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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

by Terry Ryan

Tuffy's Adventures in Promotion & PR

The following appeared in #393 (4/1/05) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuffy's Great Audio Adventure
(adapting the book to audio format):
Part I | Part II

Media Training in Hollywood:
Tuffy Meets the Spackle Sisters

The Home Town Responds:
Tuffy's Big Day in Defiance Ohio

The Midwestern Publicity Tour:
Terry Meets the "Knuckleheads in the News"

The Prize Winner on TV:
CBS Sunday Morning News, Part I
Part II | Part III

The Prize Winner Goes to the Movies:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V



When he learned that she was going to visit the set of "Prize Winner" in Toronto, a neighbor who works as prop master for films and commercials told Tuff to get ready for a pleasant shock:

"Movie people are so used to living in a fantasy world that when the author of the book shows up, a hush actually settles over the set," he said. "Everybody's a bit in awe because you are the real thing - you lived this story; you wrote about it in a real book, and you brought it to life before we could. You'll see."

And so it happened that when Terry first visited the Toronto sound stage with her younger sister Betsy last July, she was greeted by a forest of shy smiles and secret looks as the two walked toward a crowd of folding chairs near the living room set. The idea was to watch Jane block a scene, but something else was in order, it seemed.

One needn't have been there to picture these classic director's chairs, each one constructed with a canvas strip across the back that was embossed with the "Prize Winner" logo and the name of the chair's top-seater - for example, "JANE ANDERSON; or "JULIANNE MOORE," who plays Terry's mother, Evelyn Ryan; or "WOODY HARRELSON," who plays her father, Kelly Ryan.

Tuff started to sit in one of the dozen unnamed chairs for technicians when Jack Rapke, the co-producer and partner of director Robert Zemeckis (who originally took out the option on "Prize Winner"), said with an exaggerated wink to the crew, "Oh, Tuff! Don't sit over there - come closer to Jane so you can see the action better over here."

And "here," she saw, was a special chair, indeed. On the back, the "Prize Winner" logo had been embossed on the canvas strip as usual, but next to it, as if everyone needed a way to distinguish Tuff, age 58, from the child actor, age 15, who would play her - were the words, "THE REAL TUFF." Terry looked up to see the cast and crew smiling goofily in her direction. What a reception for the author.

Tuff and Betsy felt the same welcome as they mounted the steps to the back porch set and noticed a four-leaf clover pasted on the window with a big circle around it. Of course, four-leaf clovers are a universal symbol for good luck, but this was one was different. Mention is made in the book of Evelyn's unique talent for spotting four-leaf clovers from a far distance, including one time when she was riding in the car with her husband Kelly and announced that a beautiful four-leaf clover was growing in a field they had just passed.

Kelly, adamant that no mortal person could single out a faraway four-leaf clover in the middle of a field from a speeding car, drove around the block and stopped at the spot where Evelyn said she had spotted it. Out of the car a calm but exasperated Evelyn stepped, and deep into the field of flowers and grasses she marched, returning moments later with the most gorgeous four-leaf clover any of her kids (about six of them including Tuff crammed in the back) had ever seen.

The amusing and gratifying part of all this was that people in the Toronto production company kept describing Evelyn's gift for finding four-leaf clovers as if she, the author, hadn't heard it before. To a person they believed the discovery of the four-leaf clover outside on the lot was a sign that Evelyn Ryan was present with them on the set. What they couldn't know was that after Evelyn's death, when her adult children came home to Defiance to clean out the house, they found a large box of four-leaf clovers that Evelyn had collected here and there at the end of her life. "There must have been thousands in that box," Terry mentioned to crew members on the back porch, "because Mom thought that every four-leaf clover you found brought you a very special kind of luck." At that point, all eyes would turn to the wilting but sturdy four-leaf clover on the back of a window pane that they themselves had found. It was more than a reminder - more like a secret that spread a little magic whenever somebody noticed it - and it remained there until the last of the sets were dismantled.



So it felt like something very magical and wonderful was shared between the "Prize Winner" production crew and the author who had brought them this very special "property" (their word). And this was the atmosphere on the sound stage that greeted all the Ryans who arrived in October - not a small group of relatives, mind you; more like an invading army. From co-producer Jack, who kept approaching us all with a big grin full of toothy welcome and a thick Hollywood-mogul cigar to say expansively, "Isn't this something! Isn't this great!" to the grips and the dressers and the drivers and the technicians who opened every reproduced nook and cranny as you would your own house to dear friends you've missed for years, with smiles and invitations and an anxious-to-please watchfulness, "they treated us," as Terry's brother Dick was to say months later, "like kings."

