Citizen Ruth

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Citizen Ruth
Original film poster
Directed byAlexander Payne
Written byAlexander Payne
Jim Taylor
Produced byCary Woods
Cathy Konrad
Andrew Stone
Michael Zimbrich
CinematographyJames Glennon
Edited byKevin Tent
Music byRolfe Kent
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release dates
  • January 24, 1996 (1996-01-24) (Sundance)
  • December 13, 1996 (1996-12-13) (United States)
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2 million[1][2]
Box office$285,112[3]

Citizen Ruth is a 1996 American satirical black comedy film directed by Alexander Payne, in his feature film directorial debut, and starring Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, Burt Reynolds, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kenneth Mars, and Tippi Hedren. The film follows a poor, drug-addled, irresponsible pregnant woman who unexpectedly attracts national attention from those involved in the abortion debate. The story was inspired from the case of Martina Greywind, a homeless, unmarried mother from North Dakota who was offered $11,000 to carry what would have been her seventh child to term.[4][5] This film marked Kenneth Mars’ final theatrical film role.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1996.[6] It later opened in limited release in the United States on December 13, 1996.


Ruth Stoops is an inebriated addict in Nebraska who is capable of doing nearly anything to get money or drugs. She has four children, all of whom have been taken from her custody by the state because of her inability to care for them. One morning, Ruth and her boyfriend have intercourse on a bed in a flophouse, after which he disrespectfully throws her out of the apartment. After, she visits the home of her brother and sister-in-law to sneak a look at two of her children and to beg her brother for money. Despite being family, she waits at the back door similar to a dog. She later goes to a hardware store to buy wood sealant and huffs it in a paper bag in an alley to get high.

After Ruth is arrested for her continuing drug use, she discovers that she is pregnant again. At her arraignment, she learns to her horror that she is facing felony charges for endangering a fetus; her many earlier arrests had all been on misdemeanors. The judge, who knows of the situation with Ruth's other children, informs her after the hearing that he will lessen her sentence if she has an abortion. Ruth is bailed out of jail by Norm and Gail Stoney, a middle-aged radical Evangelical couple who have become aware of Ruth's story through the local news. The couple take her into their home and attempt to persuade her to keep her child. On the first night, Ruth, impervious to their convictions, sneaks out of the house with the couple's reckless teenage daughter, Cheryl, and again huffs paint and smokes marijuana.

At the Stoneys' urging, Ruth visits a crisis pregnancy center where she is further persuaded to go forward with her pregnancy, despite her resistance given her limited opportunities and drug problem. After she is found huffing glue at an anti-abortion protest with Gail and Norm, they kick her out of the house. Diane, a friend of Gail's who participates in abortion protests, offers to take Ruth in. Upon arriving at Diane's farmhouse, Diane discloses that she is in fact a lesbian abortion-rights activist and spy who attempts to help women she feels the Stoneys and others prey upon. The witless Ruth soon finds comfort in Diane and her partner, Rachel, as well as Harlan, a gruff disabled veteran and friend of the women who provides security detail for the women.

After the Stoneys discover Diane was working against them, they stake out Diane's home with numerous other anti-abortion activists and engage in religious song and mass prayer. They offer Ruth $15,000 to keep her child, which Harlan ultimately agrees to match if Ruth goes through with her abortion. The scene becomes a spectacle documented by news stations, which is exacerbated when Blaine Gibbons, a charismatic and famous evangelist, arrives to participate. Blaine offers Ruth an additional $15,000 from his ministry to cancel the abortion. After Ruth finds alcohol in the house and gets drunk, Diane chews her out and tells her to sleep it off.

On the morning Ruth is to have her abortion, she suffers a miscarriage, and becomes disillusioned with Diane, whom she realizes is using her as a pawn to promote her message, similar to the Stoneys. Ruth conceals the miscarriage from Diane and Rachel, and agrees to travel to the abortion clinic with them; the three are escorted via helicopter with renowned abortion-rights activist Jessica Weiss, who saw Ruth's story in the media and felt compelled to help her. Upon arriving at the clinic, Ruth manages to locate the $15,000 Harlan had promised her, which he has stashed behind the front desk, and escapes out of a back window. Though the clinic is surrounded by anti-abortion and abortion-rights picketers alike, they fail to notice Ruth as she walks through the crowd before running down the street with her backpack of money.



Citizen Ruth is known for its explicit attack on the abortion debate. Through black comedy and satire, the film spins the motif of women seeking abortions in "ways unprecedented in prior decades" of film.[8] Most importantly, the film uses these methods of humor "to critique moral realism in the abortion debates."[9] While the film's overt subject matter is abortion, director Alexander Payne has insisted that the film is more prominently about the human side of fanaticism. Elaborating on this, Payne said, "People become fanatics for highly personal reasons. I mean, it's more about them and their own psychosis than about that cause."[5] This point has been noted by critics, who reaffirm the common loss in sight made by extremists of the people and issues involved in such debates.[10][11]

A running joke in the movie is a "Success in Finance"-type tape produced by an Amway-type company.[12] Ruth takes the tape and studies it to determine what to do with her newfound money. It is never explained what she does with the money, as the film abruptly ends.


