Actress Files: Edith Evans
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1967 Best Actress Oscar to Katharine Hepburn for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner)
Why I Waited: A legendary turn in a category that's shorter on those than I wish it were. In fact, I probably should have retained her as my token representative of the 60s in my final ten performances, but after recently marveling at Kim Stanley and Leslie Caron in films by the same director, I couldn't wait. The long-deferred arrival of a DVD, with a slightly cropped but still exquisite-looking image, was even harder to resist.
The Performance: So let me get my one caveat out of the way, which is more a mark against the movie than against Evans, though it hampered my love for the performance just a bit. The Whisperers, for me, had a hard time working out how deeply it wanted to involve itself in narrative, and which aspects of its story it felt really committed to. Edith Evans is in every scene, often alone, but other characters pass in and out of the film according to very strange cadences. Some stay much longer than you're expecting, some flit in and out and come to naught, some make entrances that reshift the focus of the whole film only to depart it again, and some pop up for recurring appearances, involving themselves crucially with the life of the Evans character, but not finally rewarding either story or theme as much as I expected. In some ways, these diegetic off-rhythms are an intriguing device by which director Bryan Forbeswho has generated multiple forms of unease and dread in several films, without ever repeating the same onesunsettles our expectations and keeps our sensibilities on edge in yet a new way. But in another sense, Evans is rendered even lonelier than the scenario already requires. She's not just the engine of the movie but in many ways is the vehicle herself, as well as its destination point. Writing these Best Actress profiles has only reinforced to me that, as much as I seem to be celebrating individualist achievement, the greatest performances are those in which the ingenuity of the performer and the formal, thematic, and storytelling work of the film continue to raise each other's game. The Whisperers is a stylish and spindly puzzle, but good as it is, Evans's contribution so enormously overwhelms any dividend the film pays back to her that I felt a slight pang of disappointment by the end. Maybe I'm thinking too much about how Caron's work in The L-Shaped Room takes fullest flight by interacting in such beautifully calibrated ways with other characters, in ways that maintain a profound resonance in the scenes where Caron is left alone in her own thoughts. Or maybe I'm preoccupied with recalling how the criminal, the detective, and the spiritualist strands of Séance on a Wet Afternoon collide so decisively in the final scenes, such that Stanley's character has to reveal her governing priorities once and for all, and her choice was so surprising to me, I was knocked back in my seat.
Evans's exchanges with characters played by Avis Bunnage and Eric Portman are very involving, but they're hard-pressed, maybe even helpless, to be as interesting as she is in solitude. Is she doing too much? Is the film doing too little? The story of The Whisperers circles around more than it develops or culminates, racing through seemingly crucial plot elements such that I wondered on a few counts whether I'd blinked and missed something. Fans of the movie will assert that these misgivings lie close to the point of The Whisperers. In any case, the predominating issue is that Evans is so magisterial, poignant, discomfiting, and instantly addictive that I couldn't help craving a film that evinced a more fully realized sense of what to do with her. Speaking more generously, Forbes may well have intended an off-center experiment in stalled but cyclical dread and in evoking a claustrophobic environment via an unexpectedly heavy reliance on wide, exterior shotsodd, ambitious goals in both cases, and fairly well executed. Maybe these or other plans for the film just got overshadowed by Evans's brilliance in her role, the proportions by which Forbes had mapped the rest of the movie rendered irrecuperable by such a tour de force.
So, let's get to that tour de forceand let's imagine getting this script and tracing this character on paper, pretending that we haven't witnessed everything that Evans does with it. A woman living alone, 76 years old, long ago abandoned by her husband and seldom visited by her son. She hears voices, probably as a projective coping mechanism after years of isolation, but this isn't the supernatural ghost story I had imagined. We barely hear the "whisperers" even when she does. Her flat is a rat's nest of newspapers, bundles, and empty milk bottles. Her only external errands are visits to a Christian charity for hymns and hot soup, furtive siestas in the library where she can warm her stocking feet on the pipes (tsk tsk, say the guards), and visits to the public-assistance office, where she inquires about huge, clearly imaginary windfall sums that we know are never coming, and pretends to "make do" for the time being with the tiny dispensations that represent her state allotment.
