Friday, April 30, 2010

Birthday Girls: Jill Clayburgh

Jill Clayburgh, Starting Over
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1979 Best Actress Oscar to Sally Field for Norma Rae)

Why I Waited: I waver on screenwriter James Brooks and director Alan Pakula, wasn't wowed by An Unmarried Woman, and rarely make a habit of movies headlined by Burt Reynolds. I didn't anticipate disliking Starting Over but couldn't find a good hook, either, aside from some curiosity about the Oscar-nodded supporting turn by Candice Bergen.

The Performance: Fairly soon in this cycle, I'll have reason to comment on a Marsha Mason performance, but since Clayburgh is popping up first, I'll say this now: between the awards seasons of 1977 and 1981, Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason combined for five Academy Award nominations and seven Golden Globe nominations as leading actresses, each of them enjoying one Globe year apiece of being nominated in the dramatic and the comedic races simultaneously. For awards junkies, and for a very specific period, these are defining performers. For almost anyone else, or at any other time, they absolutely aren't. Their services were so eagerly sought that they both turned down the title role in Norma Rae, for which Sally Field won the Oscar over this second of Clayburgh's two nominations. Mason was also included in this field, for a film called Chapter Two, which not only sports as thuddingly generic a title as Starting Over, it practically sounds like the same movie. Mason is angular whereas Clayburgh, even in Sven Nykvist's typically strong lighting for Starting Over, looks like you're seeing her through gauze. They are not the same actor, but they have had virtually the same career. I notice that in their later, way-off-the-radar projects, Mason has played governors and senators and Clayburgh has played judges. If you've seen their work, you know the reverse would never work, but that clear, micro-scale difference doesn't change their macro-sameness, or how instantly, equally eligible these ostensible movie stars suddenly seemed for the drabbest, most functional parts in the business.

The only actresses I can think of from the 80s who were so suddenly ubiquitous and then quite abruptly weren't are Debra Winger and Kathleen Turner, but they both come across as too hot and temperamental for Hollywood to handle. Clayburgh and Mason, quite to the contrary, seem so understated in their appeal that you don't wonder what happened to them so much as you wonder what shifted for a beat in Hollywood that buoyed them so fleetingly near its peak. In this regard, Clayburgh raises a more complex riddle, because it wasn't just Hollywood that came calling: political provocateurs like Costa-Gavras, indie feminists like Claudia Weill, and Continental voluptuaries like Bernando Bertolucci all handed plum roles to her. How I wish Bertolucci's La luna, made the same year as Starting Over, had been the vehicle to pique AMPAS's attention, because then I could have screened a movie with this plot thumbnail, c/o IMDb: "While touring in Italy, a recently-widowed American opera singer has an incestuous relationship with her 15-year-old son to help him overcome his heroin addiction." But instead, what's on the menu is a cozy dramedy about a recent divorcé (Reynolds) who gets fixed up with a quietly plucky kindergarten teacher his age (Clayburgh), only he can't quite relinquish the idea of making things work with his sexier ex (Bergen), a key-challenged singer-songwriter who's nonetheless on the verge of a big break. From the writer who brought you Terms of Endearment, sure, but also, somewhat mystifyingly, from the director at the helm of Klute and The Parallax View and the cinematographer of Cries and Whispers.

Even brooders and paranoiacs, I suppose, need to ease up on the pedal from time to time, and if you can get past a script that's even more sexist than the one Brooks wrote for As Good As It Gets, Starting Over is actually kind of charming. You can trace a lot of the charm to Clayburgh, whose trademark soft-sell approach to the character works better for me here than in her career-making role in An Unmarried Woman, where I wanted someone more intrepid, more forthrightly interested in complexity. Here, Clayburgh's vagueness keeps the good-sport teacher from being too clichéd a lifeforce, or an obvious audience favorite. Beyond what's indicated in the script, Clayburgh's haziness provides a real alternative to Bergen: she's nicer, warmer, and more stable, yes, but it's tricky to fault the Reynolds character for wanting a little more sleekness and jazz.

All three principal actors, whatever their individual drawbacks, and in tandem with one of the era's most renowned stewards of film performance, exude promise and engagingly modest appeal as they explore multiple sides of their roles. Whereas Reynolds and Bergen are tasked to make their characters palatable, and maybe to file a calling-card for more grown-up roles, Clayburgh's challenge is to make the "nice" woman a bit more layered. To this end, she shows a deft hand at adding simple grace notes to her body language and inflections, and she succeeds at making the character funny, at least often enough that you keep paying attention. Her intro is as showy as they come. Thinking that Reynolds is stalking her on a dark suburban street, when in fact he's making his way to the same blind-date dinner party that she is, Clayburgh's first line is, "Get the fuck away from me, I have a knife, I'll cut your fuckin' balls off, so help me!" That's a gimme, but she cleverly mixes abashedness and annoyance when Reynolds quotes her verbatim to their friends: "A really well-bred person wouldn't have repeated that," she deadpans, and that's closer to the note she holds in her stronger scenes. On her first proper date with Reynolds, whom she isn't convinced she likes (and nor are we), she blurts out on the subject of wanting children, "If you're over 35 and you have your first baby, all your tubes fall out or something." One cannot be sure if she's embarrassed at saying something she means or something she doesn't, or if she just finds the whole notion of a procreative future a bit funny, after being alone so long that she decorates her apartment more like her schoolroom than she probably realizes.

We all know the sitcommy beats of Brooks' writing, even when, as in Terms, he's working from someone else's novel. So, you can more or less predict that Clayburgh will get two more tantrums, some tears, a form of betrayal just as she's getting comfortable, and a lot of wry comments along the way: e.g., she feels that Reynolds's frankly expressed desire to have sex with her would feel less endocrine and more personal if he appended, "I want to have sex with you, Marilyn." Clayburgh handles all of this just fine, even if you couldn't fairly accuse her of surfeiting the character with personality. As usual, she's basically the vessel of the script, and I'd love her to have pushed more. No one's expecting Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, but even MacLaine and Winger in Terms thrived by coloring amply outside their lines. Clayburgh pushes, but only in small ways: getting a laugh out of pointedly dropping her groceries, inwardly taking her lumps after a streak of profanity in front of her pupils and their parents, and sneaking in some genuine middle-aged wisdom during a quick, almost whispered aside about being frightened by one man's lack of even rudimentary self-knowledge. She's spot-on during an important scene where Reynolds takes a call from Bergen during Thanksgiving dinner. Any actor would grasp the annoyance of being downplayed in your new lover's overheard chat with a recent ex, but Clayburgh also captures the masochism of how some women convince themselves they'll be rewarded for looking sunny and accommodating in the shadow of a rival, or in response to obvious callousness.

Yet it's hard, finally, not to think of the actress and not just the character as perpetrating that very error in judgment: that she'll stay ahead, that she'll be durably loved, if she sands down her idiosyncrasies (what are Jill Clayburgh's idiosyncrasies?) and dutifully stands by her screenplay, in sickness and in health. She peppers her lurking blandness enough that she deserves points not just for trying but for raising the film up a notch on the meter of unconfrontational entertainment. Her husbandry of the jokes is steady, she's a competent manager of sticky sentiment, and she in no way begs for the spotlight. And so it's with some irony that, despite earning praise the year before for playing an emboldened singleton, Jill Clayburgh's virtues as an actor amount to being a kind of good wife to scripts like the one for Starting Over, with all the retrogressive, self-effacing connotations that a phrase like "good wife" can entail. Unfortunately, what the role and the movie and a lot of other movies could really use is a proudly inventive mistress.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 33 to Go

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Actress Files: Sarah Miles

Sarah Miles, Ryan's Daughter
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1970 Best Actress Oscar to Glenda Jackson for Women in Love)

Why I Waited: Try as I might, I don't always have 206 free minutes in a row.