Nor did the odd intimacy of this caretaker mentality ever fade. We were welcome to wander throughout the sound stage, which had been closed to outsiders except Tuff and Betsy for months and by now inhabited a building the size of several connected airplane hangars. Everyone on the crew wore hidden earphones connected to cell phones or walkie-talkies and walked around emanating muffled sounds as they made sure everyone in Terry's family was comfortable and that all their needs - food, chairs, rest rooms, headsets, monitors, directions and even trailers to nap in - disappeared into the scenery. Whenever Terry's siblings or friends would drift away from the immediate set, we'd feel rather than see members of the crew drift near. "Ryans moving," they would whisper into their mike in the shadows. Or "Shuttle for 8 Ryans," and sure enough, just as we opened the giant sound stage door and step into the parking lot, a van would zip up in front of us, ready for transport.

To control the time and expenses of shooting a movie like this in only 50 working days, Jane, as even we lay people could see, ran a tight ship. Each day's schedule, which was dropped off at our hotel room doors in the dead of the night, revealed a complicated choreography in which every person, every piece of equipment and every minute were accounted for in such detail that if you read it closely, you could learn how many hours of production it took to create one inch or one half an inch of film.



You can imagine how it might feel if your own life were the subject of a movie and you walked into this backstage environment, with carpentry and construction everywhere, electrical cords the size of your wrist snaking about and that magnificent clutter of filmdom - lights, cameras, booms - scattered among the scenery. Then in the spaces of darkness you discover a precise duplicate of your childhood house broken out into separate rooms. They're all dark and seem to sit there as though dead until the "hot feeds" light them up and gives breath to every doorknob and faucet as well as your own memory. The kitchen windows, for example, look out on a huge floor-to-ceiling color photograph of the back yard, with lights so bright you'd swear the sun was hitting your favorite climbing trees at full strength during a sweltering Ohio summer.

And what a treat it was for the crew to watch these adult Ryans peek into their old bedrooms - excuse me, replicas of same - where they'd discover precise remakes of the same flowery curtains, the same scuffed dressers, the same patched-up toys scattered on old hardwood floors they remembered from 40 or 50 or 60 years ago. Sometimes the modern reality was just as startling: They might pick up a favorite teddy bear as though embracing an old friend and find that it had a number pasted on the back that corresponded to a number on the floor.

Visual details in a movie, of course, perform the function of descriptive paragraphs in a book. So every detail in the sets characterized this family as clearly and charmingly as any anecdote in Terry's memoir. The wallpaper had been tinted with age and pockmarked with dents, right down to the baseball-sized hole that their mother had hastily covered up with Lea Anne's high school graduation photo. Every dish on the counter, every hairbrush on a dresser had that same worn look and feel.

Then there were the grocery lists, the half-finished letters, the hasty notes to teachers and especially the precious ironing-board "contesting" notebooks that had been painstakingly copied by someone on the production staff in Evelyn Ryan's uniquely circular Palmer School handwriting. Sometimes you'd hear a quiet yelp of surprise emitted by a Ryan who was certain the little wicker basket of Mom's ideas-to-self had been commandeered from the family's real house - only to find that someone else on the crew had aged the basket using emery boards and tweezers, creating an authenticity of detail that even the cameras would probably miss.



The adult Ryans felt so dazzled by these living artifacts that they were nearly knocked flat by the next discovery: Coming at them across this vast landscape of rebuilt rooms were the child actors who had been cast to play the Ryans as kids over a half-century ago.

Since the 10 children in the Ryan family would be played by multiple little actors over a two-decade period, that meant 25-30 kids running around the place - along with parents, tutors, handlers and a nurse - all approaching with parallel awe the "real" Ryan adults whose child personas they were in the midst of impersonating. The effect was akin to living inside a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

And THEN (here comes the best part), if that weren't enough to befog and befuddle every brain of each visiting Ryan, who should they spy walking purposefully out of the sound stage blackness to the brilliantly lit living room, dressed in the very checkered pink dress their mother wore throughout those long-ago decades (it had been found in Evelyn's closet and stored in Betsy's house until the wardrobe department requested and redesigned it to fit a more petite frame), but the movie star chosen to play their mother, Julianne Moore.

Very much "in character" - the hair, the apron, the shoes, the stride - she was, at each greeting, a "real person," gripping the adult Ryans by their shoulders and sizing them up from head to toe with as much pride at seeing them, it seemed, as Evelyn Ryan ever felt.

