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Fannie Flagg began her career as a television and film personality, but it was her novels and screenplays that earned her acclaim in the 1980s. Through such novels as Coming Attractions (1981) and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987), Flagg explores the South of the past—most often, the 1950s—through casts of primarily female characters and splashes of homespun humor. She depicts the hardships and delights of small town life through the eyes of female residents. The characters in Flagg’s fiction live out their creator’s belief in optimism, hard work, and following one’s dreams.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Love of Film
Flagg was born Patricia Neal on September 21, 1941, in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of William H. and Marion Leona (LeGore) Neal. Her father was a small business owner and a movie theater projectionist who tried to get rich in many moneymaking schemes. From an early age, Flagg was a fan of popular movies and aspired to join that world. To that end, she joined a theater group in Birmingham when she was fourteen years old and entered beauty pageants from the ages of sixteen to twenty-two to gain exposure. She also changed her name to Fannie Flagg when she was seventeen. Flagg also wanted to write stories, but she suffered from dyslexia and found it very difficult to write. In fact, she received poor grades in creative writing because she had trouble spelling.
In the South of Flagg’s childhood, racial and class tensions ran high. The South had been racially segregated for generations, and while the end of the Civil War saw African American slaves freed, the rights they gained were often compromised by various state laws and other legal means. By the mid-1950s, civil rights issues involving African Americans were being tested in court. For example, in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that legal segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The civil rights movement would continue to challenge legal and cultural bias against African Americans for decades to come. It was against this backdrop that Flagg was competing in beauty pageants in Alabama and developing her creative side. The racial tensions of her childhood would later be regularly featured in her writing.
The Silver Screen
After high school, Flagg studied acting at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 1962. By the mid-1960s, Flagg had found a job as a television talk show host and producer on Birmingham’s Morning Show on WBRC-TV. In 1965 Flagg appeared at a New York City comedy club. This appearance caught the attention of Allen Funt, the creator of Candid Camera, who approached Flagg about working on the show. She began her career as a writer on the hidden camera television series, but Funt soon moved her into a regular role in front of the camera. She remained on the show until 1967 and rejoined it when it was revived from 1974 to 1980. Flagg then recorded two comedy albums, Rally ‘Round the Flagg (1967) and My Husband Doesn’t Know I’m Making This Phone Call (1971).
Flagg appeared regularly on television in the 1970s. She took roles on The New Dick Van Dyke Show from 1971 to 1973 and in the television movie The New, Original Wonder Woman (1975). In addition, Flagg was a regular guest on the game show Match Game throughout the decade.
Flagg’s career continued to grow on screen and stage throughout the 1970s. She began acting regularly in films, appearing in Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Grease (1978). Flagg moved to Broadway in 1979 with a role in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, in which she eventually played the featured role, Miss Mona. Flagg returned to television with a two-year run on the series Harper Valley from 1981 to 1982.
Published First Novel
Despite her exposure, Flagg became unhappy with her acting career—what she really wanted to do was write. So in 1981, she published her first novel, Coming Attractions. The humorous story revolves around the 1952 diary entries of eleven-year-old Daisy Fay Harper and chronicles her growth and development over the next six years. Harper is the daughter of a ladylike mother and an alcoholic projectionist father who is always looking for a get-rich-quick scheme. Through her journal entries, Flagg draws Daisy as a magnet for mishaps, trouble, and zany coming-of-age stories. Coming Attractions became a best seller and reflected a popular trend of looking back at the 1950s with a sense of nostalgia. Flagg continued to have a nostalgic bent in her subsequent works.
Flagg’s writing career reached new heights with Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987). The book takes place in Alabama in both the past and the present. The present tale chronicles the growing friendship between Ninny, a nursing home resident, and Evelyn, a middle-aged woman unsure of what to do with the rest of her life. The past, set during the Depression era, focuses on Ninny’s sister-in-law Idgie Threadgoode, a tomboy who defends blacks and rescues her friend, Ruth Jamison, from an abusive husband. The pair build a life together and open a cafe in Whistle Stop, Alabama. The novel was a best seller when it was published in 1987, but it reached a bigger audience a few years later with the release of the popular film version in 1991. Flagg cowrote the screenplay (with Carol Sobieski) and was nominated for an Academy Award. She also published a related cookbook Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook (1993).
The Simple Life
After the success of Fried Green Tomatoes, Flagg published several novels in the 1990s, including Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (1992), which was merely a republished version of Coming Attractions with a new title. After a multiyear hiatus from writing, Flagg published a new novel, Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! (1998). This book was a sequel of sorts to Coming Attractions and focuses on Dena Nordstrom, a girl from the Midwest who moves to New York City and becomes a successful television interviewer. She later grows homesick for her grandmother’s home.
In the early 2000s, Flagg published several more novels, including Standing in the Rainbow (2002), a portrait of the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri. This was followed with A Red Bird Christmas (2004), a Christmas story set in the South. It focuses on the relationship between a terminally ill man, an orphaned girl, a pet cardinal, and the residents of a small Alabama com-munity. Flagg again used Elmwood Springs as the setting for Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven (2006). Flagg continues to live and write in Santa Barbara, California.
Works in Literary Context
Inspired by her own childhood in the South in the 1950s, Flagg’s novels are usually set in midcentury, small-town America. Although her writing career is generally separated from her acting career, some of her acting roles affected the style of her fiction. For example, her use of bittersweet humor in some of her novels resembled the stage work necessary for her role in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Flagg’s interest in Southern settings placed her in the tradition of Tennessee Williams’s play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which she also acted. In addition, she emphasized the importance of, and humor within, interpersonal relationships, particularly between women. Flagg was influenced by such authors as Williams, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor.