The Performance: I know David Lean took the public lambasting of Ryan's Daughter very hard and only barely got over it to make one more movie, 14 years later, before he died. I don't see any need to further pillory a movie that has already been so roundly rebuked, but then the bashful gentleness of a lot of the reviews that greeted the DVD release in 2006 don't seem like the right way to go, either. Let's just say that, give or take a few scenes of mutual but benign incomprehension between Sarah Miles as a young Irish lass and Robert Mitchum as the much older schoolteacher she convinces to marry her, and aside from about 10 or 15 scattered minutes of prickly character moments or atypically enigmatic montage, the rest of Ryan's Daughter's three and a half hours are just as preternaturally weightless as you've heard. Freddie Young has photographed the movie in super widescreen for postcard prettiness, disclosing a set of priorities that are about as wrong as they could be for the material, which itself requires an exceptionally nimble execution so as to dissipate the scent of very stale air. In short: a timid young wife seeks an older, unthreateningly asexual husband but later discovers the appetites of her body, very inconveniently whetted by a soldier of the British Army who's been called in to quell the Irish discontent.

Miles is the wife, and the reason I stress the tremendous shortcomings of the film is that, at the basic stylistic level, she's all but barred from making an impact. The opening movements of the film clearly mean to present her as a sort of blooming flower, but while I appreciate that a certain degree of clichéd dollishness is avoided, she's somehow done all her wardrobe shopping in Outer Dowdsville: beige sweater down past her butt, shapeless gray tent of an ankle-length skirt, wide-brimmed hat, and a wig that looks like horse-tail. Strolling alone on clifftop and seashore with her parasol, Miles might be registering any number of nuances on her face, but we'd never know, which is partly down to that hat, but more because Lean forfends our getting very close to her—not that the actress looks especially inspired in such close-ups and two-shots as are doled out to her.

I'd call it a fair expectation that, knowing you are starring for David Lean at the most aggressive stage of his encroaching ailment, Elephantiasis of the Travelogue, you might need to devise a more physical rendering of the character, to stand any chance against the Super Panavision vistas in which you are sunk. "But render what character?" Miles may surely have asked, and who could blame her? The script supplies so little, and an externalized portrait of her vague arc defies easy imagining. In direct proportion to his wider and wider shots, Lean seemed to grow more and more taken with the idea of opaque characterizations. If his Lawrence is at last a sphinx, his Rosy Ryan Shaughnessy wastes a great name on being, from the get-go, a lovin' cipher. Lots of dewy, tentative, or stupefied glances, a bit of trembling lip. But what's behind it all? As though to give Miles even less to play with, or against, Ryan's Daughter rather pointedly eschews any dialogue at all for long periods, and as her English innamorato, Lean cast sullen pretty boy Christopher Jones, so disastrous an actor that all of his dialogue required redubbing. These gratuitous ordeals come together in a long, wordless sequence of D.H. Lawrence-style seduction between Miles and Jones in a forest of heather and jade, and if the dewy, soft-focus longueurs of this interlude manage to be less entirely cheesy than they could be, they do so without aiding Miles in any real way. Nor does she offer any memorable stamp of her own.

Personalizing stamps are a recurring problem for this actress: I have seen her now in Antonioni's Blowup; John Boorman's Hope and Glory, a generous Best Picture nominee in 1987; and Ryan's Daughter. In the former, I recall her peering silently at David Hemmings from her kitchen floor while she's in the midst of a serene rut with another man, and that's it. From the Boorman, nothing. None of these pictures have styled themselves as showcases for their casts, and if Miles doesn't seize the camera of her own electric accord the way Vanessa Redgrave does in Blowup, she cannot quite be blamed for that, or for the fact that two of her better-regarded performances, in Lady Caroline Lamb and the Palme-winning The Hireling, are more or less elusive these days. I hear that she achieves a carnal vitality in Joseph Losey's The Servant, and though Ryan's Daughter is too roseate in conception to profit from such a knack, it's true that when you do see Miles elevating her scenes, they tend to be ones where some force of sexuality is privileged. Rosy giggles, wonderfully, upon being told that virginal men fear the prospect of initiation and of their own potential failings as much as women do. (I also like her short, sincere, but meaningful laugh near the end—the end!—of the movie when her father promises to write letters to her; the plain fact that he won't, even if he momentarily intends to, amuses her.) Rosy doesn't set out to hurt anyone, and if Mitchum's humble, almost diffident schoolteacher showed any erotic confidence, or any interest in her libido, she'd never have strayed. As it is, she enjoys watching him work in the yard without his shirt, and looks surprised but unembarrassed at such enjoyment. When she asks him to keep the shirt off inside, he huffily demurs, obviously if implicitly chiding her for her nascent lustiness, and Miles shows us well that Rosy is genuinely flustered and confused.

She isn't failing, then, to make studied decisions about her character, and she appears to intend a welcome liveliness for Rosy, inward and outward, that never resolves itself. The thinness of the plotting and the pristine, listless emptiness of the lensing are barely superable hurdles... but why do four hours pass without her sticking much to the screen, and why did three such different directors all fail to get any charge from her? Lean and Antonioni treat hers as the kind of spectacular face that rewards any peer of the camera, but that confidence seems misplaced. She has the open, curving face and the aqua gaze of Samantha Morton, but she lacks Morton's moonglow quality; Miles doesn't seem to have any pores, much less an inner radiance, and she gives rather frozen poses of thought rather than, as Morton does, fine-grained transmissions of how thought fluctuates and questions itself. There's also a bit of Susannah York in Miles, but she's less striking, and minus the perverse charge. I await screening the picture that really makes the case for her. In the meantime, it's a pity to see her nominated for a picture that starts her so far behind that it's no mystery when she never fully catches up. For visible signs of effort, she might deserve a second star, but the lasting impression is just too close to zero.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 34 to Go

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Birthday Girls: Ann-Margret

(Wow – not the biggest Jane Wyman fans, are you? Okay, let's try this...)

Ann-Margret, Tommy
★ ★ (★) ★ ★
(lost the 1975 Best Actress Oscar to Louise Fletcher for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Why I Waited: Inside Oscar made this sound sort of awful, and everyone's nasty comments about the quality of the overall slate didn't help. Then at some point, probably after I'd seen a lot of other Ken Russell and realized this was his chance to play around with heaps of studio cash, it started to seem like a mad and fabulous prospect, deserving of prolonged anticipation.

