Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Robert Langdon Moment

I have found the Holy Grail, and it indeed embodies as well as reflects the glory of the Sacred Feminine... and yet, it doesn't have anything to do with the Priory of Anybody. (Though I must add, having finished The Da Vinci Code earlier in the week, for all its cleverly persuasive culture-jamming of organized religion into a tactical, guilty series of mostly pilfered symbols, I did not enjoy spending the last 149 pages of the book screaming, "It's apple, you lutzes!" I also recognize when I am in the presence of an anagram, because people don't say or write things like "O, Draconian Devil!" Not ever. Perhaps I should go see about becoming a premier cryptologist in France or a world-renowned "Professor of Symbology.")

But anyway. As I was saying: the Holy Grail, the Sacred Feminine. What these terms mean to me is this: I have found the perfect Oscar acting category, The One where every. single. nominee. not only deserved to go home with the prize, but where any of them would have constituted a high-point winner in the history of the category. I speak, of course, of Best Actress 1974. We already knew that Ellen Burstyn made for a delicious, un-begrudgeable winner in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and that the undersung Diahann Carroll is a fine, flinty, frisky, fiery force of nature in Claudine (a personal favorite), and that Faye Dunaway offered the last word on haughty, glacial, cornered perversity in Chinatown, and that the incomparable Gena Rowlands practically invented a new form of acting and a new blazon of trip-wired domestic panic in A Woman Under the Influence. Four stellar performances, in four sensational films to boot. Too good to be true, right? Even in comparably stunning acting races—Best Actress 1996 and Best Actor 1999 are two recent, spectacular examples—AMPAS inevitably rounds out the field with a Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room or a Denzel Washington in The Hurricane that, however good and admirable, doesn't seem quite on the miraculous level of their peers. And four miraculous performances is a lot to ask from any Oscar category. Heck, one miraculous performance is a lot to ask from an Oscar category, especially if you've been following Best Supporting Actor the last decade or so.

So: loud, giant hosannas to Valerie Perrine, whose performance in Bob Fosse's carelessly structured and dramatically limited Lenny is yet another home-run in a truly unbelievable field. Perrine outdoes such recent, accomplished avatars as Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, Sharon Stone in Casino, and Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt—superb performances all of them—in playing a shapely woman for show, a randy, excitable, frequently naked woman who is voluptuous both in figure and emotion, and she convinces us in record time that she is not just loyal but attracted to pint-sized Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce (who, for his part, does a more than credible job in their courtship scenes of looking like the luckiest schlub in the world). Perrine's Honey Bruce strips for a living, she eventually goes to prison for drug possession, and she even gets saddled with Scene 3A.1.9 from movies like this: the tearful phone call from jail. Also 3A.2.16, the melancholy conversation through the thick glass of the inmate visitation booth. She nails both of them, and she's absolutely stunning in a lively, poignant, and very funny sequence when Lenny introduces his blushing, buxom, shiksa wife to his flamboyant, protective mother. As great as Shue, Stone, and Love are, you occasionally catch them playing ideas about their characters rather than the women themselves: a minor slip, and occasionally a fruitful one, and yet Perrine never once invites the charge. It's a much less showy performance than most actors would give in the same part, and yet it bespeaks unflagging energy, and enough interesting rhythm in her line readings, her gestures and postures, and the subtle cloud-drifts in her facial expressions that even Alan Heim's merciless editing doesn't diminish its power. The later, lucid, more settled Honey she creates in the interview scenes, plashed through the film as a temporally unspecific framing device—a structure directly purloined for Shue's benefit in Leaving Las Vegas—is both a very different woman and palpably the same woman, so much so that watching Perrine is like enjoying two rounded, polished, gleaming performances for the price of one.

