Passion Fish
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Sayles
Screenplay byJohn Sayles
Produced bySarah Green
Maggie Renzi
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited byJohn Sayles
Music byMason Daring
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release date
  • December 9, 1992 (1992-12-09) (United States)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million[1][2]
Box office$4 million[3]

Passion Fish is a 1992 American drama film written and directed by John Sayles. The film stars Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, Vondie Curtis-Hall, David Strathairn, Leo Burmester, and Angela Bassett. It tells the story of a soap opera star (McDonnell), who after getting paralyzed in a car accident, is forced to return to her family home and rely upon a series of nurses, forcing each of them to leave her employment until one shows up guaranteed to stay.

Sayles based the screenplay on his experiences working as an orderly in hospitals and nursing homes. Filming took place in the Acadiana region of Louisiana in May 1992. The film premiered in the United States on December 9, 1992, by Miramax Films. It received widespread critical acclaim for its performances, direction, cinematography, and story. McDonnell received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and Woodard won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female.


May-Alice Culhane, a New York actress on a daytime soap opera, lies in a hospital bed, confused and scared because she is unable to sit up. She attempts to press the call button but ends up switching on the TV, which happens to be playing a scene from the soap featuring her.

Culhane has been left paralyzed after an accident on her way to getting her legs waxed. With no other options, she returns to her family's old and empty home in Louisiana, where she drinks hard, is dissatisfied with every caregiver, and wallows in self-pity.

Her outlook begins to change with the arrival of Chantelle, a nurse with her own problems. The two gradually find a heartfelt connection with each other, and as a result, their lives subtly change.



Director John Sayles said his inspiration for the story came from the film Persona, as well as his own experiences working as a hospital orderly.[4] In recovery for a back injury, Sayles was in the queue for X-rays and observed many of the wheelchair-using patients were women accompanied by their nurses. Sayles said, “A lot of them were really bored with each other and not especially nice to each other. And these are people who spend at least eight hours a day together — sometimes 24 — and they may have nothing in common. So I started thinking about that relationship."[4]

Sayles wrote the role of May-Alice with Mary McDonnell, whom he had previously collaborated with on Matewan, in mind.[2] Filming took place over 34 days in Louisiana, beginning in May 1992.[2]


Critical reception

On Rotten Tomatoes, it has an approval rating of 100% based on reviews from 25 critics.[5]

Critics praised the film for its exploration of relationship dynamics, female friendship, and character detail.[6][7][8] Emanuel Levy noted, "Working again in the 'woman’s picture' domain, Sayles showed he could deal with material usually seen in 'TV Movie of the Week' in a mature, non-melodramatic way. Centering on female friendship, Passion Fish coincided with a cycle of studio films about female bonding, such as Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own, and Fried Green Tomatoes."[9] Levy continued, "On the surface, the heroines play familiar types, but Sayles again shows his forte in etching deft characterizations, detailing the emotional transformation of each woman and the bond they establish once they get to know one another."[9]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Passion Fish four out of four stars and wrote, "There are elements here of a vaguely similar relationship in 'Driving Miss Daisy,' but Sayles has his own film, direct and original, and in the struggle of wills between these two characters he creates two of the most interesting human portraits of the year."[10] Janet Maslin of The New York Times also lauded the film and observed Sayles "refuses to make his characters simple or stupid for the movies."[11]

Praise for the acting was unanimous. Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "It’s a critical cliche to talk about Oscar-worthy performances in the flood of year-end candidates, but Woodard and McDonnell deserve a look—from everybody. In the movie, the two show us a developing love and respect that is subterranean, almost unspoken, seeping up beneath a contentious surface. They have the easy, emotion-stretching mastery and limber spontaneity that marks the best screen acting."[12]