The Performance: Though I'm sure we've seen thinner years, Oscar plainly felt he needed to stretch to fill his quota for this category in 1975, hence the made-for-television Hedda, the micro-budgeted and self-distributed Hester Street, Louise Fletcher's winning but borderline supporting role in Cuckoo's Nest, the rare concession to non-Anglophone work in Adèle H., and The Who's psychedelic rock opera. The latter managed to rewrite the unlikely phrase "Oscar-nominated actress Ann-Margret" into the even less expected "two-time Oscar-nominated actress Ann-Margret." Over time, what had been decried as an epochally compromised roster has started to look hipper to me for its far-flung inclusiveness—though I'm clearly not one to downplay the outrage of Hollywood's chronically meager offerings to women performers, and I hope you'll allow me to register my bemusement that in an industry where you can't get proper studio financing for a cornerstone of Western theater starring a double Oscar winner, you can bathe in Columbia's landfill of cash for a two-hour electro-rock jam about a sense-deprived idiot savant who's so very adept at pinball that an entire regime of fascistic idolatry rises and crumbles in his name. Whatever. Suffice it to say, Tommy is by far the most unexpected vehicle ever to usher an actress to a nomination in this category, but that doesn't make the nomination a joke.

To be sure, not everything about Ann-Margret's performance gets off on the right foot, or even winds up there. In truth, it's tough coming into early scenes of her dumb-show mountaintop picnic with her lover and their glistening shag under a waterfall, then packing pinballs into the cylinders of Allied missiles, then literally kenneling herself in her mad loneliness while her husband dogfights with the Luftwaffe—tough, that is, if you're thinking, "Well, here's an Oscar-caliber performance if ever I saw one." Especially during the first seven minutes when no one speaks or sings, but also through large swaths of the ensuing movie, Ann-Margret's task is to strike voluptuous poses of longing, despondency, hedonism, anger, titillation, mystification, envy, and an odd, final amalgam of brainwashed subservience and mercenary opportunism, selling her son to the world while being his protector-disciple, accessorizing for this role (as anyone would) with a shotgun and tailored fatigues. The sketchy, almost proudly immature conception of the role speaks for itself, but within the starkers envelope of Tommy, where decimating a massive plaster statue of Marilyn Monroe in a church nave counts as a statement about Something, "Nora" is no more bonkers than Jack Nicholson's child psychologist or Tina Turner going all INLAND EMPIRE in fish-eye close-up as the Acid Queen (and, obviously, she's a significantly less bonkers concoction than Tommy himself).

Ann-Margret's vociferous displays of emotion in this bizarre role can be rather gustily amateur: when you want grief, she'll give you Grief; when you want parental consternation, she'll conjure a storm of brow-furrowing and grimace at her spawn like Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed; when you want arousal, she'll ecstatically fondle her own curves, smearing them with soapsuds cast in the role of "champagne" and chocolate cast in the role of "shit," and agitate her crotch with abandon against a long tubular pillow. Yet, in an industry that tends to partition instant likability from forthright eroticism, Ann-Margret has a kind of secret genius for getting the audience to root for her, maybe because she evinces not the least shred of cynicism. "Tommy says 'See me, hear me, touch me, feel me,' and that's so important," she told a reporter, and that soft, sincere credulity radiates in the work, too, even when she's looking or acting or most outrageous. Or maybe we root for her because she seizes the chances extended to her even in dubious parts (and many of them have been dubious) not with the ruthlessness of the climber but with the glee of the anointed fan, who's so glad to be picked for the team and so moved to be thought entertaining that she'll deliver whatever you ask, as best she can.

When she comes on too strong or too superficially hysterical, you blame Ken Russell for exposing her lack of clear technique more than you blame her. And as Tommy plays out, especially if you avoid applying the retroactive pressure of looking for "Academy" acting, Ann-Margret nudges that gift for ingratiating herself into a more surprising achievement of making us feel something for the character. The Who wrote the damn thing, but there's no question who on screen has forged the most empathetic and personal connection to the material. The contrast crystallizes most between the rumbustious, flippant camping of Oliver Reed as her main partner in crime and Ann-Margret's own strategy of cutting to the purest emotions she can find. The war-widow bit fails but the bruised mien of the mother walled off from her own child's unfathomability works. Nora's escalating reliance on drink and other forms of self-stimulation manages to be both tender and witty, particularly when she purrs out The Who's gangly lyrics ("Do you think it's all riiiight... to leave the boy with cousin Keeeeeevin....?") while she's got a martini glass in her mouth. Tommy's own puerile dream of sprinting exuberantly through the surf becomes touching once Nora shows up, living out her own dream of finally, truly loving her son; through juxtaposition, this scene exposes how subtly Ann-Margret has elsewhere been threading self-recrimination and an unnerving, conscious collapse of self-perceptions across the second hour. Storywise, Tommy is nowhere sillier than in its final 20 minutes, but the movie's brazen, almost daringly thin Clockworkadelica somehow pulls it over the finish line. The ship doesn't quite go down, if only as a flamboyant sensory experience and a welcome dose of dementia in commercial cinema, but even less does Ann-Margret go down with it. You realize how inordinately responsible she is for getting you through the whole ordeal, and supplying something like an emotional through-line, sometimes a deceptively complicated one, in a picture that's barely asking for one.

I can't honestly call it a skilled enough performance for three stars, but it's such a life preserver, a buoyant and indelible element of mise-en-scène, a master class in heroically obliging one's director, and a come-from-behind victory—from first scene to last, and from expectations to achievement—that I feel stingy not giving it an honorary third. The nomination breaks every known rule for this category, so I'm breaking one, too.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 35 to Go

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Actress Files: Jane Wyman

Jane Wyman, The Yearling
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1946 Best Actress Oscar to Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own)

Why I Waited: No strong reason, except I was worried about pap, as though the movie would be two hours of two comely adults beaming at their sun-dappled son and his little deer (even though, honestly, I can imagine worse things to behold). But I recently re-watched National Velvet by the same director and saw more in it than I had before. Then, too, I got more interested in Gregory Peck after seeing The Keys of the Kingdom. So the timing turned out right on this one.

The Performance: Jane Wyman goes honey blonde! I wasn't expecting that. I also wasn't expecting her to be the bad cop. While Peck, the handsomest man in 1940s movies, hugs his son and invites him places and dotingly talks him to sleep, Wyman makes a thick, doughy mask out of her saucer face and seems barely susceptible to the claims of her child. She's stern—not quite disapproving but more than aloof. I don't like the word "literally," but in a film whose first image of shimmering Florida wetlands made me literally catch my breath, even on DVD, Wyman's log-brown eyes are where all that light goes to die. Her skin has a pinkish glow, and every now and then you catch her smiling: there is vitality here, so its habitual suppression feels like a willful act, not a fundamental absence or a natural state. She's not an essentialized archetype: the Bitter Pill, the Cold Mother. She's an internal manager, thinking, always, about what to disclose, what to retain, and yet her surface barely ripples. She belies this inward activity with an impressive mirage of outward tranquility, however downcast. In other words, she doesn't betray a more vivid exasperation like that of Dorothy McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who's tough and confusing to her kids, too, and shows all the eddies of disappointment, preoccupation, and nursed anger in her body and her face. Wyman's Orry Baxter is more still than that, less easily arousable. Whatever drives her discontent or her remoteness lies deeper in the groundwater of who she is, even though it hasn't always been endemic to who she is, and it still isn't. When she gets mad, which is more than once during The Yearling, because of bad luck or short-sightedness or because of her husband's encouragement of unaffordable sentiment in their son, the flares of temper soon seep back into that more mysterious state, that flat, grim calm.

