Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Supporting Actress Sundays: 1971

Nothing like a Tuesday post to tell you what happened on Sunday, but is anyone else having that sensation of end-of-summer time delay? If you read this blog, you probably also read StinkyLulu's religiously enough that you already know that the 1971 Supporting Actress Smackdown played out this weekend, distinguished from past Smackdowns by the large flock of participants (nine!) and by the huge divergences of opinion about almost every performance. It's a pretty fascinating roster, partly because, in an increasingly rare Oscar move, all of the turns are legitimately supporting ones; partly because the films are such a gaggle of oddities, blending very strong elements with very weak ones (except for Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me?, which is almost entirely terrible); and partly because the turns themselves often blend strong and weak elements in unusual and difficult combinations. Just like last month, when my preferred candidate (and, in that case, Oscar's) got a pretty bad drubbing from the rest of the group, I once again backed the losing horse in the Smackdown derby: Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge, a film so lacerating in its anatomy of misogyny (and occasionally over-proud of its immersion in such misogyny) that it badly needs and greatly benefits from Ann-Margret's soft, discomfiting sincerity as one of the women that Jack Nicholson all but annihilates over the course of the film.

My pals Stinky and Queering the Apparatus both raised articulate objections to Ann-Margret's work, but because the visual and tonal atmosphere of Carnal Knowledge verges so heavily on the sterile and abstract, I admired the inertia of Ann-Margret's performance, its unironic woundedness, her simultaneously dim and pointed pauses, and the sad way in which her voice and face and body hover away from the script instead of getting drawn into its angular shapes and severe rhythms. In a strange paradox, I think she's the least talented and resourceful of the nominated actresses (also to include Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, double Tony-winner Margaret Leighton, and the indomitable Barbara Harris), but, save for Harris, she does the ablest job of fighting for her character and shifting the ground of the movie, quite against the efforts of her director. Most of the directors of these films were greater hindrances than helps to their actors, but whereas Peter Bogdanovich turns the credible, interesting women in The Last Picture Show's script into glassy, symptomatic figures of Womanhood, and Burstyn and Leachman find no way out of his oppressive and reductive aesthetic, Ann-Margret inherits a glassy and symptomatic script and creates a real woman inside it—palpably real in her anomie and neglect, and her barely adolescent despair inside a ripely adult body—and she complicates rather than adhering to or betraying the style or flow of the piece. (And to Stinky's objections that Ann-Margret forgets that Bobbie is supposed to be fun, I'd counter that it's Nicholson and Garfunkel who keep insisting that she's "fun," but surely their myopic and cruel perspectives are not to be trusted, at least not necessarily.)

I'd seen Carnal Knowledge once before and found its atmosphere so noxious and its aesthetic so highfalutin in relation to its subject that I forgot how impressed I was with Ann-Margret, and I probably underestimated the film a little bit, too. I still wouldn't recommend it, exactly, although Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, and a late-arriving Rita Moreno are all quite good, and I wouldn't recommend any of the other films, either, except insofar as Oscar found five performances that are truly worth arguing over in this field, and all of them relate to their films (often redeeming whole chapters of their films) in curious and memorable ways, even when they don't always work out. Go read the post and the long necklace of Comments that have since been added, and keep chiming in... and come back for 1990 next month, when I suspect I will once again fall into a critical minority on at least two counts. But we'll cross that crazy grifter and that happy medium when we get to them.

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Blogger J.J. said...

I was with Ann-Margaret until the scene when she has to Act: the crying-breakdown-shouting match with Nicholson. I think she was ill-prepared to carry that kind of dramatic weight, and her deficiency is exposed there. Instead of feeling Bobbie, I felt Nichols off camera waving his arms and mouthing "More! Rawness! You're wounded!"

Also, I think you'd have to blame McMurtry (not Bogdanovich) if you're dissatisfied with the "symptomatic figures of Womanhood" in The Last Picture Show. Burstyn and Leachman tear their characters directly from McMurtry's text. Case in point: Read the last three pages of the novel, then watch the last scene of the movie. It's an identical experience. Leachman's Ruth Popper is McMurtry's Ruth Popper.

1:37 PM, August 28, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

The shouting match isn't everything it could be, I admit, but I also like that Ann-Margret doesn't take Nicholson's bait by just shouting back: to use a crassly masculine metaphor, in the spirit of the movie, she can't even get it up to fight with him. For me, Bobbie remained this kind of larval, incapable creature, and I admired that about the performance.

