Since watching Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), I have been wracking my brain trying to remember whether or not I had previously seen it. Part of me says no. And yet, while viewing its Southern charm, it seems familiar. Maybe it is all the Spanish moss dripped, small Southern towns through which I have passed over the years. People tend to think Florida is not a part of the South, and certainly there are areas that do not fit the stereotype. Yet, drive away from the beaches and theme parks, and you will find settings nearly identical to the fictional Whistle Stop, Alabama, locale of the film. It could be that I had seen bits of it before and forgotten. That seems more likely. At any rate, I enjoyed it, whether or not it was my first time.
Fried Green Tomatoes is a little tricky to describe as it operates on two different levels. The first is Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), along with her husband Ed (Gailard Sartain), visiting Ed’s aunt in a nursing home. Once there, Ed’s aunt’s hatred for Evelyn immediately comes out, and Evelyn beats a hasty retreat to the home’s reception area. Once there, she meets Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy), who claims not to be a permanent resident, and is just waiting to return to her home in Whistle Stop. When Evelyn mentions they had passed through there on the way to the facility, Ninny begins unfolding a story of what the town was like when she was young. This is the second level of the movie, and it is told through the eyes of Idgie Threadgoode. As a little girl (Nancy Moore Atchison), she adores her older brother, Buddy (Chris O’Donnell). She is also accepting of his crush, Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker). What changes Idgie and Ruth’s lives forever is when Buddy is struck and killed by a train when his foot gets caught in the tracks. This is where the second level of the plot stops for the moment. I am not going to go bounce between the present and flashbacks as the film does because that would get tedious. Instead, it should be mentioned that, at first, the meetings between Evelyn and Ninny are incidental, the result of Ed visiting his aunt on the holidays. Each time Evelyn comes, a little bit more of Whistle Stop’s past unfolds, particularly surrounding a murder, which I will get to later. Eventually, Evelyn starts coming on her own. She is attracted by the tales of Idgie’s adventures, seeing in the stories’ main protagonist a source of empowerment. Evelyn feels under-appreciated and taken advantage of by Ed, and pretty much everyone else around her, despite her best efforts. Learning about Idgie influences her to stop depression eating, begin being more active, and behaving assertively. Still, it is not Idgie who is the only source of inspiration. Back in the past, a few years go by and Idgie grows up to be a bit of a wild woman. She dresses in a manly sort of way; fishes all day long; drinks, smokes, and gambles; and eschews going to church, much to her mother’s (Lois Smith) horror. In order to hopefully instill some womanly virtues into Idgie, Mama Threadgoode asks Ruth to come stay with them for a while. Instead, it is Idgie that leads the prim Ruth to behave a little less properly. In the process, a deep relationship forms between the two that borders on sexual, but is never fulfilled in that regard. Nonetheless, when Ruth marries Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy) and moves away to Georgia, Idgie resists visiting until her need to know about Ruth’s welfare overcomes her. Idgie discovers that Frank is beating her, and on a return calling, prompted by a letter from Ruth, Idgie brings along Big George (Stan Shaw) and they take Ruth back with them, despite Frank’s objections. Ruth is also pregnant at the time, and gives birth to a son. Frank has not forgotten this fact, and his first attempt to reclaim his family involves showing up in Whistle Stop with the Ku Klux Klan. Thankfully, they are driven off by Grady Gilgore (Gary Basaraba), the town sheriff. Frank remains determined, and comes back a few days later on his own. He happens to arrive on a night when Ruth was off at a religious revival, and Frank overpowers the child’s caretaker, Sipsey (Cicely Tyson). Before he can get away, he is accosted by local drifter Smokey Lonesome (Timothy Scott), and Sipsey, the latter of these delivering a fatal blow with a cast iron frying pan. When the Georgia sheriff, Curtis Smoote (Raynor Scheine) comes looking for Frank, he naturally assumes Idgie did the deed given the threats she made against Ruth’s former husband. There is no evidence until a few years later Frank’s truck is pulled from the nearby river, and Idgie, along with Big George, are arrested as suspects. What saves them is when Reverend Scroggins (Richard Riehle) testifies that they were all at the same revival as Ruth. Thus acquitted, everyone should have lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, Ruth dies of cancer soon thereafter. This is essentially where the second level ends. So moved is Evelyn by this story, that she decides to take Ninny into her care. Yet, when she goes to pick her up from the home, she enters the room the old woman had been staying in and a nurse tells her the occupant had died. As it turns out, it was somebody else who had passed away. Evelyn finds Ninny back in Whistle Stop, sitting outside of what had once been her house. It is then revealed that Ninny had been Idgie all along, and together they leave Whistle Stop behind.
So, why the title of Fried Green Tomatoes? When Ruth is rescued by Idgie, they decide to start a diner together, which they name the Whistle Stop Café. The establishment’s specialty is the title of the film. The restaurant serves as a focal point for the community. The two woman serve locals and passersby alike, and they do so sometimes without charge. This is particularly the case with Smokey Lonesome. One thing to keep in mind is that the flashbacks are mostly set during the Great Depression. What it does well with this period is with what it does not explicitly say. There are no characters loafing about, moaning about this darn economic depression with which they are struggling. As much as I love Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), there is that moment in it. Instead, you can see it in Fried Green Tomatoes in sequences such as when Idgie and Ruth sneak aboard a freight train. The car they climb into is loaded with food. As they move down the tracks, they pass by a group of people living in tents, a hallmark of the destitute in the 1930s. Though they are stealing, the canned goods and other comestibles they toss out to the hungry people they encounter is a beautiful act of charity. The Catholic Church conflates the words love and charity. It pertains much to how the words in the Bible are translated from their original Greek. The Greeks did not have one word for love, and in the past fifteen years there has been a movement to be more precise with such translations. Hence, the three theological virtues that once read Faith, Hope, and Love, are now Faith, Hope, and Charity. Either way, it was from a loving heart that charity springs, and that well describes many of the actions of Idgie and Ruth.
I imagine some of you might be expecting the crazy Catholic to make more of the relationship between Idgie and Ruth in Fried Green Tomatoes. There does seem to be a physical attraction between them. What I find noteworthy, though, is the restraint they practice. Ruth is the more traditional of the two, which is why she gets married. Her dying wish is for Idgie to settle down and start a family, which she apparently does. You might also be wondering about my take on Reverend Scroggins lying under oath, although it needs to be remembered that he did not actually swear on a Bible. Yes, he did not tell the truth. He also did not know who it was that killed Frank. While Sipsey did so in defense of Ruth’s baby, she is not the one on trial. If there is one moment in the film that made me cringe the most, it is the notion that Frank’s body is fed to Sheriff Smoote as barbecue whenever he came to Whistle Stop to inquire about Frank’s disappearance. That is pretty gross.
Fried Green Tomatoes is worth seeing, despite the suggested cannibalism. That part is not handled in a macabre manner, so I guess that is something. It also suggests that not everyone in the South back in the day was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Sometimes history makes it seem that way, but like any stereotype, there are definitely, clear, and important exceptions to remember. I can also do without the strange classes Evelyn attends. In the end, it is a bittersweet film that is worth watching.