Citizen Ruth: Looking Back at Alexander Payne's Prescient Abortion Satire

What’s the Film: Citizen Ruth (1996), available on DVD and Hulu

Why it's an Inessential Essential: The premise — one woman’s attempt to have an abortion turns into a national debate and bidding war — was a bold choice out of the gate for writer-director Alexander Payne. Citizen Ruth is his first feature film, and like his subsequent work, it has a biting wit, absurdities from every corner, and deeply flawed characters.

Ruth (Laura Dern) is a dim-witted screw-up who is pregnant for the fifth time; her four offspring have been placed elsewhere because of her addiction to inhalants. When she is charged with a felony for huffing “patio sealant,” the judge coerces her to terminate the pregnancy. In jail, she meets anti-abortion crusaders who start a tug-of-war with pro-choice rivals over the unborn child, who becomes widely known as Baby Tanya after a clinic doctor manipulates Ruth into imagining keeping it.

Tackling this tricky subject matter, Payne found an unreal story to tell, except that part of it was real. In the DVD commentary, he and co-writer Jim Taylor reveal that the plot was inspired by the true story of a woman who was offered money by anti-abortion and pro-choice camps to honor their respective wishes for her fetus. The parallels to reality don’t stop there. In one of Dern’s best unhinged moments, Ruth screams at two overzealous medical staffers at a clinic, who then pull out all the stops and force her to watch a video of abortion footage. That seems far-fetched, though maybe not in places like Arizona, where a lawmaker recently proposed a bill that would require women to watch an abortion before having one. The state representative, Terri Proud, calls her idea “(The) Reproductive Games.” Truth is catchier than fiction.

Why We Recommend It Now: Released in 1996, Citizen Ruth resonates today, of course, because the issue of affordable health care has evolved into a fight over reproductive rights. Although Baby Tanya, were she real/alive, would be old enough to have a Sweet 16 party this year, not much has changed in the public discourse. Payne skewers the radicals on both sides, who are largely motivated by impressing their leaders — Tippi Hedren, for example, as a mother/god figure to the lunatic pro-choice activists. Their behavior is over the top, but their ideologies still echo.

Among the points the movie makes so nicely is that extremists tend to lose sight of the real people and issues involved. When Sandra Fluke testified about hormonal birth control, the point she made — that the drug treats medical conditions — was lost once Rush Limbaugh piped in and turned Fluke into an abstraction and a “prostitute.” Ruth is unfit to be a mother, yet a contingent of crazies think she should take a stab at parenthood, aided by 15 grand, because somehow it’ll just all work out. There’s something to be said for laughing so we don’t cry, and Citizen Ruth allows us to do that.

The DVD has few extras, but it does feature a revealing commentary track from Payne, Taylor, Dern and production designer Jane Ann Stewart. Explaining that the film doesn’t take sides, Stewart says her team strived to make both camps look a little foolish. Payne gets to the heart of the matter, saying, “Jane, you asked me, ‘Is nothing sacred?’ And it’s true. Everything is sacred, and nothing is sacred. Everyone is open for being examined as a human being.”

Other Interesting Trivia
: Payne says the film’s limited release was probably the reason he didn’t receive one threatening letter over it, though he was concerned about potential violence at the time from groups like the Army of God. Dern recalls a conversation with the women who ran Planned Parenthood in Texas, who called her to say how much they loved being mocked in the film. Also, let the end credits roll a couple minutes for a hint at Ruth’s fate.

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  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: Ruth (Laura Dern) is a dim-witted screw-up

    I'll take your word for it, but this is a bit hard to believe ... and in the clip, at least, she comes across as intelligent and aware, as liberal, as always. You never know what's going to be piped into the category of extremist -- the Atlantic Monthly essentially just categorized Paul Krugman as one -- so hopefully the movie doesn't just play out as in favor of disengagement with nutso America, and ensconcing oneself within genteel airs -- Payne's eventual Sideways / Descendants fate.

    • She really is. At her court date, she doesn't recall where her children are and can't answer whether she was aware of her pregnancy when she got caught huffing. It was easy for the two sides to turn her into a pawn because she's mentally and emotionally stunted. That also makes her prone to tantrums, like the one in this clip, which are kind of fun yet uncomfortable (funcomfortable?) to watch.

  • Yashar says:

    Wow, I did find the previous version of this column interesting but this one is a must. It's essential essential.

    Seriously, I didn't even know Payne had made such a movie. Plus with all the pro / anti choice warfare, this couldn't have been more timely. Thanks for that as well as the great read with nods to real cases. I mean, criticizing / spoofing Arizona's disgusting bill years before it came to be!? Wow. just wow.

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