Monday, May 31, 2010

Actress Files: Irene Dunne

Irene Dunne, Love Affair
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1939 Best Actress Oscar to Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind)

Why I Waited: As with Lee Remick, checking off this performance meant signing off on a top-drawer roster, and I was sorry to see it go. Affection for Dunne, and hearsay that this was her favorite among her own movies, only amplified the anticipation.

The Performance: The first thing Irene Dunne does in Love Affair is say "I beg your pardon" through a porthole-shaped window connecting an enclosed hallway on a cruise-liner to an outdoor promenade. Why is that special? Because she says it in the quick, peremptory way that you'd actually say "I beg your pardon" in real life, and not as you would say it to a soulmate disguised as a stranger, whom you were meeting at the outset of a classic romance. Her character is called Terry, and the reason she has been hailed into conversation by Charles Boyer's Michel is that a gust of wind has just blown a telegram from his fiancée out of his hand and through this window; he's asking that she pass it back. Sizing up this charismatic, brutely handsome Continental and enjoying his embarrassment, especially after taking a glance at the ripely romantic telegram, Terry teases him to prove that the telegram is really his, forcing him to recite certain details. She's having a passing lark, like a woman who is used to entertaining herself on the spur of the moment with cheeky little dares and parries. She's also baldly flirting with someone she's never met, whom she can only see from the neck up, and about whom the only things she knows are 1) that he's engaged and 2) that he's rich enough to be with her on this boat. Within an instant, she seems like a pretty rare bird, and she has sized him up as one, too, ascertaining as well that they belong to the same flock. Thus, they have immediate bonafides as movie characters, and the makings of a high-flying, promising couple. Yet she's also the kind of woman who can say "I beg your pardon" like she's any woman, anywhere, talking to anyone.

Irene Dunne's appeal rests on such unusual fusions of the ordinary, the glamorous, and the subtly but defiantly odd. There are shots fairly early in Love Affair, while she's encased in a huge, armoire-shaped fur coat and coiffed in a matronly updo, when she looks a bit grandmotherly for a romantic lead. You can see why, as early as Cimarron, when she was eight years younger than she is in Love Affair she was so easily adaptable into old-age makeup. (She was in fact 41 when Love Affair opened, which should inspire a lot of Hollywood women, as well as their fans.) Dunne's air of strangeness has to do with how quickly she presumes familiarity and sets about seducing and needling men who are more "obviously" attractive than she is: Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, John Boles, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She takes liberties, verbally tickling them, looking fully confident that her rectangular smile, her mischievous gaze, her nutty hats, and her habit of throwing arch or exhausted "ah"s and "mm"s into her dialogue are as fetching as anything these matinée idols bring to the table. In her screwball and pseudo-screwball performances, but even in roles like the one in Love Affair, she comes across as a sort of tenuously acculturated version of Katharine Hepburn's Susan from Bringing Up Baby, pleased as punch to start a little trouble at any given moment, and it's both perplexing and funny that she can nonetheless transform in a second into a completely credible society type. One minute, in Love Affair, she's throwing a photographer's pictures into the ocean and having a dry, self-satisfied little chuckle about it. Three beats later, she's embodying the kind of woman who might need to worry if the gossip columns catch her scent, who would feel bad about breaking a rule if it hurt someone, or drew agitating attention to herself. Even if you don't know that Dunne was raised from solid, devout, Republican stock, you can feel her bone-deep handle on "proper" behavior in her performances, even the ones—which is most of them, especially in the 30s, whether she's laughing, yearning, or crying—where she's one way or another tossing dart after dart at the bulls-eye of respectability.

Stanley Cavell famously wrote in Pursuits of Happiness that, of all the great screwball heroines, Dunne is the one whose movies suffer most if you can't jive to her idiosyncratic appeal, even as she's also the actress who's wry and eccentric in just the sorts of ways that might annoy a lot of viewers. Compared to Theodora Goes Wild or Joy of Living or My Favorite Wife or even The Awful Truth, Love Affair strikes me as the film from Dunne's peak period where it's hardest to imagine not falling for her character, but it's wonderful to discover that this isn't because it's a boring or safe performance. Maybe Dunne knows that after playing so many daffy miscreants, it's something of a risk for her to play so many of Terry's feelings semi-straight, whether falling rather suddenly for Michel, or realizing their attraction to each other has an 8©-day lifespan until the ship reaches port. She takes undisguised and unironic pleasure in meeting Michel's stately but smiling grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya, who also plays the ship) and bids her a full-bodied, close-to-tears farewell as they're prancing out of her house. The script even requires that Terry duck into the matron's private chapel and take a few moments out for God. Rudolph Maté lights this scene like a meaningful interlude of piety, catching Dunne and her all-white outfit in a nimbus of angelic light, and her look of simple, religious earnestness is as welcome a surprise as the solemn, perceptible agnosticism on Boyer's brow. Love Affair, a famous movie whose plot is even more of a cultural mainstay care of the 1957 remake An Affair to Remember, eventually depends on a big, bathetic plot contrivance and needs the ballast of plausible, un-tricked-out acting to avoid total shamelessness, and to pack the enormous charge that it has for decades of viewers. A lot of actors, even good ones, would seek to establish plausibility and overcome the big narrative stunt by expressing ardor, anticipation, devastation, and climactic, chin-up martyrdom with such surging commitment that the penny-romance conceits get buoyed along by sheer emotional force. We'll call that the Whitney Houston way to play the part, and make no mistake that I(IIIII-ee-IIIIII-ee-IIIIII....) can be a sucker for that stuff.

But Dunne takes the road of Dolly Parton, letting us know that she will always love Michel by allowing Terry an absolute candor around him, in mirth and passion and sorrow. She banks on the power of sharp, clear, modest phrasing to signal concealed depths, rather than plunging right into them and dragging us along. Some actors congenitally suggest that one mustn't play two emotions at once or can only do so by pointing huge arrows at your own double-meanings. Dunne, though, manages a tinge of sexiness while being briskly funny, adopting a slurry Mae West timbre while dissuading Boyer from confiding his secret romantic angst. "I'm really not very good at that sort of thing," she drawls. "I talk a lot." There's no double-meaning here, just a tangy friskiness that packs more into the line than it's asking. When Ouspenskaya's benevolent dowager worries that Michel has missed out on romantic partnership because "he's been too busy...," Dunne is the perfect actress to complete the sentence ("") in a way that preserves the tactful euphemism, appropriate to speaking with one's elders, while grinning that she knows just what "living" involves in this context, and that she's the last person to frown upon it. "I guess you and I have been more or less used to a life of pink champagne," she confides to Boyer's playboy, without an ounce of the censorious, compulsory Hollywood pretense that the rich, or at least the best among them, don't care about their money. Dunne's Terry is thrilled to have money, and aware that it won't be comfortable to proceed without it, even as she's sportingly up to the fresh challenge of earning her own.

An actor can't give us such complete frameworks for grasping a character's complex feelings, especially those that are germane to the whole plot of the film, without being able and willing at crucial times to tell a different story with her face than with her voice, or able to turn nimbly from one affect to another, as when Terry follows her dreamy citation of her father saying "Wishes are the dreams we dream when we're awake" with the dry-gin chaser of "He drank a lot." In a brilliant bit of direction, perfectly enacted by Dunne, Terry outlines the famous meet-atop-the-Empire-State-Building stratagem for rendezvousing with Michel six months in the future as though she really has lost her heart to him and she enjoys a good romantic cliffhanger... and at the same time, she's clutching her arms and bobbing up and down like it's very cold out there on the deck, so she ends the scene with a clipped, over-the-shoulder "Take care of yourself" as she dashes inside for warmth. Love Affair has enough of its barrels aimed at the summit of screen romance that Dunne, Boyer, and McCarey know that not every shot they take needs to hit that same target. We might even believe the scenario more fully, or care about the characters more richly, if their layers and peccadilloes drive the narrative, rather than allowing the abstract goal of just smashing our hearts dictate everything they say and do, and every way they do and say it.

