Friday, May 21, 2010

Actress Files: Geneviève Bujold

Geneviève Bujold, Anne of the Thousand Days
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1969 Best Actress Oscar to Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

Why I Waited: A nomination leader, starring an actress I already admire, and one of my father's favorite films: lots of reasons to hope I would like this one.

The Performance: Who knew that Anne Boleyn had three cervixes? Okay, not true. Not necessarily true, since Anne of the Thousand Days doesn't refute this point so much as it remains silent on the issue, despite much history-shaping debate about wombs, their fruit, and the legal and religious provenances under which they labor, including when they're in labor.

Forgive me if I cannot look at Bujold and not have trouble preoccupying myself with memories of her "mutant," sexually humiliated, but stalwart actress Claire Niveau in Dead Ringers, a film I treat quite extensively in the book I'm writing when I'm not writing these profiles. To see this Québecois performer acting twenty years previously in the film that made her a star to English-language audiences is to see a woman that is both strikingly smooth-surfaced compared to the middle-aged, pill-popping but fundamentally disabused traveler I know from the Cronenberg film and yet possessed of the same redoubtable face, the same formidable presence—all the more striking for a performer less than 30 years old who is shouldering a gigantically mounted period drama and withstanding the challenge of Richard Burton at full apoplectic bluster. In between these films, and subsequent to both, Bujold's résumé is filled with unusual roles and projects: the macabre perversity of Coma and Obsession, the different auteurist sensibilities of Medak, Rudolph, and Eastwood, the mother in The House of Yes, the teacher so content to be bedded by former student Callum Keith Rennie on the eve of apocalypse in Last Night. All that plus a recurring string of classics: Cleopatra, Cassandra, Antigone, Saint Joan.

Bujold suggests the high-minded but eccentric tastes as well as the intimidating hauteur of a Judy Davis, which only adds to the sense that a platform of ostentatiously dressed, studio-fabricated "prestige" like Anne of the Thousand Days will be hard-pressed to capitalize on her gifts. And yes, the vehicle seems clearly conceived to place in as many Oscar fields as possible, and walk away with a queen's trousseau of trophies (though in the end, it only nabbed one, for Costume Design). But contrary to every presumption that mainstream historical reenactments are one of the crannies where cinema slinks off to die, I found Anne of the Thousand Days enjoyable and tough, and Bujold's assignment more challenging than I had predicted, either because it was written that way or because her potent, ambitious, but ungreedy approach makes the part seem more sophisticated than it is.

The impression is not immediate. How many characters have we met in dramas like this while they danced some arcane step in a royal hall? Even amidst her galliard, Bujold's pugnacious face, a scalloped series of brute curves (the forehead, the lines under the eyes, the cheeks, the chin, the frowning mouth), bespeaks a substantial personage, even a strong trace of attitude. With her flirtatious dancing, her sprinting about hallways and grounds, her poking her head out of windows, she communicates Anne Boleyn's youthfulness without compromising her sense of resolute maturity: this is someone who rarely breaks eye contact and seems roundly unseduced by heraldry and pomp, even when she's bristling with coltish energy. In an early laze on the grass with her handsome lover Lord Percy, she inquires about his virginity and admits the years-ago loss of her own, handily establishing her untroubled candor about sex, her disinterest in playing the untouched bloom.

Thus is Bujold's basic charisma as Anne quickly, permanently settled, but she really catches fire when Burton's Henry VIII materializes in her household, imagining he can appropriate her as a willing mistress as one nets a butterfly in a field. Anne simply isn't having it—partly through innate personality, partly in protest at the summary casting-off of Percy, partly responding to her own sister's plight as Henry's prior mistress, impregnated and abandoned. The script entitles her to regular blasts of vituperative blowback against Henry, as he throws around his considerable weight: "You're spoiled and vengeful and bloody. Your poetry is sour and your music is worse. You make love as you eat, with a good deal of noise and no subtlety." Even the prosier complaints Bujold fires off with frank, unembellished fortitude. Where many actresses call attention to how much they enjoy lines like these, pausing over each insult or delivering them with a sort of debonair wickedness, Bujold expounds clearly but quickly, as if the whole speech is one big battering ram. You can see why Burton's Henry looks legitimately shaken, cautioning her that "this is not safe," and yet she has an iron justification under Henry's own requested terms for their interactions: "You ask me not to treat you like the king," she says. "I would have lied to the king."

