Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Actress Files: Marsha Mason

Marsha Mason, Cinderella Liberty
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1973 Best Actress Oscar to Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class)

Why I Waited: Mason won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Drama) for this film, and it's her only nominated turn that has nothing to do with Neil Simon—a welcome and intriguing break in pattern.

The Performance: If you've been following this recent spate of Best Actress nomination profiles, you may have read my dual summary of the odd, successful, truncated, and presently somewhat mystifying careers of Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason. Her IMDb page is currently headlined with the information that Marsha "has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame," and though we shouldn't make any mistake that I'd be delighted to earn a star on any city's Walk of Fame, something about this particular badge of distinction points toward the unfortunate air of the ersatz that has generally clung to Mason, not least because her success was often and cynically chalked up at the time to her marriage to Neil Simon (an eight-year union that coincides precisely with the span in which Mason racked up her four Best Actress nods). I recently read that Mary Astor, one of my absolute favorite stars of early Hollywood, summed up the five stages of a popular actor's career this way: "Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?" Mason, a "who's that?" target to many people these days, was undeniably in demand for a healthy tenure, but it's doubtful whether anyone ever asked for a young Marsha Mason, or for a Marsha Mason type. Four leading nominations in your first ten movies is nothing at all to scoff at, but in lots of her roles, Mason herself seems to be playing "the Marsha Mason type," either because she seems self-conscious and proud of her punchliney mannerisms (The Goodbye Girl) or insufficiently challenged by the script (Chapter Two), or because her appealing qualities do not encompass the kind of distinctive personality that would make her believable as anyone's irreplaceable vessel or muse.

Cinderella Liberty is not my favorite Mason performance, a tag that I'm sure will always affix itself to her tart, funny, lived-in, and very ably shaded star turn in 1981's Only When I Laugh. (She's nowhere close to Diane Keaton in Reds, but otherwise she's my runner-up vote for the trophy that year.) If Laugh finds Mason giving her most mature, intriguing rendition of a "Marsha Mason type," then her Cinderella performance as a sexy, pool-playing barfly who takes sailors to bed for money is unquestionably her least characteristic. She pipped Barbra Streisand for the part, or at least, she got the part from director Mark Rydell and his casting agents despite the studio's voiced preference for Streisand. Who knows if Babs wanted to play it; one might reasonably wonder whether she's an ace with a cue stick, but given that Rydell cuts away from Mason's billiard-playing as assiduously as Rob Marshall elided Renée Zellweger's dancing, I doubt this was the concern. Given the nature of the role and the context of most early-70s Streisand vehicles, I suspect that she'd have tilted Cinderella Liberty into much more comedic territory. For her part, via her popular association with Simon, Mason is often pigeonholed as a comic actress, but I think Cinderella Liberty exposes that comedy is not her exclusive or automatic disposition. Nor, though, does she approach Maggie as an opportunity for dour social realism, or for showing everyone how amply she can swing her hips or suffer. (A note about "Maggie": I was relieved that the character had this name, having presumed for years that "Cinderella Liberty" was the moniker of the female lead, which wouldn't do well for a biopic of a famous drag-ball queen, much less for a low-end Seattle streetwalker.)

Imagining a presence like Streisand's in the part immediately exposes how comparatively anonymous and ordinary a performer Mason can be, though this is not in every way a drawback. Cinderella Liberty gives her a fair amount to work with: the pool-hall acumen, suggestive of years of practice and a knack for strategy; a 10-year-old son by an absent black father; a completely non-generic but striking beauty, care of a long, loose, sexy hairstyle that softens those famous Mason brows, plus a flattering but believably inexpensive wardrobe; a seaport setting in which she would have seen and experienced quite a lot, especially given her vocation; and a tentative, slightly mystified affair with James Caan's very introverted off-duty sailor. Despite his taciturnity and her blowziness, he takes the lead role in building a real relationship between the two of them. A social worker assigned to Mason and her boy reveals an additional, important bit of context for the character—I won't reveal it, but no, she isn't dying, and no, she isn't really a man. Still, not all of these premises are easy to know what to do with. The whole conceit of the uniform-wearing gallant who takes an instant, chivalrous shine to a hooker he picked up in a bar and to her surly, beer-drinking, back-talking child feels like fantasy even by the standards of an industry that dreamed up Pretty Woman.