Why not five stars, then? Well, the final third of Love Affair, where The Whitney Approach would really start going for broke—and I presume, sight unseen, that this is just what Deborah Kerr attempts—is a little less hospitable to Dunne. Her genius lies primarily in timing and in creative, multi-faceted interactions with her co-stars. Therefore, long sequences of her singing unmemorable songs in close-up, while Terry builds up her nest-egg as a nightclub chanteuse, prove an unexpected advert for Dunne's opera-trained soprano but otherwise don't give her anything to do creatively. I love her typical counter-intuition in diluting the performance just when so many actors would start pumping up the volume, and she is a godsend in the moment when Terry and Michel unexpectedly meet in a theater, each in another person's company, and in the short taxi-cab scene just afterward, when she insists as conversationally as possible that she really doesn't want Michel knowing about her waist-down paralysis. But in other, neighboring scenes, playing the ukulele and singing with a cadre of orphans, or negotiating for a job with the orphanage director, she looks a little bored without a more inspiring scene partner. One sign is the deflated way in which she reads some of her lines, even if this deflation is meant to register the ebb in Terry's spirit following her accident. It's just as revealing, though, that in these scenes Dunne reprises some of her oldest standby mannerisms from other performances, like her mischievous grin, with one fingernail resting on her teeth. Not in every moment of an Irene Dunne performance does she look unreservedly involved in what's going on. There are flashes of this habit even in the long final scene with Boyer, where she emotes very movingly in some of her close-ups, but you still sense that she'd be thrilled to do a little more of the talking.

Still, Dunne succeeds memorably in being amusing and aroused and resilient and regretful and somewhere close to ideal in Love Affair, without almost ever taking the most predictable paths toward any of these goals. At 88 minutes, Love Affair itself is as succinct as she is, covering a lot of ground without needing a lot of time, and proving, in perfect sync with its leading lady, that sly and disciplined pithiness can be just as powerfully moving as extravagant excess. At the midpoint of the movie and again in the closing moments, Dunne has to recite a line concerning "the nearest thing to heaven"—I'm sure you can guess what that is—and the sentiments feel too inescapably on-the-nose for a performer who so clearly prefers to arrive sideways into a screenplay's designs, or to tell the audience what we expect to hear through a counter-harmonic approach that only Dunne would conceive. We don't need to hear about the nearest thing to heaven when, left to her own devices, and furnished the proper companions, she has such a sparkling track record for getting us there herself.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 9 to Go

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Actress Files: Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(won the 1946 Best Actress Oscar)

Why I Waited: Two and a half years ago, after screening Kitty Foyle, I realized I had 65 more nominated performances to go (not counting, of course, the 15 new nominees that have been anointed since then). Only four of those were winners, and I've enjoyed saving them up. Surely, though, after I wrote up Joan yesterday, you didn't think her sister-rival could be far behind?

The Performance: "The most mysterious mysteries are people, and usually people who don't seem mysterious at all," states the onscreen epigraph for the 1946 Paramount weepie To Each His Own. "Take Miss Norris, for instance. Here she is, a middle-aged American woman, walking down a London street on a blacked-out New Year's Eve." Olivia de Havilland "takes" Judy Norris to the tune of her first Best Actress Oscar, approaching her with the studied élan of an efficiency expert, devising clear physical and vocal correlatives for every adjective or information-point the screenplay offers about her. Right off, she adopts the harsh, snooty accent of a moneyed, standoffish American expatriate as she haggles over a cab on her way to her fire-watching duties on the roof of a London church. (Fire-watch, v., to keep a nighttime eye on the city, calling in any bomb-related blazes before they can spread too far). After some bickering and some light-comic mishaps with her fellow cyclops, a George Sanders type called Lord Desham (Roland Culver), the two repair to a café where he describes coming home from World War I to find his wife and child dead of the so-called Spanish flu. Full stop on Lord Desham: the movie only includes this dolorous tale as a generic prompt to goad Judy into her own reminiscences of hardship. Or rather, to allow de Havilland the kinds of close-up reactions that leave no doubt she's holding back her inward laments. As the actress takes pains to show us—her vowels aggressively arch, her clothes and hat completely concealing, her fine jaw warily pulled back toward her neck in instantaneous response to Desham's compliment, her dark eyes guarded and transparently preoccupied—Judy isn't giving up her ghosts to a total stranger. She prefers to unspool them in voiceover, and then in fully re-enacted flashback, so that de Havilland can start off with a new assemblage of character traits: the smart but modest makeup, the open manner, the "nice" but ardent romantic daydreams of an early-century upstate New Yorker, the ice-cream scooper and checkout girl in her father's smalltown pharmacy and convenience store.

De Havilland is by no means a bad actress, and in fact, she has the serious commitment to detail, the curiosity about character, the self-confidence, and the susceptibility to various passions that often a distinguish a really strong one. She's impressively go-for-broke in The Snake Pit, intriguingly devious in My Cousin Rachel, and, for all the divided opinions about her gleaming saintliness in Gone with the Wind, able to sustain subtle fluctuations and nuances of an essentially good person. But the first thing To Each His Own tells us is that Judy is "mysterious," and this de Havilland isn't. If anything, she translates in many of her performances as rather proud of herself, though without the panache or the illuminated complexities of headstrong goddesses like Davis, Hepburn, Crawford, or Bankhead. Particularly after the famous early-40s case in which she won freer rein to choose her own projects (and thereby rendered a magnificent service to a legion of fellow actors), de Havilland gravitates to pictures and directors that radiate a Hollywood studio's idea of "prestige," and there's something of the docent's look in her eye: Note the fineness of this film. Allow me the honor of starring in it for you. By all means, let me take you on a tour of this interesting woman.

Considered a bit differently, in movies like To Each His Own or her other Oscar-winning performance in The Heiress, de Havilland seems like a self-consciously strong student who is eager to get herself into the honors courses and impress teachers and fellows alike with her diligent, well-expressed variations on the lock-and-load research project, the correct geometric proof, the five-paragraph essay. There's ability but not a surfeit of fire, and even less of mystery: her eagerness to show you some good acting involves disclosing how scrupulously she takes her work, how thoughtfully she has searched for just the right techniques and gestures to demystify anything uncertain in the script. She submits her notes as well as her finished compositions for the audience's approval, and she waits for the day the Dean's List is posted. Admittedly, I respond in some of the same ways to the screenplays of Charles Brackett, which are almost always as sturdily constructed and arc-defined as everyone says, with dollops of comic incident and "character moments" thrown in for extra delight, but often with the same effect of broadcasting his processes of plotting and outlining. In mid-quality scripts like the one for To Each His Own, which are still much stronger than a lot of other writers' mid-grade scripts, I don't observe the jokes, the flashbacks, the interruptions, or the climaxes without hearing Brackett's conscience saying, "Let's lighten things up here to keep the film from getting soggy," or "Here's the instant they should reach for the Kleenex," or "Here I tarted up the structure a bit, to keep the audience from getting bored, and to show off the contrasts in Olivia's performance."

You can easily see why these caliber and species of talents would gravitate to each other, and why de Havilland, in the immediate wake of her judicial campaign for better roles, would leap at a story that gives her so many guises to inhabit: the fluttering innocent, the girl crushed by a necessary secret, the self-made Mildred Pierce, the blackmailer whom the audience can't begrudge, the Stella Dallas who'd rather ache in silence than crash her kid's good time. She isn't always tepid or fully safe in her approach. The whole premise requires that young Judy draw certain lines beyond which she's no longer willing to be the paradigmatically good girl, and though de Havilland misses a dozen opportunities for added depth during her whirlwind courtship with cynical aviator Bart Cosgrove (John Lund, not appealing), she melts pretty well when the time comes. Sure, she makes up for it by acting disappointingly prim even when she's by herself—ladling herself a symbolically significant glass of milk with finishing-school decorum, when there's so much else she could articulate in this moment—but she's convincingly antsy while dancing the steps of a tense social fandango that's meant to preserve her happiness and her good name, and convincingly devastated when the Fates capriciously intervene. Even in the best of times, then, the successes of the performances maintain a steady embrace with its limitations. De Havilland has focused too much, perhaps, on staving off the harpies of propriety who would slag off Judy Norris as a "bad girl," but she has sunk to the unimaginative level of these hypothetical tsk-tskers by preemptively countering with a cautious, fatally unmysterious blandness. She's much too flat and procedural with lines that could have carried delicious weight: "This is what I hoped flying would be like," "They talk about him as if he were dead, just dead," "I'm a traitor to everything you stand for," et al. Her Judy, to my mind, is more relentlessly "decent" than her roseate Melanie, because the gradations of the later performance are actually much blunter, and she has conceded in advance to the logic that stronger signals of pleasure, ambivalence, eroticism, pragmatism, or cruelty would be the marks of a bad person.