There is nothing feckless or juvenile about the way Bujold's Anne tests the limits of what she can get away with. Her ire is so earnest and backed up by such a forceful screen presence—shaded at different times with all those nuances of filial defensiveness, revulsion for the aged and the presumptuous, pride in her own maturity, anger at the scuttling of her own desires, hotheaded refusal to wind up anything like her sister—that she doesn't seem as green or as foolhardy as perhaps she is. I felt like I was watching a legitimate clash of imposing wills, not a pre-ordained drama of a roaring mouse, getting stupidly close to the lion's jaw. This sense of resolute character, even when it does amount to a needless tempting of a killing fate, rarely leaves Bujold's performance; indeed, her performance only falters importantly in the moments she has been coached out of this bullish sense of herself, whether airily spouting Maxwell Anderson loftiest plaints from jail ("shall I ever be free?") or implausibly crumbling into tears after going toe-to-toe with Henry in her cell. Not that the performance doesn't encompass several other notes, from a trembling disgust at kangaroo-court accusations of adultery and incest to the almost camp-fabulous way in which she teaches her young daughter Elizabeth how to walk with a train. She experiences total, self-dismantling despair at the stillbirth of her son (cut in right after Thomas More's beheading, as though her failure to yield a foolproof heir entails as much of a death sentence as his immovable conscience), and she approaches Glenda Jackson levels of bitchy imperiousness informing Henry that he will not, in fact, be inviting his latest tart back to court from her exile in Northumberland. She is very moving, broken and scared at last but still refusing to spill all her feelings, as she's carted off to her execution.

Still, the performance is always strongest when it's based in Anne Boleyn's invigorating insistence on her own rights, her own survival instincts, her forthright demands on behalf of her own worth. Bujold's closeups are frequently indelible, as punchy as fists, as in the moment when she shoots a fearless, discomfitingly frank gaze at the headsman just before he brings down his axe. But her success in Anne of the Thousand Days—acknowledging the moments when she seems a bit untrained or uncertain how to handle the more sentimental or despondent passages—comes down to much more than having the right, imposing face and personality. There are essentially three movements to Anne of the Thousand Days: the long introduction to Anne and to her defiance of Henry's wooing; the political, ecclesiastical, and continental disarray that results from Henry's choice to marry her; and the coarse displacement and annihilation that befall her once Henry has realized he can really get away with anything, now that divine and royal law have been rewritten to suit his taste for women and his lust for sons. Bujold is a centerpiece player in the first and third passages but rather suppressed in the second, as lots of other players debate the problems that her presence and her intractability have fostered. To create an Anne who is as impetuous and as unwilling to be cast aside as Bujold's, while still enabling her to recede in the film's sprawling second act—that is, without coming on so strong that the drama will appear drab once she's made peripheral for a lengthy stretch, and without Anne's appearing to embrace a submissive position that she has thus far resisted—all of this requires a very nimble management of what seems like a headstrong, unflinching persona. Equally required is a solid, modest grasp of how her work will fit within the overall shape of the piece, itself presenting an occasion to which she must rise, but not one in which she should constantly pull focus.

Most rewardingly, as Anne negotiates these turns from the first movement into the second, and from the second into the third, Bujold has her own tricky sea-changes to navigate. It comes as a shock, and probably needs to, that after all of her gusty refusals of Henry in the first hour, Anne is suddenly so willing, so ambitious of being his queen. That's not the way Bujold has seemed to approach her preceding scenes, but she plants enough seeds of a pragmatic intelligence and a swagger of the champion game-player that she avoids any sense of psychological or motivational inconsistency. By a similar token, over the last hour, Bujold's Anne isn't just vanquished but is caught off-guard at recognizing just how vulnerable she has remained while seeming to play a game with such mastery. It's not clear she could have played any more savvily than she has, and still, this has not been enough. She has after all, in her way, repeated the fate of her sister. Yet even amid this epiphany, which we know to be deeply humiliating to Anne as well as patently unjust, Bujold completes the whole performance without expecting the audience to like her much more than do the heckling crowds of English Catholics, who hate her for displacing Irene Papas's devout, serene, politically becalming Katherine of Aragon. The film is full of moments where Anne demands things for herself and stands up for what she thinks is right, mostly enjoying some measure of our sympathy (given her predicaments) or our admiration (given her canny strategizing), but rarely eliciting real fondness. The performance itself betrays so little special pleading, and is unmarred by the viral blandness or the Encyclopedia Britannica formality that so often afflict screen renderings of famously wronged royals. Particularly, then, within a genre and amidst a decade of Hollywood filmmaking that all but enforce expensive mediocrity as a cardinal rule, this is admittedly improvable but nonetheless complex and inspiring work.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 18 to Go

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Blogger tim r said...

Hear, hear! I love Bujold in this and am so glad you had such time for the movie. I fully expected it to be a Man for All Seasons-ish chore, but it's more in league with a Becket, isn't it? Remarkably free of stodge given its general remit. Also, having just sat through the stultifying Mary, Queen of Scots, in which Vanessa Redgrave makes such eye-glazing heavy weather of playing the forthright martyr, it's great to be reminded how vividly and bolshily Bujold took up this challenge. Is she your pick of that year's batch, or are you keener on Fonda?