That you have to say all of that, and you can't just boil it all down to "Orry Baxter is a hard, quiet mother," distills the virtues of Wyman's steady, smart, and nuanced playing of the character. It isn't as subtly victorious a performance as Anne Revere contributed to National Velvet, as the stoically affectionate mother who has clearly been many other women in her life on her way to her current persona, and whose steadfast support of her daughter is both engine and byproduct of so much else in her personality and history. The Yearling is a less exultant, perhaps more technically accomplished movie than National Velvet, but none of its characterizations are as offhandedly skilled and rounded as the parents' in the earlier film. But actually, working within a constrained range and palette pushes Wyman down a productive road as an actress. Only the year before, she wore her thespian strategies and her up-and-down feelings rather too obviously as Ray Milland's frustrated but loyal girlfriend in The Lost Weekend. She plainly thought it was an "important" movie, and comes across as intrigued by the tunneling psychological bent of the story and of Wilder's filmmaking. This piquing of her interest, though, results in the only performance I've ever seen Wyman give that seems too worked over, like an over-eager rehearsal, full of ideas but lacking cohesion and credibility.

By contrast, and even allowing for the sizable disparities between these two characters, The Yearling's Orry Baxter spends a lot of scenes in mild perturbation or just lost in herself, and Wyman doesn't make a big show of it. Even in the scene that "explains" her temperament, at exactly the moment and through precisely the backstory that I suspected, she doesn't indulge herself. In a Hollywood decade that seems especially filled with vengeful or idealized or punchliney mothers, it's compelling in and of itself to see a mother so simply played—not because she lacks complexity but because she doesn't theatricalize her complications. Moreover, she presents them as a thinking person's storehouse of ambivalence, not as traces of any romantic, "timeless" qualities of her heart or mind (see: Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama), or as symptoms of intricate, transcoded psychological complexes (see: Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce). I can't help wondering if what Wyman learned here about projecting a recessive maternity—about filling her warm face with something like coldness, or sometimes with the semblance of feeling nothing at all—marked a crucial step toward achieving that muffling of personality in her famous films with Sirk. In those movies, she somehow remains appealing as a lead character while staying consistent with Sirk's fundamental skepticism about how deep people really run, and to what extent our affects are really "our" own. To the extent that The Yearling finds Wyman doing more with less and, in some scenes, quite contentedly doing less with less, I'm pleased to see some interesting facets of her persona taking shape—and also a bit surprised, however pleasantly, that Oscar paid attention.

In that respect, it can't have hurt that the finale of The Yearling comes outfitted with one of those scenes that pour out all of the saline emotionalism that has hitherto been absent in the character, reassuring the audience that she does have "maternal" feelings, in the way we prefer to see them. She's good, but not more than that, at handling this turn into pathos. I was more impressed, though, by the peremptory, fists-on-hips way she calls her fellas to dinner yet seems a little bored by them and their cliffhanger stories about their day's adventures: "Are you gonna tell me, or maun I live in ignorance?" She chides her son a little for being twelve years old and "still lookin' for a play-dolly," just as she admonishes her husband after a destructive storm for preaching optimism. "Yes, find the good in it," she spits as Peck's Ezra Baxter rummages for silver linings in their cottage full of rotting food. Because Wyman plays the whole part with such a weighty taciturnity, these digs are more cushioned than they'd be in a more openly acrid take on the character. By the same token, though, they entail a heavier sense of reproach, because they seem to arise not from a momentary outburst but from Orry's dense, private, and sedimented way of thinking. She doesn't say anything she doesn't mean, and little she'd like to take back. She's a solid, unexpectedly formidable person, but not invulnerable: look how she double-takes when Ezra, in an uncharacteristic pre-emptive strike, says from his sickbed that Jody will be allowed to keep his fawn and to feed it real milk, and (I'm paraphrasing) she'd better not be such a bitch about it. Orry's ashamed to be so scolded in front of her son, and before she's done or said anything, but stunned, too, just to see such fire in her husband; possibly she is brought up short by being so evidently predictable in her own lack of warmth. Wyman shows you enough of this that you catch Orry's momentary hurt; she keeps you and the film from turning her into a foil, set up to fail against a paragon and a towhead who are so easy to like. But then she sponges the insult back wherever she sponges everything else, keeping you waiting every 10 minutes or so for a glance of surprise, an unsolicited story or memory, a grin, a blush, or a gunshot that reminds us that there's a great deal more to her than meets the eye, and she's not to be dismissed.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 36 to Go

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Actress Files: Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith, Travels with My Aunt
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1972 Best Actress Oscar to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret)

Why I Waited: Because I am no fan of Auntie Mame, and I had always heard Travels with My Aunt described as "Okay, but no Auntie Mame." And I wonder if you've ever noticed that, once you've seen one comic performance from Maggie Smith...

The Performance: Clearly a low-point in the history of the category, and not only in retrospect: reviews at the time were split at best, and the nomination raised some eyebrows where it didn't provoke outright moans. Which, obviously, isn't to say that the performance doesn't have its fans. Indeed, it's precisely the sort of overbearing Daft Hussy camp that exists so as to generate a cult following. More power to all those queens who at any time in their lives have gone to a costume party as Aunt Augusta Bertram, for you know these faithful must exist. Thing is, were Maggie herself to attend such a party, there's no end to the amount of shade that would be thrown at her hard-driving but creaky and too often joyless approach to the character.

Who knows how much input she had, if any, to the lugubriously overwrought makeup and hair designs of Carmen Sánchez and José Antonio Sánchez, stuck with the task of transforming an actress in her late 30s into a beldame well into her dotage. Surely, though, they represent the only team of cosmetologists in Hollywood history who felt compelled to make Maggie's cheeks look even more sunken and her eyes more unsettlingly profound, like something out of Franju. But pity the poor dears who, in grim cahoots with Oscar-winning costumer Anthony Powell and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, have to pass the character off in one extended flashback as a blushing schoolgirl. I understand that at one point in time, Maggie Smith must have negotiated secondary education, but even by the ghastly standards of any advanced performer trying to pass for 16, is there any face in movies less plausibly matched to the body of a uniformed adolescent?

The performance is in many respects a sort of catalog of tasks that no one should assign to Maggie Smith: be a belated teenager, be a premature dowager, sing, go Big as often and as far as possible, have an ongoing drugs-and-sex fling with an understandably adrift Lou Gossett Jr., fritter and quip with abandon until a climactic and lachrymose plea for affection, conjure a notorious legacy of sexual irresistibility. In fairness, the last point is one that Smith occasionally marshals in her favor. Her Augusta flaunts an erotic chutzpah that just dares people to second-guess her. When this odd, unexpected apparition at a family funeral counters the rumors that she was lost at sea many years ago, offering the retort that she was "rescued – many times," I see an ember of glee in the actor and the performance, and a zesty distillation of that peculiar but intense sexuality for which Smith is such an unlikely vessel in more "serious" films like Jean Brodie.

(Image c/o the Evening Standard, documenting this performance at its least makeup-enhanced)

But this is an early bit, doomed to dozens of basically unvarying reiterations. Worse, there remains the problem of chiseling away at the thick cement of affectation, much less the sepulchral layering of pancake makeup, so as to furnish any oxygen to that essential spark of mischief. I recently re-screened the first half-hour or so of Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater and rediscovered Smith's small, hilariously disingenuous turn as a live-in seductress of Anne Bancroft's husband. What a marvel, what fun to see her breathing so much easier, feeling out her moods and gestures, rather than arriving to the part already locked into a rigid retinue of mannerisms. I hear that Smith is much more inventive on stage, and she's such a droll reader and stylist that I don't want to solemnize the account of watching her give even a bad performance. We need more actors who can transform a line like "You insignificant bank manager!" into such a delectable truffle.

