Martin Ritt’s Stanley and Iris (1990) reunited the directing and screenwriting team (Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr) that had brought a collection of well-regarded socially conscious films, including Hud (1963) and Norma Rae (1979), to the screen. Ritt continued his examination of the trials and tribulations of the white working class in this moral fable of Stanley Cox (Robert DeNiro), an illiterate line cook, who is tutored to read by Iris King (Jane Fonda).
Stanley and Iris hits on many of the socioeconomic issues of a movie from the early 1990s: the fear of rising crime, the political marginalization of white blue-collar workers, teenage pregnancy, and the limits to career aspirations for women. The film sought to place focus on the plight of the 27 million illiterate Americans in 1990.
Opening with the theft of Iris’ purse from a bus in working-class Connecticut, Stanley jumps off the bus to help catch the perpetrator. They discover they are both employed at the same industrial bakery, she on the line icing sheet cakes (with her bare hands in a troubling health code violation), and he a line cook in the company cafeteria. Iris is a recent widow who is saddled by grief and by the imposition of her unemployed sister (Swoosie Kurtz) and brother-in-law living with her. Her daughter (Martha Plimpton) is in full teenage rebellion and reveals early in the film that she is also pregnant. When Iris sees Stanley at the company cafeteria and asks for a Tylenol, she realizes that he cannot read the labels and blurts this discovery out loud to Stanley’s manager, who promptly fires him out of fear that he will confuse the sugar with rat poison.
After he is fired from the bakery, a montage ensues portraying a stream of odd jobs he must take in order to make ends meet. Secretly, Stanley harbors fantasies of being a world-famous inventor as he tinkers in a garage on a set of industrial gadgets. Iris proceeds to teach Stanley her own version of hooked-on-phonics (another early 1990s obsession), and suddenly Stanley can fluently read a highly technical car repair manual and composting instructions (in a scene redolent of My Fair Lady—by Jove, he’s got it!).
The film is very loosely based on a Pat Barker novel, Union Street, about a group of women struggling to survive in northern England in the 1970s. So loosely, in fact, that no plotline exists in the novel of an illiterate character being taught by a kindly widow. The film was savaged by critics: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it “dishonest,” while the Washington Post stated “this public service announcement drama” doesn’t know “how to spell credibility.” The film fared no better at the box office where it grossed less than $6 million on a $20 million budget.
This would be the final film of Martin Ritt’s career; he would die within a year of its release. It was a slight misstep for DeNiro, but 1990 turned out to be a banner year for the actor, where his other two releases became both critical and commercial darlings: Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Penny Marshall’s Awakenings. The latter for which he garnered his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actor. For Jane Fonda, however, Stanley and Iris ended a lengthy chapter in her time in the spotlight. She would not make another movie until the Jennifer Lopez romcom Monster-in-Law (2005). She left the industry both because of her dissatisfaction with the roles she was being offered and in order to focus on her relationship with media tycoon Ted Turner. Fonda’s status as the queen of the 1980s fitness craze is obscured here under layers of frumpy cardigans and frizzy permed hair, but with her exit from Hollywood, Fonda yet again argued for her ability to manage her career in her own idiosyncratic way.