When Citizen Ruth was released on Dec. 13, 1996, director Alexander Payne never expected the abortion debate at the center of his feature directorial debut to remain relevant 25 years later.
Payne, who would go on to win the best screenplay Oscar for his films Sideways and The Descendants, had yet to work on a feature when he and then-roommate Jim Taylor spotted a New York Times story about a pregnant woman in North Dakota who was arrested for drug use and drew support from both sides of the abortion argument. The writing partners saw this as fodder for an acerbic comedy, and penned the script in which a tug-of-war ensues between anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists who target the titular woman — a recently impregnated addict who along with her drug arrest is charged with endangering the life of a fetus — as a means of advancing their personal causes. However, it was tough to find financing for an abortion comedy.
“Everyone said no, and I had actually even given up on it,” Payne tells THR.
Eventually, a producer with a Miramax deal helped set it up on a $2 million budget. Payne, who didn’t have Hollywood connections, recalls Laura Dern’s then-boyfriend Jeff Goldblum somehow finding the script and encouraging her to star in it.
Citizen Ruth, with a cast that would include Swoosie Kurtz and Tippi Hedren as abortion-rights activists and Burt Reynolds as an anti-abortion evangelist, debuted at Sundance in January 1996, earning positive buzz, and went on to screen at Cannes. THR‘s review from that festival (pictured at right) praised its “strong ensemble cast” and added that “Dern distinguishes herself as the frazzled, self-destructive Ruth.”
Payne acknowledges that the film wasn’t a financial success but credits the favorable notices for helping him land his second film, 1999’s Election. “Nobody wants to see a message movie of any type,” the director says. “You can certainly see a message in it of advocating freedom for the individual, but it doesn’t announce it in a partisan way. That’s what has made this modest little film survive.”
This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.