Julianne Moore has so many freckles that her arms seem to have a light tan. The purity of her ivory skin and the sky-blue color of her eyes, as well as those sweet freckles and her red hair (despite a brownish dye, the red flickered up in the light) all became the basis of what the cinematographer called "the movie's pallet." This meant that a value was given to every item on every set in terms of its relationship to Julie's coloring. The nearly white sun streaking through those kitchen windows, for example, the soft reddish tones of the wooden floors, the lofty ivory of the cupboards and the clouds outside all told us something about this Evelyn Ryan, or perhaps hinted at it in that mercurial, visual way that movies have. I thought they were saying that Mom Ryan was someone who harmonized with her surroundings - you'd never see her combat adversity directly; she'd never "take on" the Church, or Dad in his alcoholic ragings, or society's taboo in the 1950s against women earning a living. This Evelyn would find her way by subtler, smaller, less reactive means, and make no doubt about it: she would find her way.



It's impossible to convey the authority that Julianne Moore - "Julie," as she invited everyone to call her - brought to the character of Terry's mother Evelyn.

At various times in the script, "Narrator Evelyn" is capable of superhuman things - Julie floats through the floors of a judging company to show us how contest winners were selected in the 1950s, or appears as part of a flashback about her husband's car accident, which happened when she wasn't there in real life.

As "Character Evelyn," she wistfully steps into the elegant Triumph sportscar that she won in a BeechNut Gum contest but can't drive because she has no driver's license and is trying to sell it as new. Sitting behind the elegant steering wheel, Julie as "Narrator Evelyn" talks (to us) about the destiny of her kids after Rog, who's been in trouble with the police, goes off to join the Army rather than serve time in jail.

Julie introduces us to Evelyn, then, not only as a mom with a great sense of humor and unflappable calm, but also as a woman whose utter vulnerability reflects a will of steel inside. Moments like this may be unique to Evelyn Ryan, but they are recognizable to any mother, and thought they don't appear in Terry's book, the essence of hundreds of pages are conveyed in a look or a pause or a turn of the head.

So to watch Julianne Moore take hold of Evelyn Ryan's resourcefulness, her sense of humor, her unbelievable optimism in the face of every hardship was for each adult Ryan and each friend of the family the most moving part of the visit. Every time Julie turned to speak to us via the camera, her power was so great that you could see the heads of all the people watching - crew included - draw back a few inches.

And every scene in which one of the kids leaves the family to strike out on his or her own brought out that range of expressions that so distinguishes the acting genius of Julianne Moore. As each of her older children comes into the realization that it's time to go, Evelyn, who has been nudging them out of the nest in her carefully strategic way all along, fixes her gaze on them with a mixture of emotions -
    relief that they have survived yet another catastrophe;
    concern that they're unhurt after a run-in with their father, Kelly;
    admiration that they're now strong enough to take on life's adversities;
    sadness at the loss she knows will hit the family like a cyclone when they leave;
    and resolve that she and Kelly and the remaining kids will get through whatever it takes to continue on.

These are not emotions that "flit" across the face of a concerned and attentive mother; they land so profoundly, yet without overture or histrionics, that something deep and abiding connects us to her: Maybe we remember our own mother looking at us that crucial way years ago; or maybe we feel some kind of larger presence, some miracle in the way families support each other, that is timeless, forever true.

And the most amazing thing for anyone watching Julie "do" this moment with all its progressive feelings over and over again, maybe 25 or 30 times for every different angle of three or four cameras, was that her fabulously expressive face never moved a muscle.



Meanwhile, the Ryan entourage had been confronting an adversity of its own. Many of Terry's relatives and friends felt upon their arrival in Toronto that the hotel floors were shifting suddenly underneath them, or the walls would not be there when you reached out to steady yourself, or the light seemed to change colors or chairs moved abruptly to the side as we sat down.

Explanations were many and authoritative. Oh, it's just an odd dizzy feeling or unsteady gait that must be the result of a long airplane ride, we said to each other. Here, take some Dramamine or Bonine, people offered, and sure enough, although motion-sickness medicines are supposed to be ingested before a flight, they seemed to help a day or so after the fact.

And here, we said, for that double vision and sense of falling backward or inability to write your name on the correct line, try Sudafed: It's probably a little cold that's moved into the inner ear. And sure enough, this helped, too, for some. Others who still felt as though they had boarded a small boat in a very stormy sea, Benadryl became the over-the-counter medicine of choice, and that helped many of the Ryans right themselves, so to speak. Many, but not all.