Critic Malcolm Johnson of the Hartford Courant also praised the cinematography and setting. He wrote, "as photographed by Roger Deakins, 'Passion Fish' mirrors May-Alice's growing fascination with photographing the reclaimed world of her lost youth, a milieu Mason Daring amplifies with Cajun music. But more than a voyage into the bayous, 'Passion Fish' is a celebration of sisterhood and rebirth, movingly enacted by two of our finest actresses."[13]

In November 2021, the film was featured as part of The Criterion Channel's series "Between Us Girls: Bonds Between Women".[14]

Box office

Passion Fish received a limited release on December 9, 1992,[3] running for one week, the minimum required to make it eligible for consideration at the next year's Academy Awards.[11] The film earned $36,332 (14,385 of that in the weekend) in the week from showings in two theaters.[3] After receiving Academy Award nominations in February 1993, the film was released to 191 theaters, where it earned over 99% of its gross of $4.8 million.[15]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actress Mary McDonnell Nominated [16]
Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen John Sayles Nominated
Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards Best Film Passion Fish Nominated
Film Fest Gent Grand Prix John Sayles Won [17]
Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Mary McDonnell Nominated [18]
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Alfre Woodard Nominated
Independent Spirit Awards Best Supporting Male David Strathairn Nominated [19]
Best Supporting Female Alfre Woodard Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Nominated [20]
NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Nominated [21]
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actress Nominated [22]
Turkish Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film Passion Fish 17th Place
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screenplay John Sayles Nominated [23]


  1. ^ Molyneaux, Gerry (2000). John Sayles: An Unauthorized Biography of the Pioneer Indy Filmmaker. Renaissance Books. p. 205. ISBN 978-1580631259.
  2. ^ a b c "Passion Fish". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved September 4, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c "Passion Fish". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved May 11, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Horn, John (February 23, 1993). "Sayles shows a passion for independence". The Associated Press. pp. 4 DA. Retrieved July 14, 2022 – via Deseret News.
  5. ^ "Passion Fish (1992)". Rotten Tomatoes.
  6. ^ "Passion Fish". Empire. January 1, 2000. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  7. ^ Cho, Seongyong (August 23, 2012). ""Passion Fish:" A struggle of wills". Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  8. ^ Vesey, Alyx (December 7, 2011). "Bechdel Test Canon: Passion Fish". Bitch Media. Archived from the original on October 18, 2015. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  9. ^ a b Levy, Emanuel (April 28, 2006). "Passion Fish (1992): John Sayles Best Film?". Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 29, 1993). "Passion Fish". Chicago Sun-Times.
  11. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (December 14, 1992). "Passion Fish". The New York Times. Retrieved May 11, 2011.
  12. ^ Wilmington, Michael (December 9, 1992). "MOVIE REVIEW : 'Passion': Soap Opera Without the Soap". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  13. ^ Johnson, Malcolm (March 12, 1993). "Bayou's Passion Frees Secrets of Two Women". Hartford Courant. Archived from the original on October 8, 2020. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  14. ^ "The Criterion Channel's November 2021 Lineup". The Criterion Collection. October 27, 2021. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  15. ^ "Passion Fish - 1992 Academy Awards". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on October 22, 2012. Retrieved May 11, 2011.
  16. ^ "The 65th Academy Awards | 1993". | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  17. ^ "Official Competition". Film Festival Gent. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  18. ^ "Winners & Nominees 1993". Golden Globes. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  19. ^ "1993 Nominees" (PDF). Film Independent Spirit Awards. p. 48. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  20. ^ "The Home Stretch -- Academy Award Hopefuls Are Finally Coming To Local Screens As Nomination Time Nears". The Seattle Times. January 3, 1993. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  21. ^ "The movie of Tina Turner's story, 'What's Love Got..." UPI. November 16, 1993. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  22. ^ "N.Y. Film Critics Honor 'Player,' Altman". Los Angeles Times. December 18, 1992. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  23. ^ "'The Player' and 'Crying Game' Top WGA Picks : Awards: Writers Guild trophies often indicate who'll win Oscars". Los Angeles Times. March 23, 1993. Retrieved July 1, 2022.