Nonetheless, even by the familiar standards of Maggie "doing" herself in a film like Gosford Park, in Travels with My Aunt she's just laboriously encrusted. The plot, apparently derived in a free but dulling way from Graham Greene's comic novel, is so over-stuffed with outlandish incident and aggravating contrivance that it's hard to imagine any performer thinking they need to festoon the picture with more clutter. I'm equally mystified by Smith and director George Cukor's evident strategy of selling every moment of the character to the rafters, so that we can see how fully "in" on the joke of this person they are. As if it could possibly be otherwise! Augusta is indefensibly obnoxious, squeezing interludes of faux wisdom (e.g., "Some of us get out of life what everyone else is stupid enough to put into it") or ghastly introspection ("Sometimes I get the awful feeling that I'm the only one left who gets any fun out of life") between her tiresome habits of lying, smuggling, dithering, bamboozling, dragooning, and making a cock of herself. That Smith's garish overplaying, either in sync with Cukor's notes or (one hopes) in defiance of them, amounts to a constant burlesque of unnecessary ironization, maybe even a form of apology, only intensifies the displeasure of spending two endless and arbitrary hours with her. Grating with such brio yet standing apart from her own performance: it's like bringing an intolerable date to a party and imagining that you are easing the situation by telling everyone in attendance, "Sorry about my date, isn't s/he the most grueling nuisance?" A surefire tactic for getting everyone crankier at you than at the bugbear on your elbow.

I like Maggie Smith, even though I can't help grousing about a film career largely misspent on a seemingly willful program of not challenging herself, which makes it harder to view Travels with My Aunt as what it probably is: a massive but early lapse in how to conceive a character for the screen and scaling one's effects. I have only ever liked her less in Tea with Mussolini, almost three decades on. Still, though it's surely down to directors and casting agents as much as it is to her, I wish Smith had learned a lesson of keeping her roles and approaches more varied and earnestly modulated, rather than just keeping a future eye on dialing herself up to "8" or "9" rather than "10" or "11," perpetually. Scuttlebut on the movie has always run that Katharine Hepburn badly wanted and developed this role until the studio dropped her for being too old. I'm not convinced I would have liked Travels in any configuration, but asking a newly celebrated character actress three decades younger than Hepburn to tie herself up playing too old and too young within a lavishly overproduced nonsense plot was surely not the ideal solution... especially once it became obvious (surely by the first day of shooting?) that Smith was making all the crudest, least disciplined choices about how to navigate such a buzzkill assignment. Holding my ear up to the lion's share of her scenes, I hear her saying, sotto voce, "Can you believe what a sod they've made of this script?" and "Aren't you glad I'm at least going at it full-bore?" To each his own diva-kitsch, but from my perspective, No and No.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 37 to Go

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Birthday Girls: Talia Shire

Talia Shire, Rocky
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(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 performances—which 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 feeling—when, 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 in—of 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 once—happy, bashful, a little dopey—but 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.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Birthday Girls: Shirley MacLaine

Shirley MacLaine, Irma La Douce
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1963 Best Actress Oscar to Patricia Neal for Hud)

Why I Waited: Neither Billy Wilder nor Jack Lemmon is high on my list of favorites; it's quite possibly true that I've seen too many of the wrong movies by both of them, but I don't care for The Apartment, the previous and more famous outing for this trio. Irma La Douce is appreciably longer and less well-liked than that one is. Plus, in my experience, Hollywood producers not named Arthur Freed should have stayed out of their studio-set versions of "Paris" more often than they did. Plus, we know right off that we're dealing with a "cute" hooker, handled by a director whose apparent feelings about women I am elated I do not share. So, I admit I had the collywobbles.

The Performance: You say tomato, I say tomahto, you say self-fulfilling prophecy, I say no, Irma La Douce really is incredibly lame, despite the game contributions of cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg and the production designers. MacLaine doesn't help out nearly as much as you're hoping, partly because she can't, and partly because she won't. First, the "can't" part: while it's no surprise that Wilder and Lemmon are utterly besotted with each other, I still thought a film called Irma La Douce had a fighting shot at being about Irma. But once Lemmon's naïve, incompetent police officer shows up, and then falls for Irma, and then concocts one of those don't-ask schemes for why he just has to spend half of the film as a tony British aristocrat duping Irma into serving him exclusively, you just know who's going to win the looming mug-off. In this case, Wilder won't even allow for a fair fight. He cedes MacLaine less and less screen time as the film wears on, and more than that, he pushes her into second- and third-level planes of his setups, or frames her in key scenes so that her back is to us during most of her dialogue. She's annoyingly, joylessly neglected in her own film, which I suspect might have been sold to her as a chance to seize center stage in flouncy costumes and expensive studio style, especially after she was the best damn thing in The Apartment, and cruelly un-Oscared.

So, poor Shirley, whom I often like. But there is most certainly a "but," since nearly all of the charm she used to endear us to Fran Kubelik and distract us as well she could from the distasteful and chauvinist story-structures of The Apartment has turned into a rote, flippant kookiness in Irma La Douce. To grind down all of MacLaine's appeal would take a much worse movie than this one is; she's hard pressed to reap any laughs, but she wins a few smiles. Still, she occupies an unenviable middle-ground between limping through the tired motions of the screenplay and buying into the myth of her own pixie irresistibility. One needn't blame her for the script's many redundancies, like the long opening sequence in which she wheedles extra cash out of all her johns through a daisy-chain of cooked-up bathetic stories. However, she sells all of these stories in just the same low-energy way, appearing as though she adores Wilder and Diamond's dialogue beyond any sense of having to help it along, yet without actually believing a word of it. The character and her circumstances are just a routine to her, a middling-at-best sketch that she might use to pad out a Vegas show or a variety hour, and so it's telling when she ends one scene grinning nonsensically into the camera and making jazz-hands at the audience, and later has to batten down her own giggles after bellowing out a seemingly random line, with a deep, chesty bravado that makes no sense except as the fleeting impulse of an inveterate cut-up who's just entertaining herself.

What MacLaine needs, not for the first or last time, is a director who won't cut away from her quite so often but also won't put up with all her tics and lunges for audience affection. She also needs a film that yanks the lapdog out of her hands and the black rat's-nest wig off her head and gives her something to do instead of crap to hold. Her whole being is cluttered here with props to assemble into a color-by-numbers character—though I admittedly liked her adorable emerald bra, and feel it more than earned its screen time. The one scene where the writing breaks form to suggest what Irma La Douce might have been, if it felt like turning the tables with real zeal on Hollywood's massive dowry of pop-sexist clichés, comes when MacLaine's Irma begs Lemmon's nebbishy boyfriend not to get a job, asking what kind of woman it would make her if she couldn't support a man through her own honest work. It's clearly meant as a needle in the eye of all those "Baby, I'm the breadwinner!" scenes in mid-century movies (and in mid-century marriages), but there's nothing on either side of this scene, despite the gigantic 150-minute running time, to let MacLaine take it anywhere... and because she's taking such a slim and coasty approach to Irma anyway, she's built no reserves of emotion or personality in the character by which to sell the joke as anything but a toss-off gag. She tries that laughing-through-tears bit that shows up in so many of her performances, particularly on the seemingly annual occasion when she rendered another gamine streetwalker, but the bit doesn't have any specificity. You can't deny the movie or the lead performances their moments of zest and color, but there's a lassitude and a spendthrifty, Brat Pack-y complacency to the whole affair, and certainly, too, in MacLaine's comportment. It still speaks ill of Wilder that he so patently loses interest in Irma, but it's more than possible that Shirley beat him to it, and I can't honestly say that I missed her when she receded.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 38 to Go

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Birthday Girls: Judy Davis

Judy Davis, A Passage to India
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1984 Best Actress Oscar to Sally Field for Places in the Heart)

Why I Went Back: Happy birthday, Judy! From one Davis to another. No time to write a proper retrospective for a while, but surely at least a performance review is in order.

