‘Stanley and Iris’: Rereading a Life, Rewriting a Living 

The pain of illiteracy is given a compassionate touch in a film that gives hope to those who cannot read.
‘Stanley and Iris’: Rereading a Life, Rewriting a Living 
Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro) and Iris King (Jane Fonda), in "Stanley and Iris." (MovieStillsDB)

PG-13 | 1 h 44 min | Drama | 1990

Is illiteracy a disability, like deafness, blindness, or mental disability? Or is it merely one skill gap in a broad skillset that separates the enabled from those less so? Director Martin Ritt’s final film ponders this. It suggests that even if illiteracy is just a skill gap, ostracism of those who don’t fit in can make it feel as real, as painful, and as alienating, as a physical or intellectual disability.

Iris King (Jane Fonda), an attractive, middle-aged widow, who lost her husband to illness, works in a bakery factory to provide for herself, her adult daughter Kelly (Martha Plimpton), and teenaged son Richard (Harley Cross). She befriends charismatic, creative, middle-aged bachelor Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), a cook in the factory canteen; he’d once rushed to help when her purse had been snatched.

As friendship blossoms into romance, Iris notices Stanley hiding the fact that he’s illiterate. When his boss waves messed paperwork at him, she defends him. Her sympathetic act backfires. He loses his job. Who’d hold on to a cook who can’t distinguish a delicious ingredient from a dangerous one? Turns out, he can’t hold other jobs, either. Who’d retain someone who can’t open a bank account, read where a bus is heading, earn a driver’s license, or spell street signs, let alone write or cash a check?

Angry and ashamed, Stanley first withdraws into himself, even while caring for his aging father. Unfazed, Iris reads Stanley like an open book. She sees an honest, hardworking, caring man. That draws him out. Painstakingly, she coaches him into reading, writing, pronouncing, spelling, and, she hopes, into a self-confidence that’ll help him reread his idea of himself, and rewrite a fate he appears resigned to.

Stanley’s father had been a traveling salesman, with his family living out of motels. In a “different school every month,” the boy grew up without settling down enough to learn; he thought of himself as a “big dummy ever since.” Now, even with Iris’s patience and persistence, his repeated failure at literacy and suffocating fear of continued ostracism hold him back personally and professionally.

Riveting Romance

Screenwriters Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch redefine regressive readings of femininity and masculinity, wisely casting both as complementary, not conflicting. They suggest that men and women are at their best, not by proving one is better, sexier, smarter, stronger, or richer than the other. They’re best fulfilled by gifting to each other themselves: their successes and struggles, their time, their effort, and their ability to listen and empathize.
Iris King (Jane Fonda), in "Stanley and Iris." (MovieStillsDB)
Iris King (Jane Fonda), in "Stanley and Iris." (MovieStillsDB)

Ritt’s characterization matters more than his story or plot. You’re so drawn toward his principal characters, you want to see more of them, and them to see more of each other. Ordinarily, excessive screen time devoted to movie leads doing mundane things would be tedious, such as waiting at a bus stop, cycling, strolling in a park, waiting for a wash to be done at a laundromat, carting groceries, ironing clothes, working a factory shift, cooking, or doing the dishes. Ritt makes it all so compelling by persuading you to care for his characters, and convincing you about why they care, or ought to care, for each other.

Ritt shows how Stanley and Iris are a match. Not because of their looks, but because of their shared values.

Iris King (Jane Fonda) and Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), in "Stanley and Iris." (MovieStillsDB)
Iris King (Jane Fonda) and Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), in "Stanley and Iris." (MovieStillsDB)

Iris believes that there’s no sexual freedom without sexual responsibility. Conscious that young Kelly becomes pregnant trying to articulate her right as an adult without realizing her duty, Iris drives this home to Kelly forcefully. What does it mean to have a baby? “You got to … want it, take care of it, feed it, raise it, get it through diaper rash and measles … it’s a human being. It needs clothes, it needs shots, it needs to go to school … I’ve got to work and take care of my family. You gotta take care of yours.” A baby’s no teddy bear to be toyed with when convenient and discarded when inconvenient.

When her brother-in-law confirms that he’d married her sister because she was cute, Iris snaps, “None of us stay cute!” Looks may be a pleasing starting point for a relationship, but they can’t be the only one.

Likewise, Stanley reassures Iris that his courtship is no fling, he has eyes only for her, “I need a working woman. That’s you. You need a broad shoulder. That’s me. I like you … about as much as I love you … There are pretty women here, but I don’t see them for dirt.”

You can watch “Stanley and Iris” on Amazon Prime Video, Tubi TV, Pluto TV, and Apple TV.
Stanley and IrisDirector: Martin Ritt Starring: Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda MPAA Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes Release Date: Feb. 9, 1990 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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