2:14 AM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I was putting this off, but now it's moved right to the top of my viewing list. I find Anne Boleyn is such an interesting role for actresses to plumb; recently Helena Bonham-Carter gave a good spin on the role in the inventively-named TV movie Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer did the role justice on The Tudors. And I guess Natalie Portman was watchable in The Other Boleyn Girl.

But this excellent write-up has encouraged me to see this film as soon as possible, Boleyn-fanatic as I am.

2:37 AM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I'm so thrilled to hear that this isn't another Mary, Queen of Scots or A Man For All Seasons. I like Bujold but figured that this was her Oscar-bait mistake.

5:04 AM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

It's great that you thought this performance was justifiably nominated. Geneviève Bujold definitely could use more compliments since she is often in a lot of pain. What kind, you ask? I think...psychosexual.

12:29 PM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Such an especially lovely comment, and I think we parse out the wheat from the chaff of 60s/70s royalty dioramas in just the same way, although I do love Glenda's barnstorming bitchery as Elizabeth in MQS. Jury's still out for me on Bujold vs. Fonda, and I owe Smith a revisit... especially after a friend of hers posted a comment on my Travels with My Aunt entry! Minnelli and Simmons are totally solid, too, so 1969 has turned out to be a much better vintage than I'd guessed.

@Brook and @Cal: Indeed, it seems like just the sort of film to avoid given certain mainstay groans about the kinds of movies that reap lots of noms (and Jarrott's miss in the Director lineup augurs even worse). But, come on in, the water's fine, etc.

@Robert: Bujold could use more compliments in general, and more roles, although she suggests the kind of personality that could really take 'em or leave 'em, especially if they aren't up to snuff. Whatever her "snuff" barometer is. (This would be well outside the box, but here's a Violet Weston I could get excited about for August: Osage County.)

1:07 PM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

God, totally. You need to apply for some casting director jobs this instant. Plus I agree Jackson is the one redeeming feature ofMQS (which acronym makes it sound like a Tudor-period shopping channel, which is pretty much what it is). Though she's basically just serving up deleted scenes from Elizabeth R, right? And you can sort of tell she knows it.

5:31 PM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger CCW said...

Nick, you've really wetted my appetite to see this as well as Dead Ringers. I've had to avoid most of Cronenberg's work because of my weak stomach, but I'm going to make an exception.
Coincidentally, I just read an interview with Ally Sheedy and she stated that Bujold's performance in Anne inspired her to start acting. Very cool.

10:56 PM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

Damn, I thought my inside joke would've been funnier...perhaps I should've suggested she be "punished?"

11:57 PM, May 21, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Oh, Jackson absolutely knows that. If she's bored in the performance, I like how she turns that into a sort of bitter complacency about how Elizabeth lords her power over Redgrave's Mary: "Please, b****, I can do this shit in my sleep." And if she's only entertaining herself by being so funny, I'm all for that, too.

@CCW: Welcome back! And what an interesting new way to think about Sheedy. I can see the continuities in their personas, now that you mention it.

@Robert: Don't worry, I'm on your frequency.

10:35 AM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

Wow - you've actually helped me see the arc of the performance where previously I could only see lurches in the narrative.

'Bujold's Anne isn't just vanquished but is caught off-guard at recognizing just how vulnerable she has remained while seeming to play a game with such mastery' - such a perfect encapsulation.

I'm with you on this performance most of the way... although I'm not nearly so confident that the film doesn't sag in the middle when she has less to do.

And is there no love for Redgrave in Mary Queen of Scots? An infinitely worse film, yes, but I think Redgrave is hugely engaging, fluttering between confidence and hesitancy with a touch of self-beatification - such an effective contrast to Jackson's smart, bullish politico.

3:05 PM, May 22, 2010  
Blogger Gustavo H.R. said...

Off-topic: how in hell was Glenda snubbed for her blistering work in QUEEN OF SCOTS...?

9:56 AM, June 12, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

It's a little disconcerting when reviewing the review to find him referring to the "AXE", when most of us who have any kind of knowledge of Anne , are very aware that a sword was used to kill her, and the Bujold version does indeed use the sword.

For me Bujold is easily the best of the versions of Anne, or at least the most persuasive. The awful-on every level- The Other Boleyn Girl need not be taken in any way seriously, and th e ludicrous ending with Scarlett Johansson, apparently kidnapping the future Elizabeth I is not to be taken seriously. The Helena Bonham Carter version, is totally rendered slapstick by the awful miscasting of Henry, a performer who might have been convincing as a neighborhood thug in Eastenders, but hardly a Henry VIII.

4:00 PM, March 09, 2015  

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