The Performance: It's been at least ten years since the first time I saw A Passage to India, during which time I have come to like the movie even less but Davis's performance appreciably more. My basic grudge against the film, not atypical in my experience of Lean's second career in the cinéma du globetrotter, is that the impressive scale and manicured mise-en-scène, however enticing in themselves, nonetheless detract from any sense of a storytelling point of view. Lean's camera barely attempts any empathetic or psychological closeness with his characters. It's all about getting the shot, and not enough about who's in the shot, and what they're doing there. No wonder, then, that Davis struggled to make any impression on me during my initial experience of the movie.

I still think she could have performed more vividly as the ambivalent, eventually hysterical, ultimately humiliated Adela Quested. Also, as much as I try not to mar my moviegoing by projecting my accumulated, telltale impressions of the actors' private personas, it's hard to look at the drawn, somewhat stern, "I wish I were anywhere but here" look that frequently occupies Davis's face and not make a connection to her purported "difficulty" and to her habit, even early in her career, of expressing her disaffection with anything prim, conventional, or wrong-headed in her movies. Knowing what we do (or think we do) about Davis, I would lay down money that she found A Passage to India to be annoyingly postcardish, emotionally remote, and politically dubious. Maybe I just wish she did, so that I could have the honor of agreeing with her.

But on this go-round, I saw something more in Davis's Adela than a sharp but inexperienced actress trying to make sense of an underwritten role in an only fitfully intelligent movie. As early as the first scene, as Adela books her passage on a steamer bound for India and spies a framed drawing of the Malabar Caves on the agent's wall, she wordlessly but unmistakably implies that Adela already has a neurotic fixation, a complex of attraction and revulsion with respect to the idea of the caves, and to India as a whole. Davis refuses to give a showy performance, despite the plummy overacting happening on almost every side of her, which is almost certainly why I underrated her work as a younger viewer and why she was barely a factor in the awards-season circuit until this borderline-surprise nomination. Watchful but undemonstrative, palpably judgmental but unforthcoming with the lion's share of her private verdicts, Davis turns Adela into the crypt-keeper of her own sheltered, contradictory, and highly susceptible feelings. Moreover, she outwits the garish literalism of so much of the movie by refusing to open Adela up by the end—even after the courtroom sequence, which all but invites the actress to release, lavishly and masochistically, whatever she's been bottling up. What does come through, as Adela shivers, cries, and somnambulistically drifts out of the courthouse, is that she's paying a tremendous toll not just for a false allegation and a political treachery but for some inward, guilt-saturated structure of desire that she's never disclosed to anyone, and may only have glimpsed for the first time herself, up there in the witness box.

Davis's Adela—wan and compromised, lacerated by cactus needles in her mad flight out of the caves but just as clearly abraded by her immature sexuality and her huffy superiority to colonial ideologies with which she's nonetheless complicit—is a kind of walking victim of the imperial vampire. Her unhistrionic retentiveness, a quality I don't exactly associate with this customarily carnivorous, take-no-prisoners actress, could absolutely accommodate some more nuances and illuminations. Frequently pushed to the background, limited to silent reactions even in some of her biggest scenes (including a paranoid, almost campy confrontation with an overgrown Indian ruin and the excitable, Aguirre-style monkeys who live there), Davis imbues reservoirs of mystery and disquiet into some of her shots but barely seems to try in others. A final coda in which she reads a letter from Dr. Aziz is a total wash, and I'm sure she'd have preferred a film that took a lot more risks with Adela, or at least avoided such obvious whiffs as offering two, nearly identical sequences in the real-time and flashback versions of the much-debated altercation in the Caves.

Not unusually in this year's roster of Best Actress nominees, by giving the smartest and most dignified performance that the material allows, Davis effaces her own talents more than a sharper filming of the same story would have necessitated, and truth be told, she isn't always sterling in the moments where some freer rein is possible. But not only is she not just treading water near the center of the film, as I once believed, she's almost single-handedly responsible for whatever provisions of mystique and perversity this flat, scenic, and oddly jaunty Passage to India has retained. Less, in her case, is mercifully more.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Actress Files: Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons, The Happy Ending
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1969 Best Actress Oscar to Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

Why I Waited: I'm not the hugest fan of Simmons, finding her somewhere between unmemorable and uninteresting even in a series of "big" movies like Black Narcissus, Hamlet, Guys and Dolls, Elmer Gantry, and Spartacus. I wasn't excited about being stuck with my cropped VHS copy, either, but Turner Classic Movies broadcast it in widescreen while I happened to be staying in a hotel. (Have I mentioned I don't get cable?)

The Performance: Simmons's performance arrives with a few sandbags: she has an absolutely dire co-star in John Forsythe, and her husband, writer-director Richard Brooks, has moved on from mounting glossy, bowdlerized versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth and decided instead to maccrame a belated and unconvincing tchotchke, positioned somewhere between A Man and a Woman and Diary of a Mad Housewife. This is ye olde domestic anhedonia, unhelpfully diced up out of narrative order, and Simmons needs narrative: she doesn't have enough mystery or agility to enliven, sustain, or even perfume a series of discontinuous impressions. At least she's more beautiful than she's ever been, in homey 60s fabrics and long, gently styled tresses that make her visually enticing even as we wait for some kind of character arc to fire itself up—hopefully one that isn't totally dampened by the clichés of ill-concealed alcoholism that start splaying themselves out in her early scenes. True, it's hard not to feel affection for a gal who swills secreted liquor out of a pink, pyramid-shaped perfume bottle, but she kills the buzz with gauzy impersonations of wounded knowingness and a series of lame aphorisms: men prefer cars to women because every year they're invited to trade in a car for a newer model, etc. The screenplay keeps serving Simmons badly, concocting a pre-Shirley Valentine jaunt to warmer climes where she can comb through her depression. She enjoys a brief tryst there with a young Italian lothario (Bobby Darin!) who, you'll never believe this, turns out to be a benign impostor.

