Passion Fish (1992): John Sayles Best Film?

A follow-up to the sprawling, criss-crossing City of Hope, Passion Fish is a more tightly-focused narrative about interior struggles and unexpected changes.

An anti-Reagan story, Passion Fish is cynical about monetary success and realistic the inevitability of class distinctions. As the critic Michael Wilmington pointed out, Sayles’ matter-of-fact tone diffuses the maudlin, resulting in “a love story without tears, a soap opera with no soap, a political fable about survivors in the ruins of the reign of greed.”

Working again in the “woman’s picture” domain, Sayles showed he could deal with material usually seen in “TV Movie of the Week” in a mature, non-melodramatic way. Centering on female friendship, Passion Fish coincided with a cycle of studio films about female bonding, such as Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own, and Fried Green Tomatoes.

May-Alice (Mary McDonnell), a soap opera star, is accidentally hit by a taxi cab and is paralyzed from the waist down. Moving back to her childhood home in the Louisiana bayou, she wallows in self-pity and turns to the bottle. She vents her anger at various nurses who flee her house as soon as they arrive. May-Alice finally meets her equal in strength in Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), a black nurse from Chicago. Chantelle has her own demons: She’s running away from her tormented past, a drug addiction that had rendered her an unsuitable mother.

On the surface, the heroines play familiar types, but Sayles again shows his forte in etching deft characterizations, detailing the emotional transformation of each woman and the bond they establish once they get to know one another. A painstakingly accurate portrait of suffering, Sayles shows a woman confined to a wheelchair, unable to get to the bathroom on her own. She sits in a big, dark house, drinking and watching TV–Sayles creates a Gothic atmosphere with allusions to Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in which a pathetic paraplegic was played by the formerly glamorous star, Joan Crawford.

Like much of Sayles’ work, Passion Fish concerns the dreams and hopes of ordinary individuals defeated by big, powerful forces. It revolves around the issue of coming to terms with failure. Since American culture is success-obsessed and youth-oriented, for Sayles the question is: “How do you deal with it when you’ve failed and you know it Do you crawl up into a ball and get bitter and die Or do you find some other way to express yourself and like yourself”

The movie suggests that healing is a mutual process, that the healer needs a large dose of rehab too. At first, the two women go at each other. Chantelle is relentlessly controlling, a taskmaster trying to change Mary-Alice, but she also realizes she desperately needs the job. The lines of power, class, and race play their roles without suffocating the evolving friendship. Both women are fighting for dignity and survival, and in due process, each woman discovers what’s important to her through the alliance with the other.

Despite a confined indoor setting, the film flows spontaneously. Working with discipline, Sayles takes his time in developing the relationship. The only schematic element are its secondary characters which are used for comic relief: A boozy old uncle, former school friends turned gossipy matrons, self-absorbed actresses from her soap-opera past. Chantelle’s visitors from her past include a lover from Chicago–the father of her child, with whom she almost died–and her father, who still treats her like a child.

The appearance of two men change the women’s romantic prospects. Sugar (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a ladies man, pursues Chantelle, and Rennie (David Strathairn), an old classmate who’s married, shows interest in May-Alice.

May-Alice is a quintessentially Sayles outsider: Having moved to New York to pursue her acting career, she has effaced her past–at a price. The resolution suggests a coming to terms with that past.

The bayou country–its myths and charms–is integrated into the texture of the film. A boat trip into the swamps represents a journey of renewal backward in time: The country’s folk tradition alters the women’s urban consciousness.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Mary McDonnell

Original Screenplay: John Sayles

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of Best Actress Oscar was Emma Thompson for Howards End.

Neil Jordan won the Original Screenplay Oscar for The Crying Game