As for Last Picture Show, I see what you're saying about McMurtry, and I do have lingering misgivings about his plots and manners of presentation; comparing the script of Brokeback to the story is a case in point. And yet, it's Bogdanovich who imposes this grandiosely melancholic atmosphere on every frame of the movie, all those sustained and quiet close-ups, the rushing wind, the odd elegance of the falling-down buildings, the odd elegance of the falling-down people. I haven't read The Last Picture Show, and I totally believe you that the dialogue and the sequence of actions and even the tone are the same, but as a movie, LPS keeps throwing emphasis on the shots instead of what's happening in them, and on the frozen countenances of the performers instead of a more complicated and moment-to-moment psychology that the script fully allows for. The whole thing is Mournful Mournful Mournful in what seems like a really overstated and actor-trapping way.

3:48 PM, August 28, 2007  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

I love your gestalt that the filmmakers trap most, possibly all, of these actresses more than even the roles.

That said, I must hold my position on the Bobbie/fun point. I suspect what I mistrust about the performance is rooted precisely in what you appreciate about it: that she runs it off its scripted rails and into territories that work for AM.

The only interesting thing about the movie, in my estimation, is how the women resemble but do not precisely match the simplistic descriptions given them by the men, which thereby creates a mildly dynamic tension (which is rehearsed ad nauseum in the Bergin section). The film reminds me of Sondheim's Company in that way -- it's about what a man thinks he knows about intimacy. To my mind, AM's discordance, her opposition to the few scripted clues, evacuates the role (and the relationship) of that tension. There's no reasoning why -- AM's physicality aside -- Nicholson would put up with Bobbie for so long. And I do not find her performance a tempting enough refuge from the loathsomeness of the film.

More selfishly, AM's Bobbie fails my most instinctual Supporting Actress text: Her performance does not fascinate me enough to want to follow her character off the "edges" of the screen into some other, better movie that's all about her.

10:20 PM, August 28, 2007  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

I know Stinklu already is aware of this, but for full disclosure I should state coming into the discussion I'm a huge Ann-Margret devotee, and therefore I'm highly susceptible to bias in her favor, even though I don't think Knowledge is her best work (she's very good, though).

Still, I believe she's damned either way here. Add more color and/or 'fun' (which Ann-Margret proved she had an abundance of in other roles- see Bye, Bye Birdie, Viva las Vegas, or The Cheap Detective) to the part and critics in 1971 (and maybe even today) yell, "Ah ha! I told you she didn't have the depth needed to pull off a meaty role in a Nichols film- she's still just a sex kitten."

Instead, she plays the role in earnest, effective fashion (never thought she lacked dramatic chops in this one), and she's down for the count for being too dull. Bobbie appears to be looking for a mate from scene one, not just fun and laughs with Jonathan (I’m thinking specifically of her kidding but melancholy tone of voice when she observes, "You don't want to get married"). As I recall, most of the illusions to Bobbie being fun have to do with her sex appeal, something to the effect of:

Sandy: "Are they as big as they look on television?"

Jonathan: "D cup."

Sandy: "You lucky son of a bitch."

However, Ann-Margret and Nicholson do bring some appropriate lighter moments to their first two or three scenes, when the focus is on their sexual relations. The trouble is, Feiffer and Nichols don't spend much time covering the carefree early days of Bobbie and Jonathan's relationship; instead, they immediately head straight into 'George and Martha' territory with the drawn-out and dour bedroom sparring (and I don't know how Bobbie puts up with Jonathan and his "I'd almost marry you if you'd leave me." Although Bobbie states he's a gift, I'm never convinced Bobbie couldn't do much better for herself).

Should Ann-Margret be faulted for adhering to "ultra-serious actress” mode after the first few scenes, when the character of Bobbie plays out, as written, in a highly dramatic manner? I don’t think she should, just as I don’t believe Oscar/Smackdown winner Leachman shouldn’t received a wealth of hosannas for realistically maintaining an abject countenance once Ruth Popper is discarded by Sonny.

Never thought Ann-Margret "missed" understanding Bobbie (dialogue-wise or otherwise) but rather, faced with an (in the main) extremely pathetic character to portray, the actress managed to infuse the part when some originality and considerable conviction, allowing the audience to empathize with Bobbie’s plight, even when a viewer wants to throw a “Snap out of it!” or ten her way, once Bobbie appears determined to spend the rest of her life in bed, with or without Jonathan.

2:00 AM, August 30, 2007  

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