Written by Patrick Pilkington.
Picture yourself as Laura Dern in the mid 90s. You’ve recently played the female lead in what has turned out to be one of the highest grossing films of all time to that date, Jurassic Park. You’re being inundated with offers for similar projects - big, effects-led blockbusters etc. - but instead, you decide to star in a pitch black satire of the abortion debate directed by a first time feature filmmaker. Your star role? A pregnant solvent-abusing homeless woman who’s characterised by her selfishness, irresponsibility, and boundless lack of intelligence.
The film Dern chose was Citizen Ruth, and although it was a failure on release at the U.S. box-office (to the extent that it was not theatrically distributed at all in the United Kingdom), the film has stood up as one of the most outrageous, smart and queasily funny American films of the nineties. Dern gives maybe her finest comic performance as the titular Ruth Stoops, and the particular talents of writer/director Payne, who would go on to such acclaimed successes as Sideways (2004), Nebraska (2013) and The Descendants (2011), are already on display.
Although the film is about the abortion debate, it doesn’t really pick a side in the pro-life/pro-choice argument. Citizen Ruth is instead about the manipulation of an individual by both sides of a political debate for whom the dogged pursuit of a “cause” is more important than the human lives presumed to be at its centre. In this sense, it owes a lot to the 1930s and 1940s social comedies of Frank Capra, in which simple, decent everymen played by the likes of Gary Cooper and James Stewart (with whom Dern could be said to share a gangly physicality) must navigate the self-serving interests of America’s institutions on behalf of the good ol’ common folk of the United States.
The twist Citizen Ruth gives this narrative model is that there are no good folk in this America, and this most emphatically apples to the protagonist herself. Nearly twenty years on, the inclusion of an unsympathetic female lead still (sadly) feels bold and original, and Dern’s remarkable performance contributes greatly to the completely one-of-a-kind characterisation of Ruth Stoops. The film also skewers the basic tenets of the American Dream in Ruth’s own pursuit of a success defined by cheap housing and the acquisition of as much cash as possible. Ruth is as motivated as the protagonists of the classical Hollywood cinema - but Payne and Dern ask us to question these motives as much as the motives of those who manipulate Ruth for their own ends.
CITIZEN RUTH is showing at 7pm on Thursday 3rd September, at The Water Poet, Spitalfields, London E1 6BX.
THE OVERLOOK SCREENING ROOM is a monthly film event, dedicated to discovering and showcasing cinema’s best-kept secrets.
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Citizen Ruth is screening as part of the annual Scalarama Celebration of Cinema
This article was published on August 27, 2015.
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