But somewhere in the middle of these dog-eared scenes, a sense of conviction and surprising specificity starts seeping out of Simmons's performance, until you wind up believing the lion's share of it, even if you learn nothing from it and remain dubious about the vehicle. She holds the camera with her alternations between the gusto she brings to her wifely recriminations and suicide flashbacks and the underplayed, almost self-mocking ironic tone she wears through her Nassau vacation. I think the trick is that these attitudes aren't as disparate as they could have been: there's a fundamental lack of self-knowledge to Simmons's Mary, except insofar as she knows she's a constant, irritating adversary to her own happiness, and whether it's causing her to act out or fold in, the basic bedrock of the woman remains persuasively consistent. Simmons doesn't sell the bromides of the script as though they're pearls of wisdom, and she keeps underscoring the character's lack of profile and resolution, even when the score and the screenplay are nudging her toward some sort of callow epiphany: returns from the tropics, hugs from her alienated daughter, etc.

The insincere flamboyance of the filmmaking, and the nagging sense that Shirley Jones (as a call-girl buddy), Nanette Fabray (as a sassy housemaid-accomplice), and Teresa Wright (as Simmons's aggrieved mother) are rather openly gunning for Supporting Actress nominations, winds up reflecting positively on Simmons' gradual tamping down on her effects, and her nicely judged earnestness. Maybe she was just as sad as the character she was playing; she was certainly rumored to be just as drink-addicted. The moderate achievement of this performance may have less to do with resourceful craft than with bitter years' experience occupying certain moods, and with making some truths about herself available to the audience... and maybe it helps here, too, that whatever seems perpetually hard, cloudy, or anonymous about Jean Simmons inherently winds up tempering what might otherwise be a ghastly exercise in self-exploitation. She lacks the manic, estranging energy that Gena Rowlands brought to superficially similar parts in the same years, or even the vocal idiosyncrasies that make Carrie Snodgress so indelible in Diary of a Mad Housewife in a way that Simmons isn't, quite, in The Happy Ending. But I suspect it's a performance that would bear up under a second look, particularly insofar as it emerges surprisingly unscathed from a movie that seems built to date and deplete it. Not too much of a happy ending for Simmons: she stayed pretty scarce from the silver screen for the next four decades, before dying earlier this year, so whatever "clicked" in this performance and its AMPAS reception didn't open her up to new professional horizons, where she may or may not have flourished. But "click" it does, unevenly but impressively, in a 1969 roster full of odd-duck personality performances. I left The Happy Ending feeling like I'd spent two hours with a woman, not an actress pretending to be that woman, and in a project as slipshod and tricked-out as this one, that's an honorable feat.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 39 to Go

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Birthday Girls: Jessica Lange

One more April shower of actressexual adoration timed to one more birthday, and then we'll move back to looking at some specific performances. Plenty of other fascinating performers will celebrate birthdays this month (for example, Judy Davis on the 23rd), but the only one I had to make a point of publicly adulating was Jessica Lange, who's in that rarefied company with Emma and Katharine and Tilda of performers I cannot even imagine my high school years without. If you've seen the best of these films, hopefully you can't imagine your life without them, either. If this post prompts you to take a gamble on uneven but nonetheless remarkable and impassioned films like Frances, Sweet Dreams, Country, or Cape Fear, then I'll be one delighted fan. But even if you're one of those who looks at a Lange performance, even the most celebrated ones, and wonders what all the fuss is about—don't worry, this post is for you, too.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Birthday Girls: Emma Thompson

I hate to crowd Julie Christie, whose tribute just went up yesterday, but for this you will have to blame Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law, who brought Emma Thompson into the world the day after the Darling's eighteenth birthday. I have no control over these sorts of scheduling issues. And anyway, it's impossible to feel anything except cosmic, perpetual, imperturbable gratitude toward Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law. They furnished to the world one of its great human beings, and even if she's been absent from the screen a bit more of late than I selfishly prefer, there's even more to savor in her filmography than some viewers might realize. All hail our fair lady.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Birthday Girls: Julie Christie

Several readers recently aired the perfectly sensible opinion that a blog entry occasioned by an actress's birthday ought to err on the side of celebration. So here, in lieu of reviewing a particular performance, I offer one of my occasional mini-essays about an Oscar touchstone and/or a personal favorite, this time for the newly 69-year-old Julie Christie. I'll be back soon with more star-ratings and glosses for some nominated performances from the 1960s, but let's pause here to think about an enduring and fascinating performer who emerged as an icon of that decade but has held our attention in markedly different ways ever since.

Here's a link to her filmography to have handy while you read. Hopefully something more substantial than the reputedly risible Glorious 39 or her small contribution to New York, I Love You will be coming down the pipeline sometime soon. But if not, as I hope I make clear in this short piece, we've already got plenty to cherish from Christie's career.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Actress Files: Betty Compson

Four reasons for this entry:

1) If I can squeeze 17 comments out of a write-up of Mary Pickford, the sky suddenly feels like the limit.

2) I am, at the moment, deep in the heart of actressexuality: that is, in Nathaniel's apartment, so even if I weren't already eager to write up a Best Actress profile, he'd be exacting one as a sort of friendly toll for crashing on his couch.

3) The Barker, the vehicle for Betty Compson's Oscar nomination, is available for viewing nowhere else in the world besides the UCLA Film & TV Archive, and having just visited Los Angeles for the first time in seven years, you know I made a bee-line.

4) With 41 out of 408 Best Actress nominees left to screen as of mid-March, I had exactly the last 10% to review. The combo of hitting this milestone in the project in conjunction with tracking down the most elusive outstanding title has been a great adrenaline kick for the project; I've already screened ten more since Compson. If I made you wait on full year profiles, which always entail some time-consuming returns to past viewings, I'd still be stuck with a slow roll-out, especially since "slow roll-out" is pretty much going to define this blog for the next year. Sorry, folks! BUT, hopefully I can satisfy you with a steady drip of individual performance reviews. And thus...

Betty Compson, The Barker
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(nominated for the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar, losing to Mary Pickford in Coquette; this screen shot is from Vitaphone Varieties' excellent entry on Weary River, but just you try finding an image of Betty in The Barker)

Compson played one tough cookie in Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York, a masterpiece that came out the same year as The Barker but somehow didn't cross the Academy's radar at all. Even when rough, stolid George Bancroft rescues her from an attempted suicide by drowning in the beginning of the picture, she sits there in a bed, smoking a cigarette and shooting spiteful looks at Bancroft as if to say, Why the fuck did you keep me alive? She softens a bit over the course of Docks, but not a lot, and though she's gentler in her other big film of this Oscar vintage, Frank Lloyd's Weary River, she's still nobody's simp. So I cannot honestly tell whether Compson's midlevel work in The Barker bears the aroma of disappointment no matter how you look at it, or whether I'm just so taken with her usual bent toward steely composure inside those delicate, reedy looks that it's just not my cup of tea. The opening movement of The Barker is full of moments where Compson has to pout about the inattentiveness of her putative boyfriend Nifty Miller (!), the older, thicker carnival barker of the title (Milton Sills). She's stuck posing several variations on the line, "How much do you love me?" and seeming pathetically jealous as Nifty increasingly dotes on his own pretty-boy son Chris (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) instead of her. Compson hits these notes of self-pity so hard that you can tell they don't come naturally to her; she plays a cryer and a pleader with the kind of strenuous effort that gorgeous actresses often bring to impersonations of "average" women, and though she's by no means terrible, the effect is comparably flat. The only early sign of promise is that Compson's Carrie, who plays a sexy hula dancer called "Neptune's Daughter" in this traveling fair (!), has a physical ease with her body, especially when she's not performing, so that at least some undercurrent of erotic possibility clings to the character even amid her perma-pout. We first properly meet her as her head and naked shoulders peek over the top of a backstage dressing screen. When Nifty casually drapes his elbow over the screen to speak with her, Compson not only resists any glimmer of modesty or prudishness, she goes right on dressing and undressing, in spite of the old-fashioned pap that's trickling from her mouth.

