The genesis for Passion Fish (1992) was director/writer John Sayles’ experience as an orderly in various hospitals and nursing homes in the early 1970s. There, he saw the power dynamic between nurses and caregivers and their patients. Years later, when Sayles had injured his back and was waiting in a long line for his X-rays, he once again saw caregivers interacting with their often grumpy patients. He thought that the power that caregivers have over their patients is eclipsed by the power the patient has as they are the ones writing the paychecks.
Out of this experience came the story of May-Alice (Mary McDonnell), a spoiled New York soap opera actress who is frustrated in her career because she wanted more serious parts. Her life is changed when she is partially paralyzed after being hit by a car. Believing her acting career over, May-Alice decides to return to her native Louisiana where she has a series of caregivers. All are either fired or leave in quick succession until May-Alice hires Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), a doctor’s daughter-turned-drug addict who is only a month out of detox, trying to stay clean and get her life back on track. Out of a battle of wills comes a true friendship.
The original title for Passion Fish was The Louisiana Project because Sayles was having difficulties coming up with a title that suited him. For inspiration, he asked the cast and crew, which also included local residents of the Acadiana region of Louisiana where Sayles did his principal location shooting. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Sayles said that he chose Louisiana because the Cajun culture had stayed relatively the same. French was still heard on television commercials or the songs on the jukebox and it would give him the setting he wanted. It would effectively contrast against the hard, abrasive New Yorker May-Alice had become and would emphasize that she is returning to a place where people aren’t like that.
Shooting began in the late winter/early spring of 1992 and only lasted fifty-four days, with a budget reportedly $4.8 million, famed cinematographer Roger Deakins behind the lens, Sayles doing triple duty as screenwriter/director/editor and a cast that included Angela Bassett, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nora Dunn, William Mahoney and Leo Burmester. The casting of May-Alice created some controversy when some disabled advocates complained that Sayles did not hire a disabled actress for the part, but Sayles explained that he had written May-Alice especially for McDonnell, with whom he had worked on his 1987 film, Matewan, and who had recently been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Dances with Wolves (1990).
The film opened on December 9, 1992 at the AMC Century 14 Theaters in Los Angeles in order to qualify for that year’s Academy Awards, with a wider release scheduled for February 1993. Critical reviews were good, with Peter Travers writing in Rolling Stone that the film was “an acutely funny and affecting duel of wits that ranks with Sayles’ finest achievements.” Likewise, Roger Ebert gave it four stars, proclaiming Passion Fish “a tough, muscular story,” and noted that while Sayles writes his own screenplays, “he has rarely written more three-dimensional characters than this time. Although his subject is a minefield of cliches and the material cries out to be processed into a disease-of-the-week docudrama, he creates vivid, original characters for his story - characters like Uncle Max (William Mahoney), who comes to visit and reveals his entire lifetime in a few sentences, or May-Alice's childhood friends or the actresses who worked with her on television.” Marjorie Baumgarten, in The Austin-Chronicle, wrote that the film “proves that when you have a great script, great performers and a great location, you don't mind that the movie goes on a tad longer than it should. Although its lugubrious pace certainly fits its Louisiana bayou setting, the excess is not so much extraneous as unessential. It would be hard, though, to mar this fairly perfect movie.”
Passion Fish would bring McDonnell another Academy Award nomination, this time for Actress in a Leading Role and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama. Alfre Woodard would win an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Sayles was nominated for an Academy Award for Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen).
AFI|Catalog. (n.d.). AFI Catalog. https://catalog.afi.com/Film/59354-PASSION-FISH?sid=a10bd9ca-3f55-42c8-8ba5-dbb1288143f6&sr=10.531572&cp=1&pos=0
Ebert, R. (n.d.). Passion fish movie review & film summary (1993). Movie reviews and ratings by Film Critic Roger Ebert | Roger Ebert. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/passion-fish-1993
John Sayles Interview on Passion Fish (1993). (n.d.). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojHd3jDtbns
Movie review: Passion fish. (n.d.). Austin News, Events, Restaurants, Music - The Austin Chronicle. https://www.austinchronicle.com/events/film/1993-03-05/passion-fish/
Travers, P. (1992, December 11). Passion fish. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/passion-fish-128522/