The lmportance of Relationships
At the core of many of Flagg’s novels is an emphasis on the relationships between people, primarily females, but also within families. For example, in Coming Attractions, the touching and humorous relationship between Daisy and her father is a recurring motif of the novel. Flagg shows their sweet and funny bond as she depicts Daisy helping her father run the projector at the town theater and taking part in some of his get-rich-quick schemes. In A Redbird Christmas, a terminally ill man named Oswald T. Campbell and an orphaned girl named Patsy Casey find healing in the bond they form as well as the great community of Lost River, Alabama. In Standing in the Rainbow, the Smith family of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, illustrates similar themes of closeness and caring.
But it is the friendships among women that particularly shine in Flagg’s fiction. Fried Green Tomatoes, for example, depicts several meaningful female relationships. One is between Ninny Threadgoode, an eighty-year-old woman in a nursing home, and Evelyn Couch, a younger woman who visits her mother-in-law at the home. Ninny tells Evelyn stories of two other close women, Ruth and Idgie, a relationship of the past that is implied to be an intimate love affair. The stories of Idgie and Ruth inspire Evelyn to change her life and is Flagg’s way of illustrating the transformative power of female relationships.
A Funny Streak
Flagg has a flair for the funny, and she depicts these and other relationships with a sense of humor. In Coming Attractions, subtle ironic twists and amusing episodes permeate the novel. Indeed, Daisy’s many adventures have a zany, hilarious edge to them. One of the funnier episodes involves a bizarre mortgage scam in which her father holds a fake séance for a group of people. To his great surprise, his audience suddenly starts speaking in tongues—one lady throws off her hearing aid and claims that she can suddenly hear. While Fried Green Tomatoes was not as outwardly humorous as Coming Attractions, Flagg includes many small moments of humor, especially through the character of Dot Weem, who writes a column in Weems Weekly. In another funny moment, Ninny tells Evelyn of a time when she threw a broom at a cat in a tree. Because the broom stuck, she could not sweep the floors. Similarly, the bad luck of the unskilled town beautician named Tot Whooten adds laughs to Standing in the Rainbow, while eccentric community members like Mildred in A Redbird Christmas, who keeps dying her hair outlandish colors every few days, gives the novel an oddball, relatable edge. Such humorous touches add depth, wit, and humanity to Flagg’s stories and characters.
Works in Critical Context
Critical reception to Flagg’s works has been as positive as the author’s message. Although occasionally faulted for certain overwritten passages, her novels have been praised for their heartwarming nostalgia and realistic sense of time and place. Critics have also commented on Flagg’s talent for entertaining storytelling and her well-researched attention to detail. The humor that Flagg weaves through the day-to-day lives of her characters has been appreciated by reviewers, who generally think the mixture of laughter and the power of friendship is one of the strengths of her fiction.
Flagg’s first novel Coming Attractions impressed both critics and readers alike with its humorous yet sensitive portrayal of adolescence in the 1950s South. Critics praised the skill with which Flagg balanced the adventures of Daisy with the harsh realities of adolescence. As Gerald Einhaus of the National Review commented, ”Miss Flagg has accurately pegged the emotions and expressions of a teenaged girl, as Daisy Fay … comments on a life that is wild and improbable by any standard.” In Publishers Weekly, Barbara A. Bannon wrote that Flagg ”has put together a rollicking, funny, bubbling novel.” Similarly, New York Times writer Laura Cunningham concluded that ”A lot of people are going to enjoy Daisy Fay Harper ’cause she’s just as sweet as her favorite movie-munching’ candy, Bit-O-Honey.”
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
Like Coming Attractions, Fried Green Tomatoes was lauded from its initial publication, even by fellow authors such as Harper Lee, Erma Bombeck, and Eudora Welty. Critics were especially impressed by Flagg’s depiction of the relationship between the two main characters in the flashbacks. In the New York Times Book Review, Jack Butler thought that novel had minor flaws such as presenting too many details concerning insignificant events. But Butler found much to like, noting that ”[t]he core of the story is the unusual love affair between Idgie and Ruth, rendered with exactitude and delicacy, and with just the balance of clarity and reticence that would have made it acceptable in that time and place.” In his review, Butler also praised Flagg’s portrayal of the time period, pointing out that she ”evokes, in fine detail, Hoovervilles, the Klan, a ‘hunting camp’ that is more nearly a juke joint, a hot jazz spot in the black section of Birmingham and many other settings.” A Publishers Weekly contributor concluded that ”the book’s best character, perhaps, is the town of Whistle Stop itself. Too bad the trains don’t stop there anymore.”
- Bannon, Barbara J. Review of Coming Attractions. Publishers Weekly (April 10, 1981): 58.
- Butler, Jack. ”Love with Reticence and Recipes.” New York Times Book Review (October 18, 1987): 14.
- Cunningham, Laura. ”Lovers and Movies.” New York Times Book Review (August 2, 1981): 15.
- Eisenhuas, Gerald. Review of Coming Attractions. National Review (August 20, 1982): 1038.
- Review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Publishers Weekly (August 28, 1987): 64-65.
- Rockier, Naomi R. ”A Wall on the Lesbian Community: Polysemy and Fried Green Tomatoes.” Women’s Studies in Communication (Spring 2001): 90-106.
- Hillard, Gloria. ”High hurdles didn’t stop Fannie Flag.” Retrieved November 20, 2008, from http:// www.cnn.com/books/news/9901/12/flagg/ Last updated on January 12, 1999.
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