The movie is wise to foreground the smudged but colorful widescreen photography by the brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond as a heavy, believable patina of atmospherics, since the script would otherwise be exposed as a rickety construct, often at the cliff-edge of giving offense, certainly past any frontier of coherence or common sense. In that regard, Mason seems similarly wise to avoid a lot of the specifics that are presented or half-presented to her by Darryl Ponicsan, adapting his own novel. She doesn't act like she's been swept off her feet so much as given pause by a new, rare possibility. She doesn't oversell or overthink her setbacks, doesn't dig too deeply into the psyche or the look or the gestus of this prostitute who, apparently, would love to be a Navy wife. She sticks instead to pretty broad emotional states—sauciness, low-key sparkle, guardedness, gladness, sadness, pensiveness. The affective beats of the scenario thus come through pretty well, and unimpeded by dubious particulars. She communicates feelings amply and carries her weight on screen, albeit without breaking any molds. My favorite aspect of this style is that, for lack of a better word, it feels European, as though Mason understands her job as one of blending into an atmosphere, a world-picture, and an ensemble, however small. Her acting eschews showy gestures, and in a part like this, particularly at the hopeful beginning of a mainstream career when seizing attention is the name of the game, her fundamental modesty is refreshing and engaging. I'd never thought of Mason as remotely Continental, but in a movie that doesn't turn much on dialogue (another huge departure from her Simon vehicles, obviously), her comfort in her body, her confidence in unusual looks, and her seeming indifference to the camera show a sophistication I'm not used to in young American screen actresses. Moreover, her final series of actions—suggesting either a plane in Maggie's psychology that has recently lost its balance or one that has remained latent in the story thus far—further authorizes Mason's choice to cloister the character behind a curtain of reserve, even when she's naked, or confiding, or laughing.

Nonetheless, I don't think Mason's Maggie aligns perfectly with what my drama teacher meant when she urged us, daily, to "leave them wanting more." I wanted her to want more, especially in regard to how little connected she seems to the actor playing her son, or to the idea that her character has a son. Again, Maggie has reasons, and Mason could point to some narrative developments to "explain" her blurriness on this question, but the same factors might serve as state evidence for requiring more complexity in the mother-child interactions than Mason remotely attempts. Caan isn't stellar in Cinderella Liberty but he's solid and steady, and he finds a rapport with the young actor Kirk Calloway. Mason, by comparison, often looks like she's either having a laugh with the pair of them in some mirthful behind-the-scenes footage or as though she's inexplicably unaware of her relation to Calloway as indicated in the script.

On the whole, she comes across as intriguing but half-full, ready for adventures into interesting parts but not quite prepared to shoulder a full load. America needs more actresses who can be counted on for understatement, and I sufficiently appreciated Mason's work while I watched Cinderella Liberty to tip toward a three-star rating. It's symptomatic of larger issues, though, that it's hard to recall the work with much specificity, even a day after seeing the film. Whereas—hark, Oscar-spotters!—Sally Kirkland gets about 60 seconds of screen time as the ditzy, self-loving, comically jealous girl that Caan meets in the same bar, just before Mason first catches his eye, and I remember everything Kirkland found to do in that very tiny aperture for entertainment and characterization. I still basically like Mason, as I gather many of my readers do not, and I'd like to see her in a richer part that invited more severe tones in line with her angular looks, while still benefiting from her essentially generous approach to her roles, whether they be hookers or quippers or drinkers or frazzled single moms. I like her ease on camera, and I wonder if her brief, bright career on the A-list derived from how relaxed, how perfectly at home she looks on screen, as early as her first big movie. Still, lines must be maintained between being impressively comfy with one's part and failing to rise completely to its occasion.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 28 to Go

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Blogger Fritz said...

I really want to see this movie someday. I know Mason has a rather bad reputation today and I haven't seen enough of her to judge her personally (I saw The Goodby Girl and thought she was very good).
I am one of the few people who love the winner that year, Glenda Jackson in "A Touch of Class". From your ranking I see you don't like her.

