‘Quilt’ is a nicely crafted patchwork

San Francisco Examiner, October 6 1996

‘Quilt’ is a nicely crafted patchwork

By Barbara Shulgasser

AUSTRALIAN director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s first feature was the remarkable, independently produced “Proof,” about a blind photographer. On first glance at “How to Make an American Quilt,” it seems she’s left behind innovation and independence to make a Hollywood picture with major actors on the treacly theme: How do you know you’re in love.

But fortunately she carried along on her trip to Hollywood the grit, boldness and unsentimentality that made “Proof” more than just an eerie curiosity.

Winona Ryder plays Finn, a Berkeley graduate student who has a habit of abandoning her master’s thesis every time she is about to finish it. This time she is determined to finish while summering in Grasse, Calif., at the rambling house of her grandmother Hy (Ellen Burstyn). This sojourn will also give her a chance to reconsider her looming marriage to Sam (Dermot Mulroney), the man she lives with. As with the masters theses of her past, she seems spooked by commitment and is ready to abandon him.

Hy, who lives with her argumentative sister Glady (Anne Bancroft), is planning to make a quilt for the wedding. The small-town quilting group, led by Anna (Maya Angelou), formerly Hy’s housekeeper, is designing a cover that will signify the meaning of love, a subject that magically stirs the hearts of all the quilters.

In flashback, Moorhouse and writer Jane Anderson (who wrote “It Could Happen to You”) gently instruct Finn in the ups and downs of relationships. One evening, Glady and Hy explain that their bitterness dates to the death of Hy’s husband. Glady’s spouse (Rip Torn) comforted Hy above and beyond the call of duty and Glady is still fuming.

Jean Simmons, Lois Smith, Kate Nelligan and Angelou, quilters all, tell their stories to the confused Finn. Samantha Mathis, Claire Danes, Joanna Going and Maria Celedonio play the women in their younger versions in flashbacks that reveal pasts filled with anguish, disappointment, humor, passion and adultery. It’s a nice conceit, deepening our impressions of characters who might otherwise look to us like cliches, like passionless grandmas warmed only by faint memories of pale sex lives. Finn quickly realizes that these senior citizens have led far more adventurous and hot-blooded lives than she.

Where Moorhouse could have veered toward the overwrought and sentimental, a la “Fried Green Tomatoes,” she steers the movie through the more believable middle ground of genuine emotion.

The one ill-conceived plot twist gives Finn an irresponsible divorced mother of whom she speaks dismissively at the beginning of the movie. We have no choice but to wait breathlessly for the inevitable appearance of the kooky mother (in the form of Kate Capshaw) bearing news guaranteed to persuade us that she isn’t as flaky as Finn has claimed.

Charming performances by Burstyn, who in age only seems to get warmer and more compelling as a performer, and the spunky Bancroft – Mrs. Robinson retired to farm country – keep the movie afloat during those awkward moments. (The two do a wonderful duet singing along with a Neil Diamond song.)

Ryder registers a bit sweet on my hypoglycemia meter, but I take solace in the fact that she looks so much like the young Bette Davis (think of “The Petrified Forest” ). Maybe in the breast of the young Ryder wriggles a Margot Channing longing to be free.