To Each His Own unfolds not unlike one of those early-30s, Sin of Madelon Claudet-style numbers where the unwed mother, having lost or renounced or sacrificed her child, undergoes a kind of picaresque of good and bad fortunes while trying to recover her life—with the obvious corollary agenda of accumulating untouchable credentials as a parent who warrants the restoration of her child. Sure, she becomes a cold-creme magnate instead of a trod-upon prostitute like Helen Hayes did, but you know the template. De Havilland gets a couple of scenes to flaunt her nouveau wealth and strategically wheedle her boy away from the couple who has raised him, by holding their financial fortunes in her immaculately gloved hand. The film hedges its bets by contriving to have the husband in this adoptive couple be a lifelong admirer of Judy, in fact a previously rejected and still-simmering suitor, but the actress sends no signals of thinking one way or another about him while she makes her big, remorseless play with only little Gregsy in mind. (Yes, "Gregsy.") She gets a luxe, dark, end-of-Blonde Venus ensemble in which to conduct this plaintive but mercenary errand; why Mary Anderson's Corinne is suddenly dressed as Dolly Madison is less clear. Anyway, de Havilland doesn't foreclose all sense that Judy isn't entirely on the up-and-up here, or that she might even enjoy pinning the possessive Other Mother to the wall. But here again, she softens and beams a bit too much just as the standoff is coming to a head, one of too many moments in To Each His Own when de Havilland elects to play "love" or "motherhood" or "what's best for the child" as spotless, burnished, uninterrogated ideals. She pitches right into the expectations of a dully conceived audience, rather than reflecting any of the character's own truths and striated experiences, starting with the fact that for Judy to remember herself as having been sublimely in "love" with Capt. Cosgrove is at best a self-protective delusion.

The final sequences of To Each His Own complete the actress's cosmetic tour of age brackets, and I certainly grant her the technical execution of her late-middle-age posture and voice, though the shoe polish under her eyes was a bit much, and she gives the strange effect of having aged remarkably between leaving for a train station and arriving there, and again during the car-trip from the station to her house. At last, she offers some of her most complicated, conflicted acting during these last-act scenes, as she wrestles with the decision of revealing her true identity to her now-grown boy or whether to stay mum, and questions whether her silence has more to do with insulating his contentment or with placating her own sense of shame. In a few of her close-ups, you can even see some doubt passing over her eyes about whether Gregory's genial but peremptory behavior has only to do with his incomplete information about what's going on or if he's just, you know, insensitive and a little rude.

De Havilland still might have done more with these scenes, but by the same token, I don't mean to imply that she's so completely on-the-nose in the preceding 100 minutes that there's no excitement in watching her, no possibility of the character's feelings having a claim on the audience. There's just too little sense of those feelings having deepened, shifted, or grown more complex in passing from the script to the screen, through the creative medium of the actress. An even more docile actress like Jane Wyman proves in films like All That Heaven Allows, albeit in tandem with a more ambitious and skeptical director, that you don't have to play a "bad girl" to communicate the labors and ironies of trying to do what's right and yet always finding yourself holding the short straw, or of being prone to sexual arousal despite an onscreen persona that's hardly designed to set the reels on fire. Frankly, the script for To Each His Own and the brusque performances of the other actors give de Havilland many more opportunities than Wyman, or other actresses in similar parts have had, to explore her character's discontents, and to violate her personal standards for propriety without losing the empathy of the audience. The film was nonetheless a hit and a key step, maybe the key step, in de Havilland's sudden ascendancy to the top spot among Hollywood's dramatic actresses. Oscar was obviously impressed, though de Havilland's legal victory against Warners surely gave her a huge boost in the voting, as, I expect, did her showy dual role during the same year as a murder suspect and her twin sister in Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror. I haven't seen that one, but I suspect it offers de Havilland another chance to impress us by differentiating separate guises of herself in the same movie. I still wish she showed a defter hand at finer nuances, and that she'd have worked more often and more mysteriously to find the fissures and ambiguities within a single guise of herself, without a decades-spanning plot or a double role or a flash-forward epilogue like the one in The Heiress to help her along. But as they say—even though I'm not sure what else it's intended to mean in this particular movie—to each his own.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 10 to Go

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Actress Files: Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine, The Constant Nymph
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1943 Best Actress Oscar to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette)

Why I Waited: This title is quite a rarity, so even getting to see it feels like accomplishment enough to wait until the near-end of the project.

The Performance: A star-rating conundrum, because the performance poses strange problems, and so does my past history with Fontaine. Probably like a lot of people, my first exposure to her work arrived through her knockout turn in Rebecca, where she's romantic, and quite convincingly desperate. She only struggles, as everyone does, with the transition into the talkier second hour and, more individually, with a tendency to evoke the character's fragility by telescoping her own evident nerves. I saw her next in The Women, though I frankly don't remember her at all, and in a small part in the under-heralded Quality Street that I recall clearly and fondly. Then, the huge disappointment of Suspicion, relying on all the same tricks as her Rebecca role but diluting its strengths and intensifying all of her weaknesses: a tendency to whinge and plead rather than act, a worrisome lack of personality, long ruts of playing the scenes in the same, vague way. She seems only fitfully able to grasp the character as more than an enfeebled victim and conspicuously begs the audience to pity her, despite how much else there is to play in this script. It's called Suspicion, Joan, not Blessed Are the Meek. Spin some wheels! Think through your problems! Give us some fiber, some feistiness, some exasperation, some sense of why you stay even when everything augurs so badly. Pick up the pace! As the "Win, Lose, or Draw" contestants in When Harry Met Sally... urge, "Draw something, resembling anything!"

Suspicion so got under my skin (in a bad way) that I underestimated the toughness and spirit in Fontaine's Jane Eyre; I kind of clocked out whenever she started going Trembling Flower on me again, which is less often than I had recalled, though she does do it. But then she connects in Letter from an Unknown Woman with a precision and maturity I'd never seen before in her acting, ironically enough by playing her most yearning, self-effacing, and passionately suffering character, who ought to have been too young for her. How to explain that, and why doesn't it bring me around to feeling more confident when I approach one of her performances? Poking around the 40s, I'm impressed by some of the weight and bite she puts into early scenes in This Above All, which is eventually too treacly to be believed, and by her screwball exuberance in The Affairs of Susan, which is an unexpected and imperfect fit for this actress, but it placates me to feel that she, too, wanted a break from playing human water lilies, with knitted brows and bitten lips. She's someone I'd love to see in a strong performance one more time, to feel more able to extend the credit she deserves for her peaks. I'm thrown off, though, and a little freaked out by her apparent fetishization of weakness and mistiness, marring her best work and prompting me toward an undue focus on her limitations. For a long time the "Mama always liked Olivia best" meme from her real life didn't help, since it sounds like more whingeing. Frankly, though, as the years pass, Olivia's work has started to look a bit more smug and safe, while I notice it's Joan who seeks out the Ophülses, the Welleses, the Hitchcocks, the Lupinos, the Manns, the Langs. I'm a mess of preoccupations: I can't tell whether she's an eager student of masters or a disciple of passivity, a woman who ought to cut it out already with the schoolgirls or a vessel of unusual compassion, gravitating toward stymied women but not exclusively so, and capable of a real, moving connection with their first flushes of longing.