We know how many actresses would flat say no to playing such a sad old lady. Setting those vanity cases and lazybones aside, we know how much art, though perhaps dubious art, could go into making her an "irrepressible" comic figure, or a pathetically terrorized victim, or a Jane Darwell type soldiering on beneath an invisible halo, sporting a phantom sandwich board that reads "ARE YOU NOT ASHAMED? FEED THIS WOMAN!" To curtail the bathos, the generic nobility, or the possibility for mockery might itself require someone as peerlessly stage-trained as Evans, leading to the sorts of reviews where one writes, in earnest awe, "She gets laughs without selling the character short," or "She shows this woman's misery without looking like she's got the full weight of a Message Picture on her," or "She makes us feel desperately sorry for this woman without trafficking in gooey sentimentality." I'd have been thrilled to watch some imagined version of The Whisperers and feel any of those ways.
In some ways, I do wind up feeling those things even about this version of The Whisperers, but Evans flies so far above those frameworks of praise that you practically have to start over. I had expected a virtuosic crack-up under the macabre pressure of supernatural taunts, doubtlessly gumming the line between fantasy and realitysort of Repulsion for the Hospice set. Indeed, there are elements, too, of this scenario in the film and of this sort of potential energy in Evans's work. But we have to start back even further, because Evans has done more than inhabit one of these tonal influences on The Whisperers and elevated it through consummate technique. She has not even stopped at her breathtaking feat of braiding those registers I've already hinted at, the pitiable, the droll, the frightening, and the humbling, although this she also does, with astonishing and sometimes eerie finesse. Evans doesn't look like she's thought in terms of genre the slightest bit, and the "register" of her performance pivots so continuallyoften a dozen times within a single scenethat I'm confounded to extrapolate a general description. The humor in the performance has black blood; that is, sometimes the demented and forlorn say the darnedest things, and all of a sudden, but the giggles choke a bit in your throat. The neglect in which Mrs. Ross lives has not made her persona pathetically small, nor blustery and grand in the absence of any pushback. Instead, the disaggregating strands of her personality pass over her like cloud systems: wisps of cirrus, abrupt stormbarrels of slate-gray, patches of clear and windless light, cottony plumps of cumulus. The larger canvas across which these dispositions pass is a disheveled but oddly snooty stupefaction, hanging together but rubbed bare, like the corduroy at an old professor's elbows.
Evans clearly has a complex and practiced take on old age, and is interested in the atmospheric and psychological tensions generated by slowing things down. Mrs. Ross doesn't whip from reveries to indictments to fogginess to paralysis with Three Faces of Eve suddenness. She's not interested in putting on a light show. The effect is closer to that of a cloudy crystal ball, in which one side of this woman emerges for a moment before singing back into the whited-out mist, from which some other face emerges a beat or two later, and often quite a different one. Mrs. Ross lags into weary dumbfoundedness, staring at nothing and not moving for a few moments in a row, before leaping with sudden dispatch to pound her broomstick against her ceiling, in protest of the upstairs neighbors and their noisiness. She casts a mistrustful eye at a neighbor in the welfare office, and then passes into a sort of human fadeout (but to gray, rather than black) and then she starts offering a random chapter of fruity-voweled autobiography. "You see, I married rather beneath me...," she expounds, listing heavily to one side, as though her posture has aphasia; she is vehement in her pronunciations, as though she's a deaf old beast trying to hear herself but also as though she's taking patrician care in making her own life story, which is fascinating if she doesn't mind saying so, perfectly pellucid to other people. Few of these vocal, bodily, or attitudinal habits feel like anything I've seen before, and the enigmas or the brazenness or the stillness or the unexpectedness of each of them only lends more mystique to the othersbut always with the effect of playing Mrs. Ross, not playing "mystique."