Soon enough, the top will blow off any sense of Carrie's decorum. As the troupe boards a train for their next circuit date, Carrie pulls a quart of White Mule corn liquor out of her bloomers and, in her waspish inebriation, conceives a plan where her pert, tomboyish friend and co-worker Lou (Dorothy Mackaill) will seduce Chris and carry him off, so that Nifty's focus will pass back to Carrie and their frustrated engagement. Compson's barely got the tin cup in her hand before she's undoing her sad little necktie and her gaze starts to curdle. Even when Nifty catches the women sozzling young Chris on drink and definitely breaks with Carrie, which really gets her pissed, she collapses face-downward on a bed in anger rather than maudlin weakness. I don't, of course, think that acrid emotions entail automatically better acting than gentler ones, but Compson just has so much more vitality when she's seething, and it seems to free up mischief in other facets of the performance, as when she and Mackaill clearly conjure a Sapphic resonance to their scenes of conspiring, with the pajama'd Lou hopping in bed with the lingerie'd, cat-who-ate-the-canary Carrie so they can plot the stages of Chris's ruination. You can guess pretty much how this scheme works out, and though Compson's never quite as "on" or as mischievous as in the scenes of machination, she's rarely as insufferably wan as she started at the outset. True, there are some post-comeuppance scenes that get a little too Sin of Madelon Claudet for my taste, but her terror upon having her misdeeds exposed to Nifty has some real energy to it. In truth, Mackaill deserved the nod for her engagingly modern rendering of Lou, mirroring the look and the demeanor of Claudette Colbert, who originated the part of Lou onstage, though Mackaill is perhaps a more believable product of a shady past than it's easy to imagine Colbert being. Without trying, Mackaill steals a few scenes, as does some of the dialogue—nothing in Compson's performance, perhaps inevitably, measures up to the joyous thrill of those delicious lines by which Nifty hawks her hula-dancing act, including "She'll show you how they shake their shredded wheat on the beach at Waikiki!" and "She shakes a mean barrel of alfalfa, folks, a mean barrel of alfalfa!" But it's nonetheless a fine turn, commemorating what's almost certainly the proudest year of Compson's career.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 40 to Go

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Birthday Girls: Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford, Coquette
★ ★ ★ ★
(winner of the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar)

I have seen Coquette (reviewed here) three times, and I think about it more than anyone probably should. Here's why: Mary Pickford, essaying her first speaking part in motion pictures, is widely cited as the worst-ever winner of the Best Actress prize, and before you go around agreeing with a charge like that, you oughta be sure. Coquette itself is, if anything, even worse than Pickford's performance. The movie is instantly dated, maudlin, erratic, gaudily dressed, and technically slapdash, but before we get to feeling too superior, the real reason I dwell on the movie so frequently is that I often, while sitting before a new theatrical release, pose what I call The Coquette Test. Sure, it's easy to kick a 1929 movie that everyone already hates, directed by that same numbskull who, in the very same year, took a notorious "Additional Dialogue by" credit on his film version of The Taming of the Shrew. But if, say, The Last Station or A Single Man or Me and Orson Welles were also 80 years old, instead of just feeling like spotty and desiccated antiques, would we be any kinder to them than we are to Coquette? Have trophy-minded movies really gotten better, especially when you start ignoring publicists, "buzz," and ad campaigns, and when you avoid the oft-floated logic that just because a hundred Tooth Fairys come out every year that deserve nothing but opprobrium, we should induce a sort of Ivy League grading curve by which something as tawdrily mediocre as Station or Welles gets bumped up to a C? When a prestige movie starts heading south, or when it just starts out that way, I often ask myself, "Would I rather be watching Coquette? Is this movie any less incongruous in its own time than Coquette was in the era of Pandora's Box and The Passion of Joan of Arc?" Reader, I must confess, the face-off usually ends in a draw.

But let's not dodge the issue: Coquette is a dog, and Pickford is barely tolerable in it. She handily gives one of the worst performances ever nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, and she won for it, almost certainly because of her stratospheric celebrity and her crucial role in founding United Artists as well as the Academy itself, only two years prior to her copping this trophy. Awfully cheeky to be 36 years old and playing an airheaded chit who can't help flirting with every man in the room, from her father's peers to the local bad boy. Pickford looks suspiciously dowdy, and not just because her infamous haircut has her looking so matronly, or because she's so perpetually clad in distressed housedresses and nightmarish effulgences of figure-killing tulle. Even amidst such intense internal competition, the most antique thing about Pickford's Norma is the actress's creaky performance style, yet this isn't an "old" style so much as a frantic, immature feint at what grand acting by established masters might look like. Dabblers in early cinema might assume that Pickford hasn't yet recalibrated her gestures or mannerisms to suit the new sonic capabilities of the medium, but you could watch silent films for days without seeing anything this garish. Pickford has no one to blame but herself for her insistence upon buttoning and almost corkscrewing her thin lips until her mouth looks like the knotted end of a balloon, and then calling greater attention to this bizarre mannerism by repeatedly pointing an index finger, inexplicably, to her face. She's a fright of uncontained energy, and not in that Clara Bow way that can be infectious in spite of itself; she looks harried and taxed, like she's somehow overthinking the part without actually thinking at all. She whinges, she scowls, she bends over backward as her boyfriend of ill repute whispers sweet pledges to her in a forest glade. She flails her arms in the air when she races across Southern streams to find him, and sinks like an eight-year-old into the lap of Louise Beavers, humming away as her loyal mammy (!). The close-ups are impossible to parse: if you didn't know that Johnny Mack Brown was playing the object of her adoring ardor, you'd wonder why she's sniffing and glowering at this fellow who has come to surprise her at a dance. Her odd vocalisms ("Ooh yoo doon't knoow my deddy!") make Singin' in the Rain's Lina Lamont seem like a creature drawn from life, and when her character gets dragooned into one of those fifth-act court-trial sequences that have felled many a better movie than Coquette, she quakes in her chair and whips her head about, letting her voice go so high and shrill that you worry she might be tearing it.

In truth, such vulgar bathos represents the high point of what Pickford manages here: her spasms of grief and her wracking sobs of divided loyalty between her priggish dad and her rough suitor at least have some energy, unlike her unlovable take on the preening ingenue or her great-auntish lack of softness or ease in her mid-story clenches. Adding final insult to injury, I always misremember Coquette, which is subtitled A Drama of the American South, as a kind of mothy Hollywood pantomime of ante-bellum backwardness. Sadly, a series of party invitations that become key props about twenty minutes into Coquette confirm that this story is set in 1928, meaning that Sam Taylor thinks that women of the world were still saying things like, "Oh, what does it matter what I do? Oh, MICHAEL!" (when Michael isn't even around, incidentally), and Mary Pickford still thinks that the best use of her talents at 36 is to play an already specious character as 18-going-on-7, for maximum irritation and minimal sense of purpose. If the Academy has rarely got things as right as it did when it voted Janet Gaynor its first Best Actress, it's rarely (if ever) been as wrong as it did with Pickford.

(Poster image c/o the Wikipedia entry for Coquette)

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