The Constant Nymph, for me, doesn't settle the question of how "good" an actress Fontaine finally is. I still credit an exceptional combination of ingredients for managing to extract precisely what is most special about her in Rebecca and Letter from an Unknown Woman. What The Constant Nymph does, though, is bring me palpably 'round to Fontaine's side, feeling well-disposed toward the performance even in its shakier angles and passages, and deciding once and for all that 40s cinema would lose something without her missionary work on behalf of girlish dreamers and piners. Nymph plays a bit like a rough draft for Unknown Woman. Here again, Fontaine is in pigtails, acting less than her real age while she rhapsodizes about a Francophone pianist-composer, even if Charles Boyer passes under the memorably non-Gallic name of Lewis Dodd. We first meet Fontaine's Tessa Sanger dashing all over the rural cottage where she lives with her father and sisters, astir at the news that Lewis is paying the Sangers one of his occasional visits. Upon his arrival, she beams at him with a desire that she either doesn't yet understand as romantic love or just doesn't want to recognize as such. She is, after all, a schoolgirl, so the intergenerational dynamics of The Constant Nymph can be disconcerting, well beyond seeing 26-year-old Fontaine dashing about in pigtails and braids. But at least it's energetic dashing, with some Jo March flavor—though closer, for sure, to Ryder than to Hepburn.

In truth, these scenes could be insufferable: Fontaine's every other line contains her breathlessly sighing out the name "Lewis!", often to the exclusion of any other words. She fails to convince when "singing" high soprano while Lewis works out some bars of a new, swooning symphony. From here, she runs helter-skelter out of the music room, clambering into the woods and atop a rock where Tessa likes to do her best thinking and compose exuberant iambic pentameter in tribute to sublime expiration: "I have tonight a quiet desire to die," etc. It starts to feel as though Hollywood, not just Fontaine, ought to have outgrown these templates of rustic but high-minded sentimentality. Deaths in the family loom on the horizon, as do chillier and more age-appropriate rivals for Lewis's heart, even if Tessa still doesn't think of herself as campaigning for that prize. Lewis starts to recognize his own conjugal longing for Tessa around the time he has become her legal guardian, which will feel a bit too Soon-Yi for a lot of viewers. The film detours around these and other sticky issues by opting for the simultaneously damp but airy cliché of Art über Alles, though one wishes its view of art weren't so laughably parochial. The whole script turns on Tessa's being—despite her avowals that she hasn't any talent or vocation whatsoever—the only soul around who possesses the aesthetic sensibility and the exquisite intuition to realize that Boyer's Lewis ought to hang up his stentorian, crash-banging modern music and write something "real," in the form of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's gushing tap of unprocessed syrup. Actually, everyone seems to agree that Lewis ought to renounce "uncomfortable dissonance" for mawkish melodiousness, but somehow Tessa gets all the credit, perhaps because she's the only one who gazes off plaintively in the distance during those furious chords, rather than looking as though she's just witnessed a murder, or at least sucked a lime.

I should mention, Tessa also experiences regular fainting spells due to the "valvular lesions" in her heart. Lewis, for this reason and for others, makes earnest appeals that she protect her heart as she moves into the world. "But my heart's a very simple heart," she gently responds. "Isn't that some protection?"

Why isn't this catastrophic, or at least irretrievably precious? Who could expect anyone, but especially Fontaine, to get away with whispering beatifically about her simple heart, sporting plaits and a retro D.W. Griffith housedress in the era of Eleanor Roosevelt, Ingrid Bergman, the WACs, and Rosie the Riveter? Part of what saves Fontaine is that she's able to play young, innocent excitability without being fussy about it and relating to the feelings more than the external surfaces. Occasionally the performance feels a little bit busy with all the impassioned racing around. But in the crucial scenes where Lewis plays his music, she captures the timid reverence of youthful awe, stripped often enough of those antic, broad gestures by which most performers attempt to play beneath their own age. She doesn't seem constitutively placid so much as rendered speechless by beauty, and there's nothing else in The Constant Nymph's script that she short-changes by emphasizing Tessa's sublime, even thoughtful immobilization in these moments. As an actor, Fontaine keeps the focus on what inspires the character to such raptures, rather than selling us too hard on the idea of the character herself being deep or exquisite. When she gets that speech on the rock about the "poetic" feelings that overtake her in her private woodland enclave, she rattles off the dialogue very quickly, as she nearly always does in the purplest passages of the script. She therefore conveys a young girl being inarticulately overrun by strong feelings, rather than paying maudlin tribute to each and everyone of them, or indulging herself with slowed-down, self-conscious displays of how uniquely introspective Tessa is (despite Lewis's regular reiterations that she is "the pick of the bunch"). She feels most of the time like a credible girl, not an angelic savant. The script seems eager to settle for the latter, so Fontaine's avoidance of that more treacly route earned my admiration.

I also loved the moments when Boyer and Fontaine got to detach from the plot and show the audience their fond comfort and ease with each other: sinking into conversational rather than dramatic rhythms, clearly improvising with physical gestures, managing to be convincingly low-key while preserving an intense, motivated focus on each other. These interludes remind me very little of typical 40s acting, although it's not the first time Edmund Goulding has led ensembles into such charming, unrushed, convincingly intimate offhandedness (see, for example, the persuasive small-town family in White Banners). For all her coltish energy as Tessa, and sometimes it is too generically expressed, Fontaine is able to relax inside the character in a fetching way, renouncing any style of acting that would redirect The Constant Nymph's empathy toward so many characters into a vehicle for her own focus-pulling pixieness. Don't you walk into a movie called The Constant Nymph expecting to be bonked over the head with gamine adorability? Fontaine's Tessa looks too caught up in everything and everyone she's reacting to to seem nearly as invested as I'd predicted in yanking the audience's heart-strings. She could certainly take the character deeper, or shed even more affectations, or steer even clearer of her standby expressions of wistfulness. But I believed that she believed in the part, and I appreciated that she wanted us to like Tessa for her thoughtfulness, her modesty in the face of beauty, and the woman she seems on the verge of becoming, not for an overly glossed-up or time-stopped portrait of the girl she already is, or because we sense danger from her heart ailments (which, by the way, she plays very well). I might re-watch the movie and wish I'd been a little tougher on her, but I've confessed my biases and how pleased I am that they didn't kick in. And in many ways, the measure of a performance like this may inhere in how well it induces the viewer's feelings of tenderness toward the character, without feeling manhandled into it. Fontaine makes clear and disciplined choices (enough of them, anyway), she demonstrates fine interactions with her director and her co-star, and she doesn't make me feel like a simp or a dupe for finding Tessa Sanger nearly as dear as she obviously does. That's good enough for me.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 11 to Go

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Actress Files: Edith Evans

Edith Evans, The Whisperers
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1967 Best Actress Oscar to Katharine Hepburn for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner)

Why I Waited: A legendary turn in a category that's shorter on those than I wish it were. In fact, I probably should have retained her as my token representative of the 60s in my final ten performances, but after recently marveling at Kim Stanley and Leslie Caron in films by the same director, I couldn't wait. The long-deferred arrival of a DVD, with a slightly cropped but still exquisite-looking image, was even harder to resist.

The Performance: So let me get my one caveat out of the way, which is more a mark against the movie than against Evans, though it hampered my love for the performance just a bit. The Whisperers, for me, had a hard time working out how deeply it wanted to involve itself in narrative, and which aspects of its story it felt really committed to. Edith Evans is in every scene, often alone, but other characters pass in and out of the film according to very strange cadences. Some stay much longer than you're expecting, some flit in and out and come to naught, some make entrances that reshift the focus of the whole film only to depart it again, and some pop up for recurring appearances, involving themselves crucially with the life of the Evans character, but not finally rewarding either story or theme as much as I expected. In some ways, these diegetic off-rhythms are an intriguing device by which director Bryan Forbes—who has generated multiple forms of unease and dread in several films, without ever repeating the same ones—unsettles our expectations and keeps our sensibilities on edge in yet a new way. But in another sense, Evans is rendered even lonelier than the scenario already requires. She's not just the engine of the movie but in many ways is the vehicle herself, as well as its destination point. Writing these Best Actress profiles has only reinforced to me that, as much as I seem to be celebrating individualist achievement, the greatest performances are those in which the ingenuity of the performer and the formal, thematic, and storytelling work of the film continue to raise each other's game. The Whisperers is a stylish and spindly puzzle, but good as it is, Evans's contribution so enormously overwhelms any dividend the film pays back to her that I felt a slight pang of disappointment by the end. Maybe I'm thinking too much about how Caron's work in The L-Shaped Room takes fullest flight by interacting in such beautifully calibrated ways with other characters, in ways that maintain a profound resonance in the scenes where Caron is left alone in her own thoughts. Or maybe I'm preoccupied with recalling how the criminal, the detective, and the spiritualist strands of Séance on a Wet Afternoon collide so decisively in the final scenes, such that Stanley's character has to reveal her governing priorities once and for all, and her choice was so surprising to me, I was knocked back in my seat.

Evans's exchanges with characters played by Avis Bunnage and Eric Portman are very involving, but they're hard-pressed, maybe even helpless, to be as interesting as she is in solitude. Is she doing too much? Is the film doing too little? The story of The Whisperers circles around more than it develops or culminates, racing through seemingly crucial plot elements such that I wondered on a few counts whether I'd blinked and missed something. Fans of the movie will assert that these misgivings lie close to the point of The Whisperers. In any case, the predominating issue is that Evans is so magisterial, poignant, discomfiting, and instantly addictive that I couldn't help craving a film that evinced a more fully realized sense of what to do with her. Speaking more generously, Forbes may well have intended an off-center experiment in stalled but cyclical dread and in evoking a claustrophobic environment via an unexpectedly heavy reliance on wide, exterior shots—odd, ambitious goals in both cases, and fairly well executed. Maybe these or other plans for the film just got overshadowed by Evans's brilliance in her role, the proportions by which Forbes had mapped the rest of the movie rendered irrecuperable by such a tour de force.

So, let's get to that tour de force—and let's imagine getting this script and tracing this character on paper, pretending that we haven't witnessed everything that Evans does with it. A woman living alone, 76 years old, long ago abandoned by her husband and seldom visited by her son. She hears voices, probably as a projective coping mechanism after years of isolation, but this isn't the supernatural ghost story I had imagined. We barely hear the "whisperers" even when she does. Her flat is a rat's nest of newspapers, bundles, and empty milk bottles. Her only external errands are visits to a Christian charity for hymns and hot soup, furtive siestas in the library where she can warm her stocking feet on the pipes (tsk tsk, say the guards), and visits to the public-assistance office, where she inquires about huge, clearly imaginary windfall sums that we know are never coming, and pretends to "make do" for the time being with the tiny dispensations that represent her state allotment.

We know how many actresses would flat say no to playing such a sad old lady. Setting those vanity cases and lazybones aside, we know how much art, though perhaps dubious art, could go into making her an "irrepressible" comic figure, or a pathetically terrorized victim, or a Jane Darwell type soldiering on beneath an invisible halo, sporting a phantom sandwich board that reads "ARE YOU NOT ASHAMED? FEED THIS WOMAN!" To curtail the bathos, the generic nobility, or the possibility for mockery might itself require someone as peerlessly stage-trained as Evans, leading to the sorts of reviews where one writes, in earnest awe, "She gets laughs without selling the character short," or "She shows this woman's misery without looking like she's got the full weight of a Message Picture on her," or "She makes us feel desperately sorry for this woman without trafficking in gooey sentimentality." I'd have been thrilled to watch some imagined version of The Whisperers and feel any of those ways.

In some ways, I do wind up feeling those things even about this version of The Whisperers, but Evans flies so far above those frameworks of praise that you practically have to start over. I had expected a virtuosic crack-up under the macabre pressure of supernatural taunts, doubtlessly gumming the line between fantasy and reality—sort of Repulsion for the Hospice set. Indeed, there are elements, too, of this scenario in the film and of this sort of potential energy in Evans's work. But we have to start back even further, because Evans has done more than inhabit one of these tonal influences on The Whisperers and elevated it through consummate technique. She has not even stopped at her breathtaking feat of braiding those registers I've already hinted at, the pitiable, the droll, the frightening, and the humbling, although this she also does, with astonishing and sometimes eerie finesse. Evans doesn't look like she's thought in terms of genre the slightest bit, and the "register" of her performance pivots so continually—often a dozen times within a single scene—that I'm confounded to extrapolate a general description. The humor in the performance has black blood; that is, sometimes the demented and forlorn say the darnedest things, and all of a sudden, but the giggles choke a bit in your throat. The neglect in which Mrs. Ross lives has not made her persona pathetically small, nor blustery and grand in the absence of any pushback. Instead, the disaggregating strands of her personality pass over her like cloud systems: wisps of cirrus, abrupt stormbarrels of slate-gray, patches of clear and windless light, cottony plumps of cumulus. The larger canvas across which these dispositions pass is a disheveled but oddly snooty stupefaction, hanging together but rubbed bare, like the corduroy at an old professor's elbows.

Evans clearly has a complex and practiced take on old age, and is interested in the atmospheric and psychological tensions generated by slowing things down. Mrs. Ross doesn't whip from reveries to indictments to fogginess to paralysis with Three Faces of Eve suddenness. She's not interested in putting on a light show. The effect is closer to that of a cloudy crystal ball, in which one side of this woman emerges for a moment before singing back into the whited-out mist, from which some other face emerges a beat or two later, and often quite a different one. Mrs. Ross lags into weary dumbfoundedness, staring at nothing and not moving for a few moments in a row, before leaping with sudden dispatch to pound her broomstick against her ceiling, in protest of the upstairs neighbors and their noisiness. She casts a mistrustful eye at a neighbor in the welfare office, and then passes into a sort of human fadeout (but to gray, rather than black) and then she starts offering a random chapter of fruity-voweled autobiography. "You see, I married rather beneath me...," she expounds, listing heavily to one side, as though her posture has aphasia; she is vehement in her pronunciations, as though she's a deaf old beast trying to hear herself but also as though she's taking patrician care in making her own life story, which is fascinating if she doesn't mind saying so, perfectly pellucid to other people. Few of these vocal, bodily, or attitudinal habits feel like anything I've seen before, and the enigmas or the brazenness or the stillness or the unexpectedness of each of them only lends more mystique to the others—but always with the effect of playing Mrs. Ross, not playing "mystique."

Evans can do anything: hug herself with the dumb, indolent satiation of the fetus in the womb; sag into silence; retreat from insults and dangers in a spirited panic; faint dead away; put on ladylike airs, stone-seriously though they're laughably misplaced; take gumsmacking slurps of honey from a jar, like some Faulknerian idiot, or a high-culture spin on Edith Massey; achieve a Giulietta Masina expression of clock-faced hyperalertness, then drape a mothy veil of dementia over top of that, then peer toward the edge of the frame at something that probably isn't there but has you immediately dying to know. When she's menaced by a cadre of thugs, who have either taken some money or are trying to find out who did, she doesn't play the defiant old battle-axe or the terrorized septuagenarian, but a five-year-old whose fear takes the shape of annoyed incomprehension: "He hasn't come home," she protests, in a high, tiny, but weirdly substantial voice that neither the criminals nor the audience have any idea how to respond to. But that petulantly plaintive five-year-old is trapped in a body that's the very shipwreck of the aging poor. She sometimes has an insane, mischievous sprightliness, like Miss Marple as played by a barely made-up Charles Laughton as played by an inmate from Marat/Sade, under constant threat of the hose. She confounds any organizing border among madness, indigence, and solitude. In the case of this woman, they mean the same thing, but without reducing the sense of their being reinforcing rather than identical or successively causal problems. Tim reflects, brilliantly, that Evans's is essentially a Beckett performance, and sometimes a trio of monosyllables (we're not friends..., you left me...) are all she needs to transform a sleek mid-60s kitchen-sink chiller, as though those are a dime a dozen, into the bare, planked stage of absurdist existentialism. She's Winnie from Happy Days buried in a more realistic mound of her own life's refuse, but then she gets out and ambles into who knows what, and then she finds herself quite literally back in the gutter. And then she's locked up. And then she's let back out. Is she the same woman she was before, or has she been cured, soothed, further deteriorated? Evans hints but she won't come out and tell.

