The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
At first glance, Evelyn Ryan was your average 1950s housewife. Living in a sociological environment where women were expected to mimic the behavior of Donna Reed, Ryan followed the rules for a while. She started a family, and kept at it until the Ryan clan had ten children. She remained loyal to her husband despite his alcoholism and other personal demons. She followed the tenets of the church despite their misogynistic interpretations during the era.
But she didn't like it.
While Ryan loved her husband enough to stay with him (and keep procreating on a near annual basis), she was frustrated by his drinking. His moderate salary would have been just enough to keep the 12 members of the household out of debt. But since the father wasted a third of his wages on booze, the family was always living in a state of poverty.
Rather than sit back and watch her family be ripped asunder by their financial woes, Evelyn Ryan proceeded to do something so amazing that there wasn't really a job description to cover it at the time. She started to put her natural skill with catchy phrases to good use by entering contests. While her behavior wasn't completely unusual during a time period referenced as the contest era, her successes were so noteworthy that she was able to become the breadwinner of the family for a decade.
How was this possible? Corporations in the 1950s and 1960s came to recognize that the best people to coin slogans for various mass consumer products were the people who used them the most: housewives. Oftentimes, contests were run that would award prizes to the person who came up with the catchiest jingle.
From a business model perspective, offering a reward in order to entice homemakers to enter the creative process was both cheaper and more productive than having a paid staff in charge of such endeavors. For the women whose society expected them to stay home, this was an opportunity to both stave off the boredom and supplement the household income.
The process was win/win for all involved, but there was no one who found it more beneficial than Evelyn Ryan. Her ability to turn a phrase allowed her to win such contests on a weekly basis. At times, the reward might have been something as lackluster as a dollar but at others, she won prizes as exotic as new cars and trips to Switzerland. The $5,000 down payment the family made on their house was even thanks to a contest entered by Ryan.
All the while that these amazing events were transpiring, a young girl was quietly archiving them in her memory. Terry Ryan would grow up to become the writing half of the team behind the San Francisco Chronicle's T.O. Sylvester cartoon. Once she was secure in her profession, she took the time to write a love letter of gratitude to her mother. That book, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, struck a chord of feminist pride as it won several awards. Now, the story will be adapted to the big screen by director Jane Anderson and one of the world's greatest actors, Julianne Moore.
Moore's scintillating performance as a Stepford Wife struggling to find happiness in the phallocentric '50s made Far from Heaven one of the most critically lauded movies of 2002. Her casting in Prizewinner is therefore understandable. While not exactly the same part, the similarities between the two productions are impossible to ignore. For this reason, her casting is something of a masterstroke. (David Mumpower/BOP)