There's no question about which film is the surprise hit of the new year: Fried Green Tomatoes. Even with a low budget and a first-time director, the movie has been drawing crowds with its warmhearted, uplifting story and its stirring performances by Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary-Louise Parker. But the movie's box office success it is currently No. 3 isn't the only surprise. On April 11, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) will give Fried Green Tomatoes its award for the best feature film with lesbian content.
To which many of those who've both made and seen the film say, What lesbian content? The film was inspired by comedian Fannie Flagg's 1987 novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. In the book, two Depression-era Alabama women Idgie and Ruth share a romantic love, complete with courtship and infidelity. But the movie version is more circumspect about whether or not the friendship between cigar-smoking, overalls-wearing Idgie (Masterson) and primly feminine Ruth (Parker) has a sexual dimension. In the film, the women raise Ruth's baby together while frying up tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. They clearly love each other, but their only sign of physical affection is a chaste peck on the cheek. ''You can take it how you want to,'' director Jon Avnet says. ''I had no interest in going into the bedroom.'' Flagg, who cowrote the screenplay, adds: ''It's not a political film at all. It's about the possibilities of people being sweet and loving each other.''
On late-night television, when Dennis Miller told Masterson that he thought it would have been even sweeter had the film come out and said the women were lovers, Masterson replied, ''I know what you mean,'' but added, ''The movie isn't really about their relationship in terms of their sexuality, no matter what that might be.''
''Lesbians are invisible in Hollywood,'' says GLAAD executive director Ellen Carton. ''The only movie coming up that portrays one at all is Basic Instinct, and she's a man-hating killer. Tomatoes' filmmakers may have wanted to tone down the lesbian content. Too bad. But we recognize these women as lesbians. And giving the award is a way for us to acknowledge that these are lesbians.''
Yet within GLAAD, reaction to Tomatoes has been mixed. The New York chapter suggests the film tiptoed around the same Hollywood taboo that prompted Steven Spielberg to downplay the powerful lesbian relationship in his 1985 version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
''It's an untested fear that the general American audience will run shrieking out of the theater should homosexuals be seen touching each other in a feature film,'' says Richard Rouilard, editor-in-chief of The Advocate, a gay weekly.
Even while preparing to hand Tomatoes its award, GLAAD's Carton says, ''I think Universal is trying to have it both ways.'' In fact, the film does have it both ways: recognition from GLAAD and a gross of more than $34 million so far. ''It's a mainstream movie,'' Flagg says. ''People are taking children, they're taking old people. It speaks to everybody. That's what's wonderful. They can make up their own minds.''