Beautiful (1994): Sally Field’s Embarrassing Directing Debut

Toronto Film Festival 1994–Flat, witless and sappy, Beautiful, Sally Field’s embarrassing feature directorial debut, aims to say something “relevant” about American society’s obsessive preoccupation with physical looks and appearances at the expense of such qualities as “inner beauty” and moral integrity. This film represents one of the lowest points in the history of the estimable Toronto Film Festival.

Minnie Driver plays a small-town Illinois girl whose sole ambition in life is to win the contest of Miss America Miss. There is no particularly urgent reason to see this disappointingly trivial picture on the big screen, as in scale, production quality–and message–it’s perfect material for the Lifetime channel.

As an actress playing Tom Hanks’s mother in Forrest Gump, Sally Field told her son, “Life is a box of chocolates.” And now as a director, she chose a screenplay, credited to Jon Berstein, that propagates the same kind of values, namely, listen to your heart and be true to yourself; whether you’re smart or stupid, good or bad, shouldn’t matter much.

Yarn begins in 1986 in Naperville, Illinois, at a dental clinic, where young Mona flaunts her braces to the camera. Going from one minor contest to another, often sponsored by the greedy beauty pageant expert Verna Chickle (an utterly wasted Kathleen Turner), Mona never wins but her determination doesn’t wane. Lack of rapport with her working-class mom and stepfather makes her even more committed to her goal. Narrative suggests that Mona’s merciless zeal stems from an unglamorous and unloved childhood.

Second act jumps to 1999 and finds Mona just as unwilling to give or give in, climbing her way up the pageant ladder on sheer will and merciless hunger for victory. Her best friend from childhood, Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams), shows the patience of a saint in helping Mona pursue her ambition. When Mona gets pregnant and gives birth to Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Ruby pretends to be the illegitimate child’s mom. Problem is, Vanessa looks just like Mona, and everyone recognizes the resemblance.

Beauty contests are a natural for a healthy and nasty satire, as Michael Ritchie showed in Smile (1975), a wonderfully ruthless dissection of pageants’ competitiveness and callousness. Since then, there have been other features and telepics about the subject, so the only raison d’etre for another movie is that it has a new angle or approach.

As anyone who has seen movies knows, Mona is the clichd name of “bad” protagonists, from Altman’s Come to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean to most recently Nick Gomez’s Drowning Mona. In Field’s pic, Mona is yet another uniquely American monster, a poor cousin to the TV weather woman that Nicole Kidman’s played in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, a far superior satire about the pursuit of fame at all costs. In fact, the inquiring journalist in Beautiful, Joyce Parkins, (Leslie Stefanson) is, like Mona, a woman who targets her presumably scandalous reports at Tom Brokaw, hoping that her disclosure of Mona’s family secret will catapult her to national stardom.

Pic’s last reel rehashes the overly familiar behind the scenes of a beauty pageant, with all its dreary acts, from bathing suits parade to talent contest. And in the fake ending, as one of the three finalists, Mona undergoes the long-anticipated conscience crisis and declares her motherhood on stage in an act that recalls a typical Oprah show.

Gus Van Sant’s To Die For was mean-spirited, but it was also jaunty, bitchy, brisk and fun. In contrast, Beautiful is bland, dull and overly long. Vacillating between comedy and family melodrama, the film never finds the right tone for delivering its few mild jokes or life lessons. Beautiful is the kind of populist fairy tale in which the heroine gets to repent for her sin, reclaim her daughter, win the crown–and be cheered by feminists for proving that mothers (even bad ones) should be eligible to participate in beauty contests.

Cast

Mona Hibbard………………….Minnie Driver
Ruby……………………..Joey Lauren Adams
Vanessa……………….Hallie Kate Eisenberg
Verna Chickle……………….Kathleen Turner
Joyce Parkins………………Leslie Stefanson
Lorna, Miss Texas…………..Bridgette Wilson
Wanda Love, Miss Tennessee…Kathleen Robertson

Credits

A Destination Films presentation, in association with Fllashpoint Limited and Prosperity Picturess of a 2 Drivers/Fogwood Films production. Produced by John Bertolli, B.J. Rack. Executive producers, Dick Vane, Kate Driver, Wendy Japhet, Barry London, Brent Baum, Steve Stabler, Marty Fink, David Forrest, Beau Rogers. Co-producers, Mark Morgan, Jon Bernstein, Jade Ramsey. Directed by Sally Field. Screenplay, Jon Bernstein. Camera (color), Robert Yeoman; editor, Debra Neil-Fischer; music, John Frizzell; production design, Charles Breen; art direction, Leslie Thomas; set decoration, Jeffrey Kushon; costume design, Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko; sound (Dolby/SDDS), Pawel Wdowczak; assistant director, John Nelson; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich.

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept 10, 2000. Running time: 112 min.