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Alexander Payne and the Movies that Shaped Him

by THN

Alexander Payne, a noted film director, producer, and screenwriter whose career spans three decades, is best known for films rich in realism and comedy that explore both the dark and touching sides of human nature, and for maintaining a deep connection to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, where he often shoots movies.

Payne’s breakout film was 1996’s Citizen Ruth, and he rose to fame with follow-up films Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. After directing an HBO pilot and a short in the anthology film Paris, Je T’aime, he resumed directing feature films with The Descendants in 2011.

The following three films established and cemented his career as a filmmaker.

Citizen Ruth

Year Released: 1996

Runtime: 102 minutes

Citizen Ruth marked Alexander Payne’s feature-length directorial debut, which he co-wrote with noted screenwriter Jim Taylor, whom he collaborated with on future films. Having been influenced by the gritty and realistic films of his 1970’s youth, Payne strove to make Citizen Ruth a farcical black comedy heavily imbued with realism.

Laura Dern stars as the protagonist, Ruth Stoops, a single mother of four whose drug addiction dominates life to the point that the state removes her children from her custody.  Ruth continues using drugs and, upon being arrested, discovers she’s pregnant. At arraignment, she faces felony charges for endangering the fetus, but the judge offers a lighter sentence if she agrees to an abortion. This leads to an evangelical couple, Norm and Gail Stoney (Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place), offering to take her in and convincing her to go through with the pregnancy. 

Gail’s friend, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), takes her in next and reveals herself to be a lesbian and spy for pro-choice activists. The Stoneys discover Ruth’s new situation and offer her $15,000 to give birth. Diane’s friend, Harlan (M.C. Gainey), offers to match the offer if she has an abortion. A media blitz erupts, prompting a famous televangelist to offer even more money if she has the child. 

The day of Ruth’s abortion appointment, she miscarries and realizes that Diane used her solely to further her agenda, similar to the Stoneys. Ruth pretends that the miscarriage did not happen and goes to the abortion clinic accompanied by a famous pro-choice activist, ultimately escaping with the $15,000 Harlan promised while the pro- and anti-choice protesters fight among themselves.

Citizen Ruth received widespread praise for covering a controversial issue in ways that hadn’t been portrayed in film before, especially through humor. Alexander Payne used dark humor to explore how people become fanatics for their causes, while forgetting about the individuals who serve as unwitting pawns as their fanaticism grows. Starting a trend that would endure in his films, Payne filmed Citizen Ruth in his home state of Nebraska.

As the film was shown at Sundance in early 1996 then had a limited release late in the year, box office performance wasn’t readily determined.


Year Released: 1999

Runtime: 103 minutes

Alexander Payne found the inspiration to direct Election after reading Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name. Similar to Citizen Ruth, Payne set and filmed Election in Omaha. While Citizen Ruth took jabs at the abortion debate, Election occurred in a high school and served more as an allegory for national politics.

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) plays a model student running for student council president. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) plays a civics teacher who oversees student government. The students like him, but he dislikes Tracy. This resentment grows when he discovers her sexual relations with another teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) who loses both his job and his wife, yet Tracy suffers no consequences.

As Tracy runs unopposed, Jim recruits a popular, not-so-bright jock, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein). Upon breaking his leg which ends his football season, Paul discovers a new purpose in the student council race, and Tracy grows upset by how he coasts through because of his popularity and coming from a well-off family. The race becomes further complicated when Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) enters the race after her girlfriend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), leaves her for Paul. Tammy runs on a “scorched earth” platform solely for revenge, vowing she’ll put an end to the sham that is student government if she wins. She receives a standing ovation, followed by a suspension from school.

Tammy is removed from the ballot and sent to a private school for girls after falsely claiming she vandalized campaign posters Tracy destroyed. When Jim visits Dave’s ex-wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll) she seduces him, asks him to rent a room, doesn’t show up for the tryst, and Jim’s wife finds out after he has an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Disfigured and sleep-deprived, he must count the votes the next day and finds that Tracy won by a single vote because, ironically, Paul hadn’t felt it right to vote for himself. Jim discards two votes for Tracy and declares Paul the winner, but a surly janitor discovers the tossed ballots and gives them to the principal, making Tracy the rightful winner and forcing Jim to resign, yet unable to return to his wife. 

The film ends with Jim starting over in New York City with a new job and girlfriend. However, he sees Tracy one more time on a trip to Washington D.C. and performs a pathetic act of revenge.

While Election grossed only $17.2 million at the box office against an estimated $8-25 million budget, it has since become a cult classic and enjoyed vast critical acclaim. It is said to be former president Barack Obama’s favorite political movie and earned a spot on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 50 Best High School Movies. Election also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film in 1999. Reese Witherspoon received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for the now iconic role of Tracy Flick.

Election has since been released in the Criterion Collection with a 4K restoration.

About Schmidt

Year Released: 2002

Runtime: 124 minutes

About Schmidt is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Louis Begley. Alexander Payne initially wrote the screenplay in 1991 as part of a writer-director deal with Universal Pictures fresh out of film school. Payne wanted to tell the story of a man who retires, realizes he hasn’t done much with his life and wants to start over before it’s too late. Universal passed on the script, but after Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor were hired to adapt Begley’s tale with a very similar theme,  they borrowed several elements from the book and combined them with the original screenplay. Reminiscent of his previous films, About Schmidt was shot in several Nebraska cities, with Omaha notably featured.

Titular protagonist Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) toils as an Omaha life insurance actuary. As the reality of retirement sets in, Warren struggles with feelings of uselessness and that he’s wasted his life. Given that so much of his life focused on work, he visits his successor to offer career guidance but is turned away, driving home his feeling disposable by seeing his files piled outside for trash pick-up.

Seeking meaning in his life, he sees a commercial for a foster program for African children. Warren sponsors a Tanzanian boy, Ndugu Umbo, and begins writing him letters about his life upon receiving a package about the boy. Warren unloads his heart to little Ndugu in these letters, especially about growing apart from his wife Helen, before her sudden death.

The couple’s only daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), visits with her fiancé, Randall (Dermot Mulroney), from Denver, but she chastises Warren for his stinginess and selfishness. Warren asks her to move back in with him to help him with daily life, but she declines. Consumed by isolation and loneliness in his empty home and life, Warren engages in several depressive behaviors which are replaced by anger when he goes through Helen’s possessions and finds out she had had an affair with his best friend, Ray (Len Cariou), years before.

HIs anger sparked from confronting Ray, and wanting Jeannie to do better than marrying Randall, Warren  embarks on a journey to Denver in his Winnebago with the intention of stopping the wedding. On the way, Warren visits significant places from his past, such as his hometown and college. He looks to the sky and apologizes to his deceased wife for not stepping up as a husband, and says he forgives her for the affair.

Warren fails to convince Jeannie not to marry Randall, and he delivers a half-hearted speech at the reception. The film ends with Warren sending another letter to Ndugu, lamenting that his life is almost over, and he didn’t make a difference to anybody, wondering if he actually accomplished anything.

Then he opens a letter from a nun informing him that Ndugu is only six years old and can’t read or respond on his own — but that he appreciates the letters and financial support. Warren is moved to tears seeing Ndugu’s drawing of two stick figures holding hands.

About Schmidt proved a resounding critical and commercial success, raking in $105.8 million at the box office with a $30 million budget. It earned a Best Motion Picture-Drama nomination at the Golden Globes, and Alexander Payne was nominated for Best Director. He and Jim Taylor won Golden Globes for Best Screenplay, and Jack Nicholson won Best Actor-Motion Picture Drama as well as an Oscar nomination.

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