Evelyn Couch, a timid, unhappy housewife in her forties, meets elderly Ninny Threadgoode in an Anderson, Alabama, nursing home. Over several encounters with Evelyn, Ninny tells her the story of the now abandoned town of Whistle Stop, and the people who lived there. The film's subplot concerns Evelyn's dissatisfaction with her marriage, her life, her growing confidence, and her developing friendship with Ninny. The narrative switches several times between Ninny's story, which is set between World War I and World War II, and Evelyn's life in 1980s Birmingham.
Ninny's story begins with tomboy Idgie Threadgoode, the youngest of the Threadgoode children, whom Ninny describes as her sister-in-law. Idgie's close relationship with her charming older brother, Buddy, is cut short when he is hit by a train and killed. Devastated, she recedes from formal society for much of her childhood and adolescence until Buddy's former girlfriend, the straitlaced Ruth Jamison, intervenes at the request of the concerned Threadgoode family.
Idgie initially resists Ruth's attempts at friendship, but gradually a deep attachment develops between them. Ruth leaves Whistle Stop to marry Frank Bennett and moves to Valdosta, Georgia. Idgie tries to forget her but later visits her house to find her pregnant and subject to physical abuse from Frank. Against his wishes and violent attempts to stop her, she returns to Whistle Stop with Idgie, where her baby, a boy whom she names Buddy, Jr., is born. Papa Threadgoode gives Idgie money to start a business so she can care for Ruth and Buddy, Jr. She and Ruth open the Whistle Stop Cafe, employing the family cook, Sipsey, and her son, Big George, who excel with a barbecue that becomes popular with their patrons.
Frank eventually returns to Whistle Stop to kidnap Buddy, Jr., but his attempt is thwarted by an unseen assailant, and he is later reported missing. Once his truck appears at the bottom of a nearby drying lake without its owner, Idgie is immediately a suspect, as she had publicly threatened violence against him for beating Ruth. She is detained along with Big George for his murder by Grady Kilgore, the local sheriff, who offers to release her and pin the crime solely on Big George; she refuses to sacrifice him. During the subsequent trial, the local minister, Reverend Scroggins, has no problem lying, providing Idgie and Big George with sound alibi for the time of Frank's disappearance. Taking into account his reputation for getting drunk, the judge rules his death an accident and dismisses the case. Idgie and Big George are cleared of all charges.
After the trial, Ruth is diagnosed with cancer, becomes very ill, and eventually dies. Following her death, the café closes. Over time, many Whistle Stop residents eventually move away, bringing Ninny to the end of her story, but not before the revelation of what really happened to Frank. Sipsey killed him with a blow to the head with a heavy cast iron frying pan while trying to prevent him from kidnapping Buddy, Jr. Idgie got Big George to barbecue Frank's body, which was later served to an investigator from Georgia searching for him. The investigator ate with gusto, proclaiming his meal the best pork barbecue he'd ever tasted.
Evelyn discovers that during Ninny's temporary stay at the nursing home, her house was condemned and torn down. Evelyn, having become friends with her, offers her a room in her house which she accepts. As they walk away from the empty lot where her house used to be, they pass Ruth's grave, freshly adorned with a jar of honey, a honeycomb, and a card which reads, "I'll always love you, the Bee Charmer". The Bee Charmer is Ruth's old nickname for Idgie, and the note reveals that she is still alive.Kathy Bates as Evelyn Couch
Mary Stuart Masterson & Nancy Moore Atchison as Imogene "Idgie" Threadgoode
Mary-Louise Parker as Ruth Jamison
Jessica Tandy as Ninny Threadgoode
Cicely Tyson as Sipsey
Chris O'Donnell as Buddy Threadgoode
Stan Shaw as Big George
Gailard Sartain as Ed Couch
Timothy Scott as Smokey Lonesome
Gary Basaraba as Grady Kilgore
Lois Smith as Mama Threadgoode
Danny Nelson as Papa Threadgoode
Jo Harvey Allen as Women's Awareness Teacher
Macon McCalman as Prosecutor
Richard Riehle as Reverend Scroggins
Raynor Scheine as Curtis Smoot
Grace Zabriskie as Eva Bates
Reid Binion as Young Julian
Nick Searcy as Frank Bennett
Constance Shulman as Missy
Unlike the novel, the film does not make the lesbian romance between the two central characters explicit, instead leaving the relationship between Idgie and Ruth ambiguous. The DVD contains an audio commentary in which the director acknowledges the relationship and points out that a scene between Idgie and Ruth engaging in a food fight was intended to be seen as symbolic love-making. At the time of the film's debut, it was criticized by reviewers and activists for what was seen as "glossing over" the lesbian relationship. However, it won an award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for best feature film with lesbian content. It shows examples of discrimination against African Americans, women, and the disabled, but the novel's examination of sexuality-based prejudice through a robust lesbian plot, is made more ambiguous.
Though in the book, Idgie and Ninny are two separate characters, at the end of the film it's largely hinted that they are one and the same, although this runs counter to Ninny's earlier comment that "I was practically adopted by the Threadgoodes; I married her [Idgie's] brother, Cleo".
