John Sayles charts the long road back from physical and emotional debilitation in Passion Fish, a sympathetic if somewhat deliberate and over-long intimate study of two women emerging from their protective shells.
Mary McDonnell plays May-Alice, a TV soap star who becomes paralyzed from the waist down in an accident she suffers en route to getting her legs waxed in New York. Retreating to her childhood womb, she installs herself in the deserted family home in Louisiana’s Cajun Country and nastily rejects a succession of nurses until Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) comes along.
Understandably bitter, May-Alice sinks into a daily grind of drinking and non-stop TV watching. Not for long willing to tolerate maid status, Chantelle soon throws out the booze and forces her employer to shape up. But Chantelle is fighting demons of her own.
Interludes between the two men (David Strathairn and Vondie Curtis-Hall) invigorate the picture and provide a way to introduce a welcome dose of local color. Other relief, comic and otherwise, comes in the form of visits from a couple of bird-brained former schoolmates of May-Alice, three soap actresses from Gotham and the show’s producer.
Sayles edited this one solo, and might have profited by advice to keep this small-scaled drama under two hours. Title refers to some tiny fish that Strathairn’s character finds in the belly of a large fish he catches.
1992: Nominations: Best Actress (Mary McDonnell), Original Screenplay