The film premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. Its initial title was The Devil Inside, but Miramax insisted on changing it because they felt it sounded too much like a horror film title.[13] It was then changed to Meet Ruth Stoops, then finally Citizen Ruth.[13][5]

Though the film had a positive reception at Sundance, it was not theatrically released until the end of the year on December 13, 1996, reportedly because of controversy surrounding the film Priest and condemnation from Catholic organizations in the United States.[7] Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor expressed that Miramax did not make good on a promise to support the film and to campaign Dern for an Academy Award nomination, instead focusing their promotional efforts on Sling Blade for that Oscars season.[7][14]


Citizen Ruth received positive reviews upon release. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 81% based on 26 reviews, with an average score of 6.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Smart and sharply funny, Citizen Ruth is an entertaining look at a tough subject – and an impressive calling card for debuting director/co-writer Alexander Payne."[15] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 64 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[16]

Praise was given to Dern's performance, with Janet Maslin of The New York Times, writing "Criminally negligent as Ruth is, she becomes outrageously funny and weirdly lovable thanks to Laura Dern's sidesplitting performance in this role. Proving herself a terrific physical comedian, the long and rangy Ms. Dern kicks and shrieks her way through the crisis that erupts over Ruth's plight."[17]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of four praising the film for its "reckless courage to take on both sides in the abortion debate" and for its "gallery of sharp-edged satiric portraits."[18] He added, "There is a point at which this all perhaps grows a little thin; we yearn for someone to cheer for, instead of against. But there is courage in the decision to make Ruth an unredeemed dopehead whose only instinct is to go for the cash. I doubt that the two sides in the debate would actually engage in a bidding war, but that's what satire is for: To take reality and extend it to absurdity."[18]

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly also gave the film a positive review calling the performances "pinpoint perfect", though also suggesting that "movie is a little too aware of its own outrageousness."[19] Todd McCarthy of Variety focused on the fact of Citizen Ruth being Payne's directorial debut, stating, "Director Payne may not yet possess all the skills necessary to completely pull off a full-scale social farce; he could profitably have added more comic invention around the edges, but he does score quite a few points, even-handedly ribbing the extremists in both camps."[20]


  1. ^ Gajewski, Ryan (July 19, 2022). "Hollywood Flashback: 25 Years Ago, 'Citizen Ruth' Sent Up the Abortion Debate". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  2. ^ Butler, Bethonie (August 18, 2022). "Once a satire of the abortion divide, 'Citizen Ruth' now has a 'devastating' relevance". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  3. ^ "Citizen Ruth (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  4. ^ Kolata, Gina (February 26, 1992). "Woman in Abortion Dispute Ends Her Pregnancy". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 29, 2023.
  5. ^ a b c Guthmann, Edward (January 7, 1997). "'Citizen's' Payne Plays Abortion for Laughs / Trying to sell 'Ruth' drove him out of Hollywood". San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst Corporation. Retrieved October 15, 2013.
  6. ^ "Citizen Ruth (Meet Ruth Stoops)". Sundance Film Festival. Sundance Institute. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  7. ^ a b c Jacobs, Matthew (December 2, 2021). "Laura Dern Answers Every Question We Have About Citizen Ruth". Vulture. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  8. ^ MacGibbon, Heather (2009). Screening Choice: The Abortion Narrative in American Film. Ann Arbor, Michigan: VDM Publishing. p. 115. ISBN 978-3639161205.
  9. ^ Ilhamm, Al-Yasha (2009). "Reading Citizen Ruth Her Rights". In Shapshay, Sandra (ed.). Bioethics at the Movies. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-0801890789.
  10. ^ Dreher, Rob (March 16, 1997). "In Pro-life, Pro-choice Wars, 'Citizen Ruth' Just Pro-laughs". Sun-Sentinel. Tribune Company. Archived from the original on February 12, 2020. Retrieved October 15, 2013.
  11. ^ Nicoletti, Karen (March 28, 2012). "Citizen Ruth: Looking Back at Alexander Payne's Prescient Abortion Satire". Movieline. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved October 15, 2013.
  12. ^ "Revisiting Citizen Ruth". Film International. May 14, 2011. Retrieved November 23, 2023.
  13. ^ a b Biskind 2004, pp. 223–224.
  14. ^ Biskind 2004, pp. 241–242.
  15. ^ "Citizen Ruth". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  16. ^ "Citizen Ruth Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  17. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 13, 1996). "To Abort, Not to Abort: A Comedy". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 29, 2023.
  18. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (April 4, 1997). "Citizen Ruth Movie Review & Film Summary (1997)". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  19. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (January 10, 1997). "Citizen Ruth". Entertainment Weekly. CNN. Retrieved October 14, 2013.
  20. ^ McCarthy, Todd (January 29, 1996). "Review: 'Precious'". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved October 14, 2013.


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