Avnet first read the novel in 1987. He was introduced to it by producer Lisa Lindstrom, with whom he worked on television films Heat Wave and Breaking Point. Although he wanted her to give him a synopsis of the story, she insisted he read the book and like her, he loved it. He decided to turn the story into a film and pitched the idea to Norman Lear's company, Act III Communications, who were interested and gave him a small budget for a screenwriter. He hired Carol Sobieski who had written the screenplay for 1982's Annie. She wrote a draft for it as a musical, which he was unhappy with. Sobieski left the project and he hired Flagg, who had been surprised that anyone would want to turn the novel into a film, to develop the script. Although she had some screenwriting experience, she found the process of turning her own novel into a script a strange one. The job was made somewhat easier by the work done by Sobieski and Avnet in choosing which characters from the book were going to be featured, but she found it difficult and also left the project, after writing 70 pages of the screenplay. With no money left to hire another writer, Avnet took the script over himself and spent the next 2–3 years developing it. Flagg gave her blessing to the final draft.
Avnet wrote the film with Jessica Tandy in mind; she expressed excitement about making the film. He had worked with Kathy Bates and Chris O'Donnell on the 1990 film Men Don't Leave before offering them the roles of Evelyn Couch and Buddy Threadgoode respectively. When Bates read the script she loved the characters and was particularly keen to work with Tandy. Mary-Louise Parker was casting director David Rubin's first choice for the role of Ruth Jamison. She read for the part several times, initially unhappy with her own tests. When she read along with Mary Stuart Masterson, they – and the producers – agreed that they had good chemistry.
Avnet hired Barbara Ling as production designer. Scouting for a location, she found Juliette, Georgia, a town that was, according to Avnet, nearly deserted. The building chosen to be the Whistle Stop Café was formerly an antique and hardware store. It was redesigned as a cafe, with a horseshoe shaped counter to allow for optimal camera angles.
After the release of the film, Juliette saw an influx of tourists and, with Jon Avnet's encouragement, locals opened the Whistle Stop Café, recreated to mirror the film set. Although "Whistle Stop Café" is now a registered trademark, other establishments have appeared using that name. While writing the novel, Flagg based Whistle Stop on Irondale, Alabama, and the café on a real-life restaurant, the Irondale Café. She was a frequent visitor there which was formerly owned by her great-aunt.
The scene where Idgie goes to collect honey from a beehive for Ruth was originally intended to be performed by a stunt double. However, after the latter backed out at the last minute, Masterson volunteered to do it herself. The footage of her covered in a swarm of live bees is seen in the final version of the film.
The steam locomotive used in the film is A&WP 290, then in use pulling steam excursions for the New Georgia Railroad.
The film was given a limited release in the US on December 27, 1991, opening in five theaters. It got a wide release four weeks later on January 24, 1992, in 673 theaters. It ran for 19 weeks in total, with its widest release having been 1,331 theaters.
The film grossed a total of $82,418,501 in the United States alone, and took in $37,000,000 outside the US, bringing the total to $119,418,501 worldwide. In its opening weekend it earned $105,317, and at its wide release opening weekend it earned $5,235,940, which was 6.4 percent of its total gross. According to Box Office Mojo, it ranked at no. 11 for all films released in the US in 1991, and no. 5 for PG‑13 rated films released that year.
The film was generally well received by critics. Film review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes gave it a "fresh" score of 73% based on 41 reviews.
Critics enjoyed the narrative, but found it conventional and predictable. The adaptation of the separate narrative of book to the screen was criticised by Time Out as "clumsy", Roger Ebert praised the performances, Janet Maslin praised the costume and production design and Emanuel Levy praised the cinematography and score. The cast drew praise for their performances, particularly Masterson and Tandy.
The film was nominated at the 64th Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Jessica Tandy) and for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski).
At the 46th British Academy Film Awards in 1992, Tandy was nominated for the Best Actress award, and Bates was nominated as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Both also received Golden Globe nominations for their work, and the film got a Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) nomination. At the 28th Guldbagge Awards in Sweden, it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film award.
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Evelyn Couch: "Face it girls, I'm older and I have more insurance." – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
Fried Green Tomatoes: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is the soundtrack to the film, and featured a new song by Patti LaBelle. For the original score, composed by Thomas Newman, see Fried Green Tomatoes (score).
- "I'll Remember You" (Grayson Hugh) – 5:08
- "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" (Paul Young) – 4:34
- "Cherish" (Hip Hop Version) (Jodeci) – 3:58
- "Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead" (Taylor Dayne) – 3:20
- "Rooster Blues" (Peter Wolf) – 3:15
- "Barbecue Bess" (Patti LaBelle) – 2:54
- "If I Can Help Somebody" (Aaron Hall) – 3:49
- "Cool Down Yonder" (Marion Williams) – 3:10
- "Cherish" (Movie Version) (Jodeci) – 2:29
- "Ghost Train" (Main Title) (Thomas Newman) – 3:11
- "Visiting Ruth" (Newman) – 1:46
- "A Charge To Keep I Have" (Newman) – 1:50