The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Mary Goes to the Movies…Again!
Winona looks fetching, but couldn’t the quilt have been a tiny bit bigger, Spielberg? Image: Wikipedia.In 1991, author Whitney Otto appeared on the literary scene with her debut novel, How To Make an American Quilt. Otto quickly enjoyed a level of success the overwhelming majority of first-time novelists only dream about: Critics were impressed; her book hit the New York Times bestseller list; Quilt was named a Times Notable Book; and Hollywood called in short order to option the film rights. Not bad for a gal with a 160-page book with “quilt” in the title. (Not bad for quilts, either.)
The movie was greenlighted a few years later. I’ve been told that for a script or show to be produced in Hollywood, you have to have “names” attached to the project. The bigger the names, the bigger the movie gets. For example, if you write a semi-decent screenplay and try to get it produced, good luck with that. But if your best friend is Julia Roberts and she tells her agent she’d do anything for her best friend, including starring in your movie, congratulations! Filming starts next month.
The list of Hollywood heavyweights associated with How to Make an American Quilt (HTMAQ) is eye-popping. To begin with, Steven Spielberg signed on as executive producer, which alone would be enough to make Otto’s book into a major movie event. Beyond that, the cast is so star-studded, you might have to wear shades:
Winona RyderAnne BancroftEllyn BurstynJean Simmons Kate CapshawDermot MulroneyRip TornClaire Danes Alfre WoodardMaya AngelouMaya Angelou
That’s right: The great poet Maya Angelou played a role in HTMAQ, which is certainly inspiring. It’s almost as inspiring as the painfully good-looking men who appear in the film, a number of them who end up with sweat- or water-soaked shirts or, in one character’s storyline, frequently no shirt at all!
Jared Leto made his film debut with HTMAQ. Never forget your big break involved a quilt, Jared. Never forget. Image: Wikipedia.
Jokes aside, for a movie essentially about the experience of a group of women, men do figure prominently. This is because thematically, HTMAQ is about the choices women make vis a vis men and how women help each other through all that. There is certainly a kind of girl-power tone throughout the movie; Finn, the young protagonist played by Ryder makes a lot of noise about monogamy being “old-fashioned” and wonders about what men are really good for, anyway. But in the final analysis, marriage, commitment, family, and the importance of simmering down prevail.
Otto’s book was called “extraordinary and moving” by the New York Times, and they aren’t even quilters! Image: Amazon.I read Otto’s novel a few years ago, though after watching the movie again — not surprisingly, I saw it back in 1995 when it came out in theaters — I’m convinced I should re-read the book. This is not because the movie was so great…but because it wasn’t. I’m no film critic, and the movie was quite popular, so take my thoughts with that in mind.
The structure of HTMAQ the novel was widely praised for being a collection of cohesive yet sovereign stories. Each woman in the sewing circle in Grasse, California, gets her turn in Otto’s book. The six segments together tell the story of the town, the lives of the women, and the men who either loved them, wronged them, or both. (Spoiler alert: It was usually both.)
The way the movie attempts to make these sections work is by using a lot of flashbacks and exposition, and personally, I’m not too sure it works. It’s fun to see period costumes from the 1940s and passionate kisses shot in that slightly blurry, soft light that directors often use for flashback scenes, but there are just so many of those flashback scenes. It’s a lot to follow, especially because it’s a small town and everyone in the film is so beautiful, it’s not hard to get lost in the story.
In addition, in the novel, the voice who sets up the story is that of Finn, a young woman who has come to Grasse to finish a college paper and take some time to think over a recent marriage proposal. In the book, that narrative voice is kind of in the background, or, put another way, Finn’s not front and center all the time.
But stars aren’t usually interested in being put “in the background” and subtlety is not a quality major Hollywood movies are known for. So Winona Ryder as Finn looms large and her story is the main artery, if you will. Make no mistake: Burstyn and Woodard make themselves known, too, but the young starlet will always get the most closeups.
Quilts get closeups, too, of course, and this is where I throw the film version of HTMAQ a bone for sure. Seeing quilts feature prominently in a big movie is as thrilling as it was the first time I saw it. Appliqué, piecing, quilting; a shot looking up from under a quilt frame…It’s all done pretty well; there’s even a sort-of Harriet Powers-looking quilt hanging on a dining room wall in one scene. They were thoughtful about the quilt-as-character, which I appreciated. (Also, I appreciated Dermott Mulroney.)
My advice if you’re not acquainted with the story is to read the book first. After you’ve lived life with the women of Grasse in your mind, you can see someone else’s interpretation of this multi-faceted, solid work of writing. Going with the book-first-movie-second process is kind of like making an American quilt: Picture it in your mind, make it, and then see what the next quilter will make from the story.