The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

by Ruby Yang

If there’s anything to be learned from I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo, it’s that a 1950’s housewife is always glamorous. Her hair is perfectly curled, her makeup just right. She dons a beautiful dress and sports a pair of fashionable heels. One would think—based off her appearance—that she’s heading out to some soiree. Instead, she primps herself all just to stay home doing chores. It’s the husband’s job, after all, to bring home the money. While Lucy was far from the perfect housewife, her life at home seemed relatively simple—especially given the fact she had time for so many hijinks and mishaps. The reality however was far from the idealized depiction of 1950s TV. This harsh reality of a 1950’s housewife can be seen in biographical drama The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio in which Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), an overworked housewife and mother of 10 children must not only take care of her family, but provide for them financially as well due to her husband’s alcoholism. But with little options and no time for a job in the work field, Evelyn turns to the only way she can earn money: entering contests.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Directed by
Jane Anderson
Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern
Release Date
Ruby’s Grade: A-

While the prizes by no means made them wealthy, it was enough to pay off the bills—a job traditionally fulfilled by the husband. And so, as one would expect, Kelly Ryan (Woody Harrelson) soon grows resentful and bitter, thus spiraling even further into alcoholism. Nonetheless, Evelyn, rightfully putting her family’s well-being over her husband’s ego continues to enter and win contest after contest. At first, the plot of the film seems too contrived to be based off a real story. After all, how is it that one person manages to win contest, after contest, after contest? Hollywood must have added some embellishments here and there. However that fortunately is not the case with this movie. Aside from changing around a few details so that the story could flow better as a movie, everything is as happened. Evelyn Ryan really did win all those contests, and Evelyn Ryan really did manage to provide for 10 kids off her prize winnings. The movie is overall very enjoyable and keeps the viewer engaged throughout the entire film. From the Ryan’s highs and lows, the viewer is there to experience it all as an omniscient family member of sorts.

We are there when Evelyn wins her contests, and we are there when Kelly grows jealous and resentful of his wife. From this, we are also able to see as the movie progresses that Evelyn is not as optimistic or as happy as she puts on, and that Kelly is more than just an abusive alcoholic husband—that he means well, but just doesn’t know how to be a good husband or father. At the end of the day, both parents are just human beings unsure of the future and trying their best to survive—a message that the film illustrates beautifully through both its cinematography and its characters.

The movie, however, is not without its flaws. While most of the film stands great on its own, the film’s choice of breaking the fourth wall with another Evelyn speaking directly to the viewer was a mistake. Although this technique was to allow insight into Evelyn’s mind, it is unnecessary and ultimately just ends up distracting the viewer from the scene. As this is based off a true story, it would have made more sense to keep the film grounded in reality. Instead the act of having two Evelyns comes off looking cartoonish. Fortunately, this appearance of an Evelyn visible only to the viewer only occurs a few times throughout the movie. In short, The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio is not only an inspiring true story, but a wonderful film that reminds us how far we’ve come in women rights—that not too long ago, women had no choice but to be a housewife and often went underappreciated for their efforts.