‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio’ is a 2005 drama film featuring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson in the lead roles. The film revolves around Evelyn and Kelly Ryan, who live with their ten children. The Ryan family seems happy on the surface, but in truth, they’re barely making ends meet. Kelly, an alcoholic, works in a factory and doesn’t earn enough to live comfortably and pay off their debts at the same time. But not one to give up, Evelyn decides to do something about their financial situation by entering into jingle writing competitions.
Each prize is something lucrative — from a shopping spree at the local grocery store to a brand-new car — and Evelyn ends up winning it all through her ingenuity. Directed by Jane Anderson, ‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio’ showcases how certain skills develop in times of crisis and that any problem can be resolved if one just puts their mind to it. But is there any truth to the story? Would somebody really enter and win multiple jingle writing contests? Let’s dive in and find out!
From Memoir to Screen: Evelyn’s True Journey
Yes, ‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio’ is a true story. The screenplay, written by director Jane Anderson herself, is based on the 2001 memoir titled ‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less’ by Terry “Tuffy” Ryan, the real-life Evelyn Ryan’s 6th child. The book chronicles Evelyn’s subversion of the common beliefs regarding what women can and cannot do in the 1950s, but this is only a byproduct of her main goal to keep her family fed and have a roof over their heads.
“I remember the first big wind so clearly. We were just told by the landlord that we were being evicted form the two-bedroom rental house on Latti(ph) Street in Defiance. We had nowhere to go, 12 people, no money, not a dime,” author Terry Ryan said in an interview with NPR. “And what happens? My mother happens to win the grand prize of the Western Auto Bicycle contest. That means she not only won a bicycle, but a washer and a dryer and 5,000 dollars, which we used as a down payment on the house she would live in for the next 45 years.”
But while the story does take heavily from Terry’s memoir, it is not a carbon copy of each and every page. “I structured and wrote the whole screenplay on my own. I talked to Terry [Ryan] just for research and to get an idea about the psychological elements of it. When I write a screenplay I choose a theme–I give myself a one-sentence guide. And this was two ideas. One was ‘a woman of independent happiness.’ And the other phrase that kept coming up was, ‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering is an option,'” director Jane Anderson said in an interview with One Guys Opinion about her writing process for the screenplay.
‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio’ uses a style of narration not very dissimilar to the television advertisements in the 50s and the 60s, in which Julianne Moore speaks directly to the camera. Anderson revealed that she was inspired to employ this particular style by the advertisements themselves that the film’s producer, Robert Zemeckis (who was initially supposed to direct the film himself), had her watch for research. “So I knew that once I figured out the structure of Evelyn talking to the camera, I knew that every scene had to contain the DNA of that,” Anderson continued.
He added, “And I just picked scenes [from the book] that I thought visually would be the most interesting, like the tulip incident, because it was all about having a crushing disappointment, but finding the beauty in the moment.” Julianne Moore, who takes on the role of Evelyn Ryan in the biographical film, depicts her character with grace and a welcoming charm that wouldn’t be out of place in any time period, much less the 50s. The actress also exudes such warmth in all of the sequences with the child actors who portray Evelyn’s children, that it is easy to forget that they aren’t actually related to each other.
Commenting on the real-life Evelyn, Moore said in an interview on CBS’ ‘The Early Show,’ “That’s the thing that’s so inspiring about her [Evelyn Ryan]. You think, ‘Oh my gosh she had so little and achieved so much,’ and without any kind of grumbling, with a full appreciation of what she had everyday and a real enjoyment of her life.” Entering competitions until her winter years, Evelyn Ryan passed away in the year 1998. But her true story of perseverance, hopefulness, and her “defiance” against overwhelming odds will continue to live on and inspire people through ‘The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.’