pivotal character, Smokey Lonesome stands up to hatred when Frank returns to bring his wife and newborn baby back to Georgia and then disappears for a few years.
Over the next several months as evidenced by the changing of holiday decorations at the nursing home, Evelyn and Ninny bond through the storytelling. The evolution of Evelyn takes place as she develops the courage to become an outspoken, outrageous, and living full-out, woman. She trades chocolate for Crudités and frumpy clothes for more revealing attire as she releases years of body weight and the weight of caring about other people’s opinions.
The plot thickens as Frank’s car is discovered and murder charges are lodged against Idgie. Ruth is called to the stand and asked why she left her husband to live with Idgie. Not once did she say he abused her. Not once did she say that he was a virulently hateful member of the KKK. I’m not sure it would have mattered to the 12 men who comprised the jury. Instead, she told them that Idgie was the best friend she ever had and she loved her. An unexpected source offered an alibi for Idgie and the judge dismisses the charges.
Sitting in the nursing home many decades later, Ninny reveals to Evelyn who the actual killer was, and it comes as quite a surprise.
Frank’s body was never found by the authorities but those who were present when he was dispatched know that the secret is in the sauce. You’ll just have to watch the movie to learn what that cryptic line means. And then there’s the story about a lake and ducks….but that’s a tale for another time.
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