Sunday, September 30, 2007

Supporting Actress Sundays: 1990

It's That Time of the Month again, when all of the acolytes of actressing collect at StinkyLulu's house to stump for and swipe at the best and the worst of a given year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar roster. Up to bat this month are the contenders from 1990. Together, they constitute a redoubtable and dissimilar field of actresses but, perhaps, a middle-of-the-road group of performances. You can, and should, read all about that over at the Smackdown. Dip into the warm, perfumed waters of the Comments section, and you'll also see that my own dream list of nominees for that year is probably:

GLENN CLOSE in Reversal of Fortune, who somehow missed a mention despite the film's multiple noms in leading categories, and despite being an 0-for-5 bridesmaid that everyone seems to like;
WHOOPI GOLDBERG in Ghost, who actually won the thing and, as far as I'm concerned, doesn't owe anybody an apology for that;
DIANE LADD in Wild at Heart, a performance championed by several Smackdowners despite the fact that most of us, myself included, have little love for the film;
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH in Miami Blues, who Tim and I agree does an affecting, funny, and atypically unhistrionic job of underplaying her dim Florida call-girl (and has the cinema's all-time best scene concerning vinegar pie); and
SHIRLEY MACLAINE in Postcards from the Edge, a film which you should already know is a favorite, in which MacLaine is an almost Whoopi-level hoot and a holler, and also a game belter and a surprisingly tough cookie, doing a terrific acting duet with Meryl Streep

Mary Alice in To Sleep with Anger might belong here, but she's construable as a lead, and I haven't seen the film in a long while. Helen Mirren also deserves a consolation prize, or maybe an actual nod, for making such brilliant, suggestive use of her screen time in The Comfort of Strangers, acing that Pinter dialogue and adopting a demure voice and delicate demeanor that still puts everyone on edge.

Of the three actress vehicles from 1990 that I screened in the last 24 hours, as a build-up exercise to this morning's Smackdown, the jewel is Paul Brickman's Men Don't Leave, in which fans of You Can Count on Me or Truly, Madly, Deeply will recognize another tart, carefully measured, wonderfully acted tale of bereavement, quiet comedy, and persuasively wrought ties to family, neighbors, lovers, and friends. Joan Cusack gives one of her best Kooky Joan performances as the downstairs eccentric who's putting the moves on Jessica Lange's 17-year-old son, very well played by Chris O'Donnell; Arliss Howard and Kathy Bates are also incredibly deft and funny in their roles as Lange's pseudo boyfriend and insensitive boss. Lange comes closer to Tootsie-style melancholy comedy than she has before or since, and it's nice to see her at comparative ease for once. The writing, especially in the first two-thirds of the film, is clever and economical, and the editing achieves poignancy not by dawdling but through carefully timed pruning and expertly showcased moments. B

Bates pops up in a single scene of Luis Mandoki's White Palace, which also features a generation-gap relationship where the woman is again the senior partner. Susan Sarandon has several effective scenes as a working-class waitress at a "White Palace" restaurant that primarily slings bite-sized hamburgers (uh....), and James Spader gives his eerie, clammy eroticism another go as the upwardly mobile yuppie whom Sarandon takes home for a hot roll in the sack. Spader has a Sadness in His Past that he won't snap out of; Sarandon also has a Sadness in Her Past that she pretends to have snapped out of, which is a good thing, because the screenplay barely makes it playable. All in all, White Palace is one of those movies that rails against embarrassment and deceit while constantly lying and emanating embarrassment about the grief, the religious disparity, and the class divide between its characters, though Sarandon does sell a great fuck-you speech as she storms out of a well-appointed Thanksgiving dinner. C

The movie could have been worse but also could have been much better, which also describes Philip Kaufman's gorgeously photographed Henry & June. Sadly, the director's follow-up to The Unbearable Lightness of Being is nowhere near as confident or as mysterious. The effortful recreation of 1930s Paris looks fussy and tacky despite Philippe Rousselot's diligent attempts to sublimate it, the script is full of faux-serious and ersatz-literary howlers, and the cast simply isn't up to the complexities or the charismas of their characters. Fred Ward and Maria de Medeiros give things an honest go, but either they don't have a knack for stylized performance, or else their maladroit versions of realist acting come across as failed stylization. Kevin Spacey and Richard E. Grant are cloying in second-tier parts, and Uma Thurman is, as so often, a disaster. The period seemingly means nothing to her except a reason to assume awkwardly "sultry" poses and stares in a series of exotic outfits, and she hasn't got the head for the writerly themes nor the physical grace required for the slinky character and mise-en-scène. Some welcome touches of wit are scattered through the film, and you can see the smarter, tighter movie lurking beneath the existing version, but it's still a bit of an ordeal. C

As for the nominated Supporting Actress movies, I'd give The Grifters a B– for nastily diverting but annoyingly hollow showmanship; Goodfellas an A– for prodigious, engaging technique and daringly comic overtones, whatever its lapses into autopilot machismo and style for style's sake; Ghost a B+ (and y'all can complain if you want to) for playing its sentimental plotline affectingly straight and also for laughs, and working the machinery of Pop Cinema quite deftly; Wild at Heart a C+ for finding 20 minutes' worth of truly startling images within 124 minutes' worth of drafty self-indulgence; and Dances with Wolves a B for telling an embarrassingly Uncle Tom's Cabin-level tale of white male sentiment, and orbiting around a terrible Costner performance, but nonetheless achieving real majesty in its score, its cinematography, and its editing.

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5 Comments:

Blogger John T said...

Nick, I'm curious as to why all the Close love in that film. I thought it was a rather drab performance, to be perfectly honest. Granted, Close's character is catatonic for the bulk of the film, but still, I never really latched into her Sonny V. Perhaps this was because I was distracted by Irons, who was stealing away at the screen, or perhaps because I really disliked the movie as a whole, but I see nothing special there.

Also, and I agree about Wolves score-there were times when I wanted to figure out a way to mute out Costner's lines and just listen to John Barry, but I couldn't figure out how.

3:44 PM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

I tend not to get all hopped up on cinematography but Dances with Wolves had one sequence that I had to grant: when the Pawnee are sneaking into to attack the camp, while Kicking Bird and all the other warriors are away. Purty amazing.

4:43 PM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

John T i'm with you on Close there. Or at least I was in 1990... but I haven't seen it since so maybe i missed something at the time

5:11 AM, October 01, 2007  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@John (& Nathaniel): Admittedly, I haven't seen the Close performance since around the time Reversal of Fortune came out, but I thought she read those comatose voice-overs very slyly, and I loved her neurotic rages, and the way she fended off any easy sympathy for Sunny despite her ghoulish predicament (and husband). But if Reversal suffers on a revisit, I'll be happy to bump up Mary Alice or Helen Mirren or Joan Cusack in her stead. And that score-only track on a Dances with Wolves DVD would be a great idea!

11:47 AM, October 01, 2007  
Anonymous steve said...

I'm surprised no one mentioned Wiest in Edward Scissorhands. Or maybe it was just me that loved her? I think she slips into my fifth slot, after:

1. Goldberg - Ghost
2. Ladd - Wild at Heart
3. Huston - The Witches
4. Mirren - The Comford of Strangers

10:42 PM, October 16, 2007  

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