Although it’s not immediately apparent, Fried Green Tomatoes has a few key things in common with Thelma & Louise. They came out in 1991, they focus on the importance of female friendships [and are directed by men], they treat male characters similarly, and the action in both revolves around a woman murdering a man.
Fried Green Tomatoes tells two stories, each focused on a female friendship: the story of Evelyn Couch [Kathy Bates] and an elderly woman she meets at a nursing home, Ninny Threadgoode [Jessica Tandy]. As Ninny tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode [Mary Stuart Masterson] and Ruth Jamison [Mary-Louise Parker] and how they build a life together, running their own cafe and operating essentially independent of men, Evelyn [a meek, mild, southern housewife in an unhappy marriage] begins to draw strength and self-confidence from the story. Ninny knows the story because, as she says early in the film, she married Idgie’s brother, a confusing point that I will address later. The film is unabashedly sentimental and unapologetically woman-centered. Sure, some of it is cheesy but it’s so self-aware that it becomes part of its charm.
It’s not just about the friendships that these women have, it’s the strength they draw from them. As Evelyn’s friendship with Ninny grows, so too does her confidence and she begins to take control of her life as she also provides care and companionship to the effervescent but lonely Ninny. Ruth helps tame Idgie’s wild nature, Idgie gets Ruth out of a terrible situation, and they provide support, comfort, and companionship for each other. It’s a story of women’s strength, and it’s refreshing the degree to which it does not include men. Most movies, even movies about women, are still centered on their relationships to men. Fried Green Tomatoes, like Thelma & Louise is not.
Fried Green Tomatoes is based on the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. One point of contention that fans of the book have with the film is that it glosses over the homosexual nature of Idgie and Ruth’s relationship. Though the book never says, “they are lesbians,” it doesn’t need to. It’s obvious. When Ruth says she loves Idgie, she doesn’t mean she loves her as a friend. One way in which the film draws attention away from that is to hint at the end that Ninny is actually Idgie, and since Ninny was married and had a baby, that's a way of explaining that Idgie probably isn’t a lesbian. But that doesn’t make sense since, as I mentioned above, Ninny says she married Idgie’s brother, Cleo. She also states that she had a big crush on Idgie’s other brother, Buddy. There is no indication that Ninny is Idgie in the book, and it doesn’t make any sense that she would be. Then again, there is also a food fight scene that director Jon Avnet said was meant to symbolize the two women making love. The best I can figure is that Avnet was employing a kind of code, like what was said to exist in classic films. Those who knew what to look for picked up on characters who were meant to be gay, and scenes that were meant to indicate homosexuality. Those who didn’t know what to look for remained oblivious to the subtext. However, GLAAD did give it an award for best feature film with lesbian content. So there’s that.
There’s one more thing that I feel needs to be mentioned, and that’s the disappointing way it handles black characters. It tries to be progressive, but it is a movie produced by and starring white people based on a book written by a southern white woman, and it doesn’t do a very good job. Yes, Idgie stands up against the KKK in defense of Big George, and it’s main antagonist is a KKK member who gets his comeuppance, but the amount of back-patting it does over this is downright uncomfortable. The black characters, Big George and Sipsey, are portrayed as subservient and really, almost slaves, living in tiny quarters and doing work for the white folk to whom they are incredibly loyal. The white characters are protectors and saviors. It’s a tired trope, and it’s disappointing to see it here. There’s even an awkward, totally unnecessary scene in which Ninny and Evelyn visit an African American church; they are the only white people in the place clapping along to gospel. I’ve never been able to figure out the point of that scene, except more back-patting for how progressive the white people are.
All told, Fried Green Tomatoes is a fun, warm movie with a few serious flaws. But given that the Hollywood landscape is practically barren of movies solely about women, I think it’s worth treasuring this one.