Evans can do anything: hug herself with the dumb, indolent satiation of the fetus in the womb; sag into silence; retreat from insults and dangers in a spirited panic; faint dead away; put on ladylike airs, stone-seriously though they're laughably misplaced; take gumsmacking slurps of honey from a jar, like some Faulknerian idiot, or a high-culture spin on Edith Massey; achieve a Giulietta Masina expression of clock-faced hyperalertness, then drape a mothy veil of dementia over top of that, then peer toward the edge of the frame at something that probably isn't there but has you immediately dying to know. When she's menaced by a cadre of thugs, who have either taken some money or are trying to find out who did, she doesn't play the defiant old battle-axe or the terrorized septuagenarian, but a five-year-old whose fear takes the shape of annoyed incomprehension: "He hasn't come home," she protests, in a high, tiny, but weirdly substantial voice that neither the criminals nor the audience have any idea how to respond to. But that petulantly plaintive five-year-old is trapped in a body that's the very shipwreck of the aging poor. She sometimes has an insane, mischievous sprightliness, like Miss Marple as played by a barely made-up Charles Laughton as played by an inmate from Marat/Sade, under constant threat of the hose. She confounds any organizing border among madness, indigence, and solitude. In the case of this woman, they mean the same thing, but without reducing the sense of their being reinforcing rather than identical or successively causal problems. Tim reflects, brilliantly, that Evans's is essentially a Beckett performance, and sometimes a trio of monosyllables (we're not friends..., you left me...) are all she needs to transform a sleek mid-60s kitchen-sink chiller, as though those are a dime a dozen, into the bare, planked stage of absurdist existentialism. She's Winnie from Happy Days buried in a more realistic mound of her own life's refuse, but then she gets out and ambles into who knows what, and then she finds herself quite literally back in the gutter. And then she's locked up. And then she's let back out. Is she the same woman she was before, or has she been cured, soothed, further deteriorated? Evans hints but she won't come out and tell.
Doesn't it sound like an awful lot is going on in this performance? Are you wondering as you read this how insufferably fussed it must be, how hard the movie must be pushing her around, or how flamboyantly Dame Evans must be pushing the character around? It's a huge task to evoke the extremities, the ambitions, the eccentricities, and the weird fusions of this performance, much less the bafflingly simultaneous payoffs of bemusement and profound sadness. The only character I can think of to set aside Edith Evans's Mrs. Ross is Ellen Burstyn's Sara Goldfarb, but where Burstyn has to exemplify the loud rhetorical yawps of a hyped-up writer, a heavily-amped director, and a pugilistically unambiguous moral, Evans confounds any final "message" in the performance even more than the script does. She finds all of this tumult not in a harrowing downward spiral, but in the mystery of a ruined person, as untended as a graveyard garden. Burstyn grimacing at her grapefruit breakfast, or wondering if her son hears her teeth knocking against each other, before either of them has mentioned it: those moments, if you know them, suggest a bit of Mrs. Ross, but everything else about Sara Goldfarb is a fever-red or a mold-green explosion, whereas Evans seems to heighten and underplay, suggesting years of unenviable living within the poses, rhythms, lies, and fluting vocalisms of a lady who's all whites and grays, against a forbiddingly sooty backdrop. Without a smash-cut in sight, Evans offers a pause-giving nightmare of riding out one's years in deranging solitude, with hallucinated comforts and with predators less imaginary than they might appear. But there's also something ...happy about Mrs. Ross? Could this be? Evans thinks of even more questions than the script does. She dignifies the character even when she's drooling or in the grip of delusion. She's conducted deep, private investigations into the woman's unwritten backstory, and she supplies and obscures the evidence she has unearthed with equal constancy, and equal aplomb.
Are you still reading, or have you marched off to rent it by now?
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 12 to Go