There’s a reason people told their friends to go see Fried Green Tomatoes (1991, MCA/Universal, $94.95, PG-13) in theaters—the same reason it’s going to rent like crazy on video—and it’s something that modern Hollywood tends to overlook. It tells a good story about interesting characters.
At least, two-thirds of it tells a good story: the two-thirds about Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker). Director Jon Avnet was lucky to have as his screenwriter the same Fannie Flagg who wrote the source novel; he also delivers a rich, if whitewashed, visual portrait of the ’30s Deep South, with engaging secondary characters and a lovely, fertile sense of production design (you can almost smell the loam). More to the point, the movie within the movie feels real emotionally. We understand why the two women are drawn to each other, and we root for their relationship to succeed (once it does, though, their half of the tale peters out into a flat murder mystery and an awkwardly handled death scene).
One of the more hotly debated issues surrounding this movie, of course, was whether Idgie and Ruth are in fact lovers. In truth, it seems pretty clear that sex is beside the point in more ways than one. Like the novel, Tomatoes uses female friendship as a metaphor for something taboo, but the story is in no way diminished if you choose not to buy into it. There are hints of earthly desires nevertheless. A nighttime swimming sequence is tight with erotic tension, and the courtroom scene in which Ruth struggles to convey her feelings for Idgie is startlingly frank. The film’s most magical moment comes when Idgie pulls a dripping honeycomb out of a tree bole swarming with bees, slyly presenting it to an overwhelmed Ruth with the remark ”Is it bad, what I did?” There’s symbolism there if you want it—but only if you want it.
It’s in the surrounding modern-day narrative that Avnet hedges his bets. Jessica Tandy, as Ninny, the aged teller of the film within the film, carries her role with grace. Poor Kathy Bates, on the other hand, is stuck with self-help-parody dialogue as a dowdy hausfrau. The scenes with Bates’ Evelyn and her piggish husband (Gailard Sartain) aren’t just poorly done, they’re condescending and mean—Hollywood’s idea of starch-fed middle America. And while the celebrated, much-aired bit in which Evelyn gets Mad as Hell and rear-ends a Volkswagen is good for a laugh, it’s a sitcom laugh, a world away from Idgie and Ruth’s human drama.
Which seems to be the point: the blandification of a possibly discomforting story. In the film’s closing moments, Ninny tells Evelyn, ”You’ve reminded me about what the most important thing in life is: friends. Best friends.” That squishy capper reduces all the mystery of Idgie and Ruth’s romance to a greeting card homily, and while I can imagine what hard-nosed Idgie might say in response, I can’t print it here.
Thankfully, video offers an eye-opening solution: radical remote-control surgery. What I’m proposing is that you fast-forward through all the scenes with Bates and Tandy, watching only those with Masterson and Parker. I know, I know, the older actresses are—as the film’s PR has incessantly reminded us— Academy Award winners, but their material here is coy and distracting and not particularly Oscar-worthy. So go ahead, work that finger. In its entirety, Fried Green Tomatoes merits a C+. With a little home editing, you may be able to turn it into a shorter, sweeter B+.