Citizen Ruth (1996): Alexander Payne Abortion Comedy Starring Laura Dern

Political satires and farces have never been popular, a fact reaffirmed by the failure of Citizen Ruth, for which Alexander Payne chose the controversial issue of abortion. He was inspired by the twists and turns in the life of Norma McCorvey of Roe vs. Wade fame, victim of manipulation by spin artists on both sides of the conflict.

The model is Preston Sturges’ small-town folly, Hail the Conquering Hero (1943), with its gallery of American eccentrics, but Citizen Ruth lacks a sharp point of view, which turns his satire turns into a series of gigs.

Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), a glue-sniffing, unemployed derelict, finds out she’s pregnant for the fifth time. The impatient judge, tired of seeing her in court, is willing to drop the charge if she agrees to an abortion. Soon, however, Ruth’s case comes to the attention of a pro-life organization, headed by Gail and Norm Stoney (Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith), who live by religious platitudes. They take Ruth into their home with promises of unconditional care, but when she attacks their son for disrupting her sniffing, they send her off with another member of the group.

Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor kept hearing complaints from studio executives about their “unsympathetic protagonist,” which was “like making movies under Communism, because the studios impose a certain ideology you must follow, especially in comedy.” Payne was not against making accessible comedies, provided they reflected the anger he felt inside. Realizing that his “heroine” was “pure trailer-trash loser, incapable of gaining control of her life, a weasel going from adventure to adventure,” the trick was to make audiences care about her, which Payne achieves by giving her recognizable human feelings without ennobling her, and by depicting the pro-choice activists as even more despicable.

“I’m not delivering a message either for or against abortion here, because the comedy is elsewhere–it’s directed at people’s endless ability to be fanatical and selfish,” said Payne, which may explain why some critics labelled him a misanthrope.

Payne satirizes the pro-life advocates (their smarmy leader is played by Burt Reynolds, and Mary Kay Place’s character is “squeaky-clean”), sending barbs at their deception and manipulation. For the sake of a more even approach, Payne spreads the nastiness around: Ruth “is rescued” from her Christian saviors by pro-choice activists, headed by stern lesbians (Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Preston) and a Vietnam vet biker.

As Citizen Ruth progresses, the focus becomes less abortion and more women’s right to make a choice. Activists on both sides are painted as opportunists–neither camp wants Ruth to make her own decision, and both use her to “send a message,” a phrase that becomes a running gag. If the cartoon feminists are painted more negatively than the Christians, it’s because their manipulation is more hypocritical; at least the pro-lifers don’t pretend to be interested in empowering Ruth.

Clearly, given the choice, Ruth will go back to sniffing and drinking. Citizen Ruth begins as a brazen comedy, but, like Heathers, ends up with a shaky, compromising coda that negates the audacious satire.