Birthday Girls: Talia Shire
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1976 Best Actress Oscar to Faye Dunaway for Network)
Why I Went Back: Happy birthday, Talia! Also, once upon a time, I had thought that the 1976 Best Actress roster was one of many in that otherwise august decade of American cinema that smacked of desperation. Oscar included two foreign-language performanceswhich of course shouldn't connote the scraping of any barrel-bottoms (and usually signals the opposite), except we know Oscar is xenophobic except when he's forced not to be. Sissy Spacek is of course legendary in Carrie, yet another title that AMPAS would never have gone near if they felt they had better options within their comfort zone. There's a general aroma of Oscar stretching to fill the race, and that's before you take into account the last-minute promotion of Talia Shire from the supporting to the leading derbies: often a sign of savvy strategizing rather than merit, though she had won prizes from the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review. Moreover, there was always the lingering perception of Shire's career as a sort of nepotistic fluke, plus the well-known phenomenon of coattail nominees springing to life from Best Picture front-runners, plus the fact that Rocky is still a mainstay of popular culture without almost anyone ever saying, "Remember how great Talia Shire was in that?" Given all of that, is there any reason to view this nod as anything but an afterthought?
The Performance: Yes, there is. Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone face opposite challenges in meeting each other at the tough but tender center of Rocky. He, of course, is an untried personality trying to put over anything that will communicate as a "performance," though he's clever enough to use his slurring, his awkwardness, and his offhanded lugnut appeal to the advantage of the part. Shire, by contrast, seems like a very studied performer, having planned meticulously for Adrian's cadences and carriage, worked out how her voice and body will articulate the character, and how they might evolve over the course of the story, and crystallize at certain crucial junctures. The film sells their story as a romance of two "losers," but it's also a tentative bloom between the hulking yet puppyish amateur and the overlooked but diligent and exacting student. What both actors have in common, given his modest professional positioning and her family connections, is that they have a lot to prove.
Shire more than passes the test. (Stallone does, too, in my book.) One of my favorite things about the performance is that I've seen Rocky three times and I'm always caught unawares that Adrian has arrived. There's nothing actressy or attention-seeking about the way she crunches her numbers behind the pet-store counter, hunched in her near-sightedness. She's admirably in sync with the movie's urge to have us "discover" Adrian gradually, somewhat as Rocky does, though he's already a bit hooked on her before the story starts. As they go on their first dates, including the immortal one at the already-closed ice rink, with her skating and him jogging alongside, Shire holds resolutely to the character's recessiveness. She doesn't treat it as a conceit or a cosmetic attitude to be doffed at the first sign of masculine interest. She doesn't beg the audience's love at any audible frequency, and she recognizes that her steady, gentle discomfort are more engaging than a bunch of fussier "wallflower" affectations would be. Sure, you see the steps of how Shire's assembling the performance, and yes, there are surface aspects of Adrian's gait, look, and voice that "type" the character pretty instantly. But there's a disarming serenity in the middle of the performance, in useful tension with her hard, dark eyes and the sharp lines of her silhouette. Her tranquility is born of having accepted her own loneliness long ago, so she eschews parading her misfit-hood with fresh, inexplicable energy, as many actors do. For most of her second scene, Rocky is haranguing Adrian with jokes and small-talk while she tallies up the register at the pet store, and whether because of the stony set of Shire's face at rest or her severe, horn-rimmed spectacles or the generic expectations of the scene, I read Adrian's mood as one of annoyance. But when Rocky says farewell and Adrian finally speaks, her "goodbye, Rocky" is tiny and lilting, not so much as to sound flirtatious or mousy, but still a surprise, forcing us to venture new guesses as to what would please Adrian, what would irritate her, what she's learned to accept or presume from her life and what she hasn't, or won't.
The final half-hour or so of Rocky struggles to know what to do with her, not unlike what happened more recently with Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, another savvy character performance that has a tough time surviving the script's heavy turn toward the Big Bout. As though to compensate for her inevitable sidelining, Rocky gives Shire a flashy scene of her own as the championship match looms, and it's the only one that really disappoints me. Burt Young, doing good work as Adrian's brother Paulie, a close but sometimes loutish friend of Rocky's, comes home drunk and berates them both with the full force of his envy and furious self-pity. Shire's Adrian eventually reciprocates with her own gale of anger by way of self-defense, but as she screams, "I'm not a loser!!" she seems too much like an actress experiencing a Method release, or stridently assuring the audience of Adrian's suppressed depths of feelingwhen, in fact, her smart playing of the character's internalizing habits all along has made fully clear just how observant and sensitive Adrian is. It's too obviously a centerpiece scene, and it's telling that the lighting becomes unusually harsh and the visual and sound editing both get a little ragged: the movie loses its wits a bit, whipping up a huge, forthright emotional blast when what works best about Rocky is its oddly sidelong approach to its character studies and its underdog fable. Shire feels more like a vicariously angry advocate for Adrian here than a disciplined interpreter (which is not to deny that Adrian has reason to be enraged). It's very likely the scene that secured the nomination, but it's the only one in the movie that feels histrionic.
Happily, almost everywhere else, Shire is sympathetic without being wheedling and charismatic without being generically strong or generically sweet, the usual routes in so many "girlfriend" parts. I have read that the stars' favorite scene happens in Rocky's kitchen, as he cajoles her into her first kiss. Adrian's layers of avoidance and attraction certainly ring true here, physically and psychologically. My favorite, though, is the "Yo, Adrian!" scene: one of those instances where the afterlife of the catchphrase has almost nothing to do with the moment in context. Rocky is on local Philadelphia TV, humbly stating his goals for a headline-grabbing boxing match where he's not only certain to lose, he's basically been recruited as a good-PR dupe. Stallone wrote and played the scene very smartly, so that the character is green and obtuse but still savvy to the condescending role in which he has been cast. Watching Rocky watch himself here is impressive, but watching Adrian watching Rocky is wistful, joyful, and heartbreaking. She's sitting slightly behind him on their couch, hiding from his face that she still doesn't understand this boxing business at all, though she's embarrassed at not "getting it," and she's having a tough time gauging what kind of danger Rocky's inof injury? of embarrassment? both? Shire shows us Adrian's intuitive worry and intelligence about what's going on, all beneath a heavy veil of anxiety and incomprehension. She's desperate for a cue, any cue, and when her stoic boyfriend chuckles at something, Adrian immediately chuckles, too. Does she know what's funny? She might. At the end of the interview, Rocky, as though in recognition that the whole story is a ramshackle bit of stoogy human-interest, seizes the moment in his ungainly way and asks to say hello to his girlfriend, in case he's never on television again. You know just what he says, and how, but Adrian is bowled over. She becomes several of the seven dwarfs at oncehappy, bashful, a little dopeybut without losing sight of the modest scale of the gesture, she fleetingly feels, for the first time in her life, like Snow White. Shire gets it all in a deftly, lightly played scene, achieving a documentary sense of texture, plausibility, and emotional connection to the character and her world. She's a tough actress to cast, as her subsequent career has proved, but in this gem of a moment, it's clear that she's exactly the right woman at the right time, doing exactly the right thing.