3:57 AM, May 05, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Fritz: I actually enjoy Jackson's performance in Touch very much and find her really spirited in a lot of her scenes. It's just that the role and the movie seem to hem her in from giving a performance as rich as a lot of other winners, and even at that, I do think she misses some of the opportunities in the script, particularly once they're back in London and she's an oddly willing mistress to such a lout. But I love watching it and really enjoy seeing that side of her. Like Mason in CL, a two-star perf that on a different day could be a three.

8:54 AM, May 05, 2010  
Blogger Dame James said...

I've always felt like Marsha Mason was simply born in the wrong time period. In a time when Ellen Burstyn, Gena Rowlands & Liv Ullmann were some of the most important actresses around, Mason sticks out like a sore thumb. But stick her in the late 40s/early 50s in the era of Susan Hayward, when films were less auteurial-driven and relied more on persona, and she would probably garner a lot more respect today. I find myself really fascinated by her, even if the only nominated performance of hers I'm really crazy about is The Goodbye Girl.

11:02 AM, May 05, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I loved Mason in both The Goodbye Girl and Chapter Two but I was a teenager when I watched both on VHS so i wonder what i would think of them now? I always thought she was charming though and preferred her to Clayburgh who you've insightfully positioned her with.

9:16 AM, May 06, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Dame James: That's an interesting point about Mason's generational context. She actually reminds me a bit of Jean Simmons, whom I reviewed earlier for her Happy Ending performance, and if Mason were getting started about 20 or 25 years earlier than she did, I can see her having a very similar career, maybe even the same parts (in Guys and Dolls, in Elmer Gantry, in The Happy Ending, in some of the impersonal prestige pics). The Hayward connection is also interesting, since I get the impression from Cinderella and Laugh, in particular, that Mason may have wanted to experiment with less "nice" women than the ones she often played, especially for Simon, though she certainly doesn't seem ready even in those perfs to abjure likability altogether.

@Nathaniel: I think she's definitely charming in all four films, but I suspect you'd react similarly to The Goodbye Girl now as I did: very appealing performance, but also very rehearsed and perhaps too reverential of her own lines. You can almost see her pausing for the audience to laugh, or thinking a bit too calculatedly about when they will, and why. But she's good in it and, I think, only gets better as she continues.

11:25 PM, May 08, 2010  
Blogger Robert B. Brumfield said...

After just watching a rerun of a Frasier episode I felt compelled to post a quick comment on how delightful Marsha is. She just seems like someone who could be your best friend. My sister named her daughter after her after being inspired by one of her perfomances and my niece has grown to be one of the most delightful young ladies I have ever known. This is just a quick comment to share with other adoring fans. Robert B. Brumfield Spring City, Tennessee

4:17 PM, June 27, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks for this, Robert! Glad to hear Marsha still has her fans out there.

11:21 AM, July 01, 2010  
Blogger docweasel said...

ugh. one of the many indictments of 1970's cinema (and there are many) is the fact Marsha Mason was considered even a good actress. "Audrey Rose" is a better example of the real extent of her ability, without Simon propping her up with lines written expressly for her. In short, she sucks as a believable actress, even for the hammy '70s. She's nearly as bad as Keaton (the scene where she tells Michael she had an abortion almost makes me question my fondness for the rest of the Godfather I-II).

8:40 AM, August 07, 2011  
Blogger brookesboy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:33 PM, August 20, 2012  
Blogger brookesboy said...

Marsha Mason is one of the most misunderstood actresses the movies have ever known. Her uncanny ability to be real on the screen has few peers, yet she continues to draw tomes of maddeningly unfair criticism. Her commitment to the art of acting was such that after earning an Oscar nomination for her first lead role, she eschewed Hollywood for four years to do theater--something unheard of. In every screen role she ever played, she brings a unique humanity that is relatable and palpable. I think that some of the issues you have with her terrific performance in Cinderella Liberty have to do with the truncated screen time she has. She would have been my runner-up for Oscar that year, with Ellen Burstyn taking it home for her miracle-working in The Exorcist. Nick, I find your positive assessments of Marsha to be spot-on, and I want to say I am enjoying your witty, insightful essays. I laughed out loud at your review of Liz in Raintree County, which I watched last night on TCM. Right on the money. Oh, and hi, neighbor--I'm right down the street from you in Edgewater. Mike

1:34 PM, August 20, 2012  

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