Perrine won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for this performance, and she was anointed Best Supporting Actress by both the National Board of Review (who gave their lead prize to Rowlands) and the New York Film Critics Circle (who fêted Liv Ullmann up top for Scenes from a Marriage). In truth, I think Perrine's probably is a supporting performance, even though she's afforded a hefty amount of screen time; Honey is indispensable to the movie, but much of the story transpires far away from her, especially in its middle and end sections, which emphasize Lenny's arrests and obscenity trials. The NBR and NYFCC may well have given Perrine the Supporting prize for the very reason that Best Actress was so crowded; if 1974 were today, her agent, noting the slim field that earned Ingrid Bergman a wholly unnecessary trophy for a virtual cameo in Murder on the Orient Express, would surely have pushed for the same treatment, and Perrine might well have won. Then again, since strippers and hookers are even more ubiquitous in the Supporting races than in the Lead category, Perrine handily distinguished herself by landing in such plum company. Too, she was still living down that little tidbit about being the first actress to bare her nipples on PBS, only a year earlier. So it must have felt pretty durned good, sitting there with Gena and Ellen and Diahann and Faye.

And when wouldn't it? That's a magic lineup...the kind that keeps us hopeless, ridiculous Oscar obsessives forever watching over the Academy's shoulder, and peering into its wispy, shimmering horizons, hoping that we'll soon be treated to another brilliant, five-pointed star like this one.

Image © 1974 MGM/UA Pictures.

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

OK. i so HAVE to see this now. I am totally unschooled in this year of best actress. seriously. i have seen only 2 of them.

rich treasures obviously await.

10:56 PM, May 30, 2006  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Gorgeous homage. To be totally honest, most of my thoughts of Valerie Perrine are of the Can't Stop The Music & Superman variety. But each of those other performances have, at various times in my life, rocked my world. So, a treat to know that VP's right in there with them...

12:02 AM, May 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe I've only seen Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, and that was an incredible performance so I can't imagine how much I'll enjoy the other four.

How are you such a great writer? You seriously amaze me.

12:53 AM, May 31, 2006  
Blogger Javier Aldabalde said...

Wow. Obviously a stunning year for Best Actress. But wouldn't you make room for Liv Ullmann in "Scenes From a Marriage" somehow? That's another miracle right there.

12:50 PM, May 31, 2006  
Blogger J.J. said...

Candidate for another five-pointed star: 1950 Actress (Baxter/Davis/Holliday/Parker/Swanson). In "modern" times, I'd cite 1999 Supporting Actress (Colette/Jolie/Keener/Morton/Sevigny) and 2002 Actor (Brody/Cage/Caine/Day-Lewis/Nicholson) as examples of the Academy getting it 100 percent right. But we'll see whether or not those performances endure.

9:51 AM, June 01, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Javier: Sheepishly, I admit that I haven't yet seen Scenes from a Marriage, though Ullmann is always incredible, and several of that year's nominees, including Burstyn and Rowlands, signed a petition to make her eligible for the category. (The Academy disqualified Scenes because it had aired first on Swedish TV, albeit in a much longer cut.) Either way, 1974 Best Actress isn't necessarily miraculous because these are THE indisputably greatest perf's of that year, but because all five are so exemplary in and of themselves. Happens very seldom. (If Ullmann's just as good, then '74 was REALLY hopping!)

@J.J.Gittes: How apropos that you would chime in re: 1974! I agree with you about 1950 Best Actress, and 1950 Supporting Actor was no slouch, either, though I haven't seen Jeff Chandler yet, and Edmund Gwenn is covering territory well-known to him in Mister 880.

Other doozies, though in both cases I'm missing a nominee: Best Actress 1962, Best Supporting Actress 1940. I'm sure there are many others, but I'm having to think quickly while on the run. (I must add: I didn't care for Nicholson in About Schmidt or Caine in The Quiet American quite enough to qualify Actor '02 in this company... on the whole, I liked Actor '03 a little better, and, as I already mentioned, Actor '99.)

2:28 PM, June 01, 2006  

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