Doesn't it sound like an awful lot is going on in this performance? Are you wondering as you read this how insufferably fussed it must be, how hard the movie must be pushing her around, or how flamboyantly Dame Evans must be pushing the character around? It's a huge task to evoke the extremities, the ambitions, the eccentricities, and the weird fusions of this performance, much less the bafflingly simultaneous payoffs of bemusement and profound sadness. The only character I can think of to set aside Edith Evans's Mrs. Ross is Ellen Burstyn's Sara Goldfarb, but where Burstyn has to exemplify the loud rhetorical yawps of a hyped-up writer, a heavily-amped director, and a pugilistically unambiguous moral, Evans confounds any final "message" in the performance even more than the script does. She finds all of this tumult not in a harrowing downward spiral, but in the mystery of a ruined person, as untended as a graveyard garden. Burstyn grimacing at her grapefruit breakfast, or wondering if her son hears her teeth knocking against each other, before either of them has mentioned it: those moments, if you know them, suggest a bit of Mrs. Ross, but everything else about Sara Goldfarb is a fever-red or a mold-green explosion, whereas Evans seems to heighten and underplay, suggesting years of unenviable living within the poses, rhythms, lies, and fluting vocalisms of a lady who's all whites and grays, against a forbiddingly sooty backdrop. Without a smash-cut in sight, Evans offers a pause-giving nightmare of riding out one's years in deranging solitude, with hallucinated comforts and with predators less imaginary than they might appear. But there's also something ...happy about Mrs. Ross? Could this be? Evans thinks of even more questions than the script does. She dignifies the character even when she's drooling or in the grip of delusion. She's conducted deep, private investigations into the woman's unwritten backstory, and she supplies and obscures the evidence she has unearthed with equal constancy, and equal aplomb.

Are you still reading, or have you marched off to rent it by now?

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 12 to Go

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Actress Files: Joanne Woodward

Joanne Woodward, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1973 Best Actress Oscar to Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class)

Why I Waited: So what if Columbia had no idea how to market this movie to a general audience, saddling it with that title Woodward hated so much and an even worse tagline on the poster: "Beautiful. Frigid. She is called a Snow Queen." Were they dead-set on losing their investment? For me, though, this prospect is pure catnip: a pedigreed lead actress, 30s darling Sylvia Sidney in a comeback cameo, and nominations for both. I've enjoyed looking forward to this one.

The Performance: I know there are exceptions to this rule, but especially after the mid-60s or so, "a Joanne Woodward movie" means something at least as specific to me as "a Howard Hawks movie" or "an Alfred Hitchcock movie." Lots of actresses take pains to advertise their versatility, and Woodward's most famous, Oscar-winning role in The Three Faces of Eve accomplishes just that in the space of a single film. But at the expense, I'm sure, of working as often as she deserved to, Woodward's presence above the title signifies a strongly internalized drama, slightly vinegar in flavor, depending entirely on very fine subtleties in line readings, rhythms, and facial expressions—notwithstanding the fact that Woodward has an acerbic, somewhat defiant screen presence that would seem to forestall rather than encourage spectatorial penetration. For the most part, she's the polar opposite of more florid, gestural performers like Ellen Burstyn and Jessica Lange, although she adjoins them in my mind because they all share a gift for seeming wholly committed to their characters even when they telegraph a cranky discontent with their movies. They also seem a lot smarter and pricklier than most of the people who interview them, are quite unafraid to disclose this, and are completely uninterested in amending those aspects of their acting that detractors most dislike: Burstyn's officious, very Actor's Studio compositing of character tics, Lange's restless riflings through her regular bag of mannerisms, or Woodward's tendency to lower the temperature in a given room while looking rather haughty about it. Probably, by someone, she is called a Snow Queen. Disciples of movie divas who crave bright colors, movements across a range of genres, and zingy PR are inescapably brought up short by Woodward. If you like her style, though, you really like it, as witness her becoming only the fourth actress to rack up three Best Actress citations from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams was the second of those three films, and it perpetuates the driving paradox of Woodward's big-screen career: almost every one of her starring vehicles serves as a kind of apotheosis for her flinty persona and for her particular angles of interest in human character, and yet, if you set Eve White, Rachel Cameron, Rita Walden, Amanda Wingfield, and India Bridge side-by-side, they barely resemble each other. As Rita, the frosty, ornery centerpiece of Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, she has none of the frustrated sensuality that she lights so slowly and fascinatingly under her character in Rachel, Rachel. Rita is neither looking to change her life (though she'd evidently prefer for people around her to change their lives a little), nor is she trying to charm anybody, nor does she appear to suffer in her marriage, regardless of some unmistakably arid winds that blow inside it. One of the earliest scenes in Summer Wishes finds Rita paying a cantankerous visit to an eye-doctor, and we're a good many beats into the scene before we understand that Martin Balsam's patient doctor is also her husband, Harry. As will be true for the rest of the film, Woodward remains just this side of bitchy and Balsam pulls back from acting beleaguered. Their characters appear inclined in those respective directions, especially after a long marriage, but she would be bored and remorseful at inhabiting the cliché of the inhospitable cold fish, just as he would feel defeated and deprived if he were to resent more consciously her sharp edges and impersonality. So, she threads a little warmth and tenderness into their exchanges, even as she sometimes looks as though she has to remind herself to do this, and he reminds himself, via spoken oaths to her, that he really is her intimate, sympathetic partner and a harborer of sexual feelings, however largely thwarted... not, in other words, or by any means, a vaguely disappointed colleague of many years, more of a friend than a husband.

Woodward wears her character the way you wear a well-tailored leather glove. As in other roles, she is a consummate professional at eliminating almost any sense of space between herself and Rita, even though Rita clearly finds her own habits stifling and itchy at times (at other times, she's more than happy to flaunt them), and her affects must be slightly itchy for the actress to have to play. But hand Woodward a dislikable woman of a certain age, and she'll play dislikability like it's a prized viola. She comes across as a staunch, somewhat severe defender of her characters, partly for contextual reasons. That is, so few American actresses seem willing (or, to be fair, get asked) to play these sorts of women; "difficult" types in American movies are so often barnstorming crusaders in the Norma Rae vein, or comic villainesses, or harridans. Woodward was very rare, then, in establishing a métier in forms of everyday astringency, and not only refusing to dull these women's edges but actively working to sharpen them, the way a practiced cook takes care of her knives. What I find most remarkable about this is that Woodward's protectiveness toward the characters' refusals to be charmers or mannequins does not spill into a subtle PR campaign to get us unreservedly on their side. Rita is a pill with a point of view, but still a pill. Her ornery way of pointing out her daughter's self-involvement is not likely to prompt the girl toward newfound generosity, just as it's not clear who wins, including Rita, by being so very caustic at a family funeral, where her refusal to sell off the property of the deceased is no more or less reasonable than the eagerness of her relatives to get rid of the estate and divvy up the profits. A crevasse has opened between Rita and her offscreen gay son, who communicates only with his sister; given Woodward's talent at conveying deeper feelings inside an inflexible, almost cutting reserve, you don't need to meet this son to empathize with his decision to estrange himself, even though you can't write Rita off as a harpy or a bigot.

