Actress Ashley Judd recently made the news after suffering a horrific accident in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Judd who had shattered her leg out in the jungle, had broken it in four different places and suffered nerve damage. She was trapped in the jungle for five hours until someone found her and having to travel fifty five hours to the nearest intensive care unit. Thankfully she is ok, although will require multiple surgeries and physical therapy. The actress also has another reason to celebrate, coming in the form of her earliest cinematic achievement that has received a new life thanks to a recent restoration.
The film is “Ruby In Paradise” that was the acting debut of Ashley Judd (who was 24 at the time) in her first lead role. Judd even received an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead. The film became a festival darling that went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Best Drama at the Robert Redford owned Sundance Film Festival. The revered late film critic Roger Ebert picked “Ruby In Paradise” as the tenth best film of 1993. “Ruby In Paradise” was the fourth film written, directed and edited by Victor Nunez. Best known for “Gal Young Un” and the critically acclaimed “Ulee’s Gold” with Peter Fonda.
While the film is reaching it’s 28th anniversary this November. I’m here to bring awareness to this indie gem, because Quiver Distribution has presented (or I should say blessed us) with a new HD master. It’s been fully restored from the original camera rolls that make the films audio tracks and picture having never looked or sounded better than this. For many years it’s been off the radar but thanks to Quiver Distribution it is now accessible (released February 16th) via Virtual Cinema and to rent or own on various digital platforms including: Vudu, AppleTV, Prime Video and all other major streaming services.
Ruby Lee Gissing (played by Ashley Judd) is determined to find something better than the closed rough life in the mountains of East Tennessee. She flees to a place once visited as a child, the “Redneck Riviera” of Panama City Beach. Arriving during the off-season, Ruby finds work in a gift shop owned by Mildred Chambers (Dorothy Lyman). Ruby befriends her coworker Rochelle (Allison Dean from “Coming to America”) who is just working at the souvenir shop until she can get her college degree.
Sooner than she expected, a couple of men enter Ruby’s life including Mildred’s pampered and playboy son Ricky (Bentley Mitchum). She also has another love interest named Mike (Todd Field) who works at a garden store and is a much more sensitive lover than the younger Ricky. But Ruby has a desire to find her own way and to make her own choices, as she ponders the meaning of love, loneliness, fear, intimacy and independence. Most importantly it’s about a woman running from her life, but inadvertently finding it again in “Paradise”.
To call the film a labor of love is an understatement as director Victor Nunez, was originally unable to get funding for “Ruby in Paradise”. But when he came into a trust fund from a relative that had passed away, he raised the rest by putting up his own property as collateral for a loan. That’s when “Ruby In Paradise” was born and that is what you call a labor of love.
“Ruby In Paradise” is an exercise in how a movie star was born. Thanks to her role as Ruby, Ashley Judd showcased that she was much more than one of the Judd’s who doesn’t sing (Ashley Judd’s mother and sister make up the famous country band “The Judds”). She brings Ruby to vibrant life in an extraordinary debut performance. From the get go in “Ruby In Paradise”, Ashley Judd displays herself as a smart, beautiful young actress who possesses a natural camera presence and an astonishing ability to convey the deepest emotions with the slightest expressions.
Her performance had been a sensation in Hollywood when the film was released; that critics called “a touching, textured portrayal that deserves the Oscar”. It was clear that Ashley Judd had all the makings of a big movie star. She repeatedly outacts and outshines her co-stars and there isn’t a moment when she is upstaged. Judd had a great screen presence and with “Ruby In Paradise” finally available for all to see, this is your chance to see a genuine movie star in the early stages of her career.
Ruby’s sense of herself is marginal, but she is strong enough to recognize that she is capable of so much more. When the movie starts, her greatest accomplishment in life has been to get out of Tennessee without getting pregnant or beat up. But by the end of the film, she is proud of who she is, in having found fulfillment in her work and is eager to meet the challenges which lie ahead. One of the interesting things about Nunez’s script is that Ruby doesn’t live happily ever after with her prince. Instead she finds herself, learning she must make her own paradise, even if it involves working in retail and selling cheap trinkets to Canadian tourists in the off-seasons.
Life in the “Redneck Riviera” is not very glamorous for Ruby and we know this through Ruby herself, who narrates the film while writing in her journal. Ashley Judd’s soothing voice-over gives a surreal, but poetic tone to Nunez’s film. It’s one that Terrence Malick surely inspired. Nunez has created a wonderful character in Ruby and he knows a lot of women will look up to the character because he knows there are plenty of women out there like her, who cross the state line every year looking for something new.
Nunez’s script is told with intelligence, sensitivity and realism. His film is one of the all too few films that acknowledge, that most people have to work for a living and that working is therefore central to their lives. We get a sense of what it is like to work hard in an immense commercial laundry and what it takes to own and operate a retail store. We also experience what it is like to be out of work and how hard it can be to land a job. In short, “Ruby in Paradise” takes place in a world that Nunez has made refreshingly real, that is populated with people of different races and ethnic backgrounds.
Nunez has a depth to the character study that is coupled with Nunez’s talent for recognizing small details, making for a surprisingly compelling motion picture. Let’s not forget that it’s a coming of age story as Ruby transitions into a woman while learning about love and life. “Ruby In Paradise” is a reflective, feminist “run off to a beach town to find myself” melodrama, but of the best kind. It’s all topped off with Ashley Judd making a dazzling impression in a rare, quiet, female-centered story from the glory days of American Independent Cinema.