Though Woodward seems determined not to repeat past characterizations, her director Gil Cates and the screenwriter Stewart Stern, who also penned Rachel, Rachel, harbor few such compunctions. Indeed, they steer Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams toward some formal and textural choices that seem to suit it much less than they did Rachel, maybe because Newman seemed to be thinking in terms of images and studying the French and British New Waves more closely, whereas Cates just seems to be aping Newman, thinking in terms of writerly conceits and trusting, understandably, in his tony cast. It's hard to imagine Woodward thinking very highly of a fantasy sequence in which she falls asleep during a screening of Wild Strawberries and imagines confronting her ballet-dancing son and his grinning male lover in laughable, faux-Bergman monochrome. She's not tasteless enough to pull back from the scene, or from a later, overly stylized interlude when Rita gets claustrophobic in a London tube station. Still, what is taut, nuanced, and exciting in Woodward's performance just isn't palpable in these errant sequences. At other times, I would diagnose an opposite problem. When, for instance, Rita steals into a basement cupboard to sample some of the jams that her mother canned years ago, or finds one of her own secret diaries hidden in a haybale in the family farmhouse, and sheds tears over her old entries about a lost love, the scenes and the performance choices too strongly recall the sort of rehearsal-workshop scenes through which an actor "finds" a character. They feel too contrived, though, too insularly focused on the performer and her exploratory choices, to be credible within the finished narrative. I'll hazard a guess that these sorts of scenes kept Woodward interested, but they're also the apertures through which a starchy theatricality creeps into the work. Woodward's gestures don't get too big, exactly, though a high-decibel standoff with her daughter in that hay loft does push this particular envelope. My larger misgiving is that her magnified, self-serious playing in these scenes recalls those moments in interviews where stage-worshiping actors start intoning about their "craft" and "process" without realizing how humorless and hokily overblown they've allowed themselves to sound.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams has a sort of Goldilocks problem, then, where some scenes feel too director-focused and some too indulgent of the actors and their character work. At times, the movie has too much of the stern aloofness of Woodward's character, and at others it conveys the main feeling of a scene with discomfiting, even awkward directness. But the whole ship comes into port well enough, and "craft" and "process," for all the ecclesiastical solemnity I'd like to erode from those terms, are precisely the reason why. Woodward doesn't give a negatively shaped performance—it's not as though she succeeds primarily by reactively rejecting some coarser version of her character, rather than building one from the script up. Nonetheless, it's easier to describe what she attains in this part as a series of avoided banalities, climaxing in a few particularly brilliant scenes where she negotiations a psychological obstacle courses. Woodward and Balsam have one near-argument about their marriage that isn't quite a fight, and given the tight rein they've had to give on their feelings up to that point, it's remarkable that they don't take the scene louder and bigger, if only for the thrill of release (a thrill the audience may also, at that point in the film, be craving). Woodward squeezes unexpected laughs, or almost-laughs, at unpredictable times and from unexpected sentiments. The overall movie may be cold and dour, but defensively teasing her husband about the notion of possible mistresses he might take, or admitting that, in her claustrophobic panic on the Underground, she has soiled her own clothes, she leavens the chilly sobriety that could so easily overtake the whole film. And it's precisely by being funny, sexy, teasing, facetious, bitter, regretful, or undeniably right at certain precise moments (rarely, of course, the same moments) that Woodward lets us know why Harry likes being married to Rita, despite her overall bents toward tartness and stoniness. Rita has a quickly recognizable exterior—though it's barely ever glimpsed in American movies, and certainly not in the form of a lead character—but from individual moment to moment, she is unexpectedly full of surprises.

Woodward brings a rare palette of affects to her movies, which is gratifying enough, but when she starts blending them together, the freshness of the combinations compensates for the pale wintriness of the overall portraits. Rita doesn't fascinate me quite the way Rachel does, and though the shortness of Summer Wishes's running time helps shape the movie as a compressed nugget of difficult emotion—its best scenes stay in your mind like a pebble you can't expel from your shoe—it also comes at some cost to Woodward's ability to flesh out Rita's arc a little more deeply. She loses a shot to evoke more gradations between "big" scenes, which is where this actress's talent always stirs me most. (I have a hard time with Eve, because it's so full of "big" scenes.) I remain an unquestioning Streisand voter in 1973, and given how disparate Katie Morosky's stridently showboaty excesses are from Rita Walden's minor-key irritabilities, or from Glenda Jackson's lacerating, slapstick ballbreaker in A Touch of Class, I wonder if Woodward admired these performances or whether she saw herself precisely as bringing something into American movies that the women in "he said, she said" comedies or sweeping, expensive melodramas recurrently miss. This often happens when I see or revisit a Woodward performance: after thinking of all the roles in which I'd love to have seen her cast in the right time and place (Julianne Moore's in The Hours, Annette Bening's in Mother and Child), I start wondering what she likes and dislikes in other people's performances. What can this mean, that I do this? I think it means that she often plays, as she does in Summer Wishes, somewhat imperious judges of character, in a way that implies her own high standards and flinty insistence on meritorious technique. I can imagine her being a very tough critic. But it also means that she's hard to predict, because even when you hand her a guarded or off-putting protagonist to play, she sees more things in that type of woman, and different things, than most other actors would be willing to see, or able to show. Her personal stamp is very, very strong, and I wonder about all the ways in which her range may not have been fully tested, but for all that, I must admit I never successfully predict what Woodward's got up her sleeve.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 13 to Go

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Actress Files: Corinne Griffith

Corinne Griffith, The Divine Lady
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar to Mary Pickford for Coquette)

Why I Waited: Unavailable for a long time, especially since I can't cotton to watching movies on YouTube. My brother was nice enough to tape a rare broadcasting on Turner Classic Movies, but I wound up deferring anyway till the Warner Archive Collection produced this DVD.

The Performance: So, here she is, the shadowy question mark, the nebulous presence. I had never seen anyone list Griffith as one of the runners-up for the second Best Actress Oscar until suddenly, there she was, interpolated as a highly anomalous sixth nominee in Robert Osborne's 60 Years of the Oscar. Does she "count"? Oscar queens, when they aren't banging their heads against the problem of world hunger, sometimes debate this. Granted, the question is almost entirely obviated by the Academy's oft-repeated insistence that there were no official "nominees" for this second ceremony, and that the listings now commonly reproduced for those years were really just retroactive write-ups of films and performances that were bandied about by the very small voting body, before consensus finally swung around to the announced winners. If that's how things went down, Griffith's inclusion, however belatedly instated, makes good sense. The Divine Lady won the Best Director Oscar for Frank Lloyd and earned a cinematography nod, too, so her vehicle was obviously on the voters' collective radar. Plus she was a high-echelon star at that time, having appeared in nearly 70 features by 1929.

Even more than having the riddle of this nomination solved, though, I would like to know what particular depressants the AMPAS College of Cardinals were hooked on when they had these discussions. Prohibition was on, but it must have been something, since Falconetti in Joan of Arc, Marion Davies in Show People, and Lillian Gish in The Wind are just three examples of landmark performances from this eligibility period that got passed over for subpar work by important talents (Chatterton, Compson) and light, limited turns at the center of films that Oscar obviously fancied (Love, Griffith). We know how I feel about the ghastly winner, and I'm still holding out hope that the late, legendary Jeanne Eagels will redeem the category as fully as she's reputed to. Otherwise, it's a foursquare gaggle of essentially two-star performances that, on days when the sun's shining and the coffee is good, I'm willing to grant a third. After all, Chatterton was probably doomed to overdoing her Madame X by her famously hambone director, Compson gets better when the script gives her more to work with, and Love compensates in some late scenes for what is plainly mediocre in the rest of her performance.

Griffith, meanwhile, is a fine, energetic, but dispiritingly superficial vessel for The Divine Lady's rather chintzy retelling of the fable of Admiral Lord Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton, revisited more famously by Vivien Leigh in 1941. Lloyd mounts the heck out of the very exciting sea battles, setting himself up for Mutiny on the Bounty six years later, but his visual and narrative approach to the expository scenes and to the political and romantic buildup is stagebound and thoroughly antique. Eventually, this means lots of broad emoting in proscenium frames with forty-foot ceilings and theatrical light, which clearly encourage Griffith and the other actors back into an already-anachronistic style of Nickelodeon-style poses and overstatement. But this isn't how things start, and in fact Griffith gets an initial entrance we might all envy, popping brightly out of a late-18th century hackney coach just moments after hefty, scowling Marie Dressler, playing her mother, has gotten wedged in the doorway while trying to do the same. Emma sports the world's floppiest, widest-brimmed hat, and she can barely stop chuckling and clapping at how lovely and youthful she is. You'd be hard-pressed to see the kernel of what the opening titles refer to as "England's greatest beauty" inside this coltish little sylph, but Lloyd and cinematographer John F. Seitz at least help her turn on a little heat. Fifteen years before Seitz followed Stanwyck's glittering anklet down the stairs of Double Indemnity, he adopts the point of view of rakish aristocrat Charles Greville as Emma climbs into his house—first as an ivory foot peeking unexpectedly from behind a first-floor curtain, then as a long pair of bare legs sliding all the way through the window.

You can see why Greville is briefly moved, but even setting aside his cynical preoccupations—all he cares about is his precarious position as the likely heir to his unwed uncle, the famous Lord Hamilton—it's equally easy for the audience to relate to his rapid cooling of affection. Griffith is bubbly but rather free of personality, as though her top billing and the well-known real-life tale guarantee that anything she does will be received as impossibly enticing. I find her a bit fidgety, like Clara Bow having a go at one of Lillian Gish's true-heart Susies. When this mostly silent picture requires that she sing, Griffith is too stiff and arbitrary in her movements to communicate any musicality at all, much less any relation to the song we actually hear (even if, as is quite possible, this track was selected later). You'd have to be stonier than I am not to take pity on her as Greville sends her packing to Naples, especially since that's not the worst of it. He's assuming that her sparkling youth, matched with her social impossibility in every other respect (she's the cook's daughter!), will be enough to prompt his elderly uncle's infatuation while standing in the way of an actual marriage, thus preventing any biological sons from dislodging Greville's claim to Lord Hamilton's fortune and influence. We know all of this, while Emma knows none of it. What she renders, as a result, is a simple but plaintive impression of a broken-hearted teenager. I do wish, though, that Griffith had struggled a bit more with her feelings, or with such an open disclosure of them, and maybe that she ahd showed more of an intuitive hunch that Greville's motives are stained with greater sins than fickleness.

Without implying a categorical improvement, Griffith hits several of her peaks in the passage between Emma's arrival in Naples through Lord Hamilton's surprise proposal. She is desperate but also a bit funny as she busily "improves herself" by learning the harp and, you know, changing some of her outfits—prepping to dazzle Greville completely when, as he has promised, he appears in Naples to collect her. I remember her very clearly in a series of shots in which she's trying to adopt precisely the right pose for receiving her erstwhile lover, as he at long last arrives: seated at her harp? before an arras? lounging suggestively in a high-backed chair, hugging a bouquet of flowers? For an actress who gets stuck for longish passages of The Divine Lady in one basic guise (the Flitting Imp, the Tearful Castoff, the Ardent Pleader, the Weepy Adorer), it's pleasing to see Griffith playing around with so many personas, and showing us an Emma so self-conscious of how she comes across. Her vindictive blast of anger when she realizes Greville never meant to rejoin her is something to behold, and portends exciting changes in psychological texture for the second half of the film (though unfortunately, these promises are barely remembered, much less kept, in the rest of the performance). And in two very memorable close-ups—a Sternberg-style glimpse through the glistening strings of her harp, around the time she first meets Nelson, and then a later image, well into the heart of their affair, of her carnally stroking her cheek with the blooming head of a rose—she cuts through all the Cavalcade-ish rubbish in the script ("Those Frenchmen, with their infernal Revolution, are upsetting all of Europe!") and strikes some real sparks. Griffith reveals in moments like these that she is capable of playing Lady Hamilton as an aroused, headstrong, and risk-taking woman. Her extra-marital and politically inflammatory acts on Nelson's behalf, whether bringing provisions to his starving sailors or imploring the Queen of Naples to offer safe harbor to their fleet, are temporarily credible as the behavior of a woman who is smart enough to think strategically and far-sighted enough to think outside the confines of her own immediate experience, even as they are also heedless gestures in the name of a selfish love, itself laying a certain path to spousal reprimand and social ostracism.

Given all that, it's disappointing that Griffith doesn't stand up more often for any sense of Emma's intelligence, of her knowing that she's plunging ahead into dangerous waters and maybe even enjoying it. Her clinches with the utterly unenchanting Victor Varconi as Lord Nelson are washouts more often than not, partly because she plays so many of them in a register of teary, brow-knitting, frankly pathetic passion. This wet-tissue approach would make as much sense for some farmgirl's crush, nursed for a local boy whom her family doesn't like, as it does for a high-flying and knowingly controversial historical actor. "I am the one thing England will never let you have!" she sighs to Lord Nelson, who is raising British hackles for taking so suspiciously long to come home for his hero's welcome. So she understands, surely, how many stakes are attached to their illicit bond, and how many sentiments (despair, anger, arrogance, wistfulness) are merged in such an utterance. She's too broadly melodramatic, though, playing Forbidden Love in too lachrymose a fashion, without implying a more detailed sense of this formidable woman and her particular, extraordinary dilemma. Non-fans of silent cinema sometimes assume there was no room for subtlety or layering in the heightened style of performers working without dialogue. It's hard, though, to imagine even as lunar a presence as Janet Gaynor or as fine-boned a creature as Lillian Gish, much less a tougher customer like Betty Compson or Gloria Swanson, playing so close to such a dewy surface, and letting sentimentality overwhelm so many other traces of the pragmatism, insolence, and introspection that are pivotal to this character.

Griffith pours a lot of herself into her bustling approximation of youth and then into the passionate commitments and quivering lips of her adult years. I expect she viewed this ability to age the character as one of the major tasks of her characterization, since she seems to underestimate so many of its other demands. She isn't an unaffecting actress, and I didn't experience her as a blemish on her movie so much as an impediment to it cutting deeper and communicating more than it ultimately does. Emma, after all, doesn't just get older, or happen to pass from a preening village beauty to a fabled personage. She has to grow more complex to make the choices that she does, putting herself right in the line of social fire and inviting the man she clings to as a soul mate to do the same, in the name of their own addictive longing for each other as well as professed political convictions—and with the people of at least three nations watching closely. To fill out that drama of strong but irreconcilable allegiances takes more than a solid, steady cryer, an amiable but hardly extraordinary beauty, or an ability to look shocked at the worm-infested food being served to the navy of Europe's mightiest empire. The Divine Lady aspires to grand historical fiction, which it only achieves in the thundering naval standoffs. Griffith, meanwhile, gives a performance better-suited to paperback romance, with engaging but infrequent flashes of something more. The touch of the divine is nowhere apparent.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 14 to Go
(More info about Griffith, plus the poster I swiped above, can be found here.)

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Actress Files: Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner, Mogambo
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1953 Best Actress Oscar to Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday)

Why I Waited: The John Ford whose work I see on screen is the same one David Thomson describes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, and if you follow what that means, you'll know why I haven't always made his pictures a topmost viewing priority. Plus, I wanted to see Red Dust before I hit Mogambo, and I only recently got around to it (and, incidentally, thought it was terrific). Plus, well...

The Performance: ...few Hollywood actresses have been as hard on their own abilities and dismissive of their own filmographies as Ava Gardner, who rarely shied away from telling reporters that she had made no really good films and was not a major boon to the ones where she appeared. I'm not sure from what source her IMDb biography has her saying, for example, "I never brought anything to this business and I have no respect for acting. Maybe if I had learned something it would be different. But I never did anything to be proud of." However, variations on these themes aren't hard to come by in writing by or about Gardner, who rivals this year's victor, Sandra "Did I just wear y'all down?" Bullock, as a varsity-squad self-deprecator, but with more edge and candid disappointment. The question of how much good PR Gardner racked up by performing such egolessness or pre-emptively writing her own bad reviews is a separate question, but my own hunch is that even a better actress would have a hard time prevaricating on that subject for that long.

Fair enough that Gardner's Eloise Kelly—the voluptuous escort who shows up in Kenya to "entertain" a departed Maharaja in Mogambo, thus winding up stranded and unwanted in the hunting outpost of Clark Gable's Victor Marswell—is not a performance that would have had Elia Kazan calling with Broadway leads on offer. A nomination for Gardner's Eloise would be unlikely if Mogambo hadn't been a hit; if John Ford's gratuitous and widely-reported cruelty toward his leading lady hadn't positioned her as a sympathetic underdog; if Jean Simmons's representation had succeeded in getting voters solidly behind one of her three laureled performances in 1953; and if the field of contenders hadn't felt thin enough that such weak sauce as that ladled out by Maggie McNamara, et al., found its way fairly easily onto the ballot. That's a list of caveats that Gardner herself might have proffered pessimistically to explain her one moment in the Academy spotlight, but from where I sit, she's a vibrant, sensational asset to Mogambo and is also, by several degrees, the salvaging figure in an otherwise dispiriting roster. It must have been cold there in your own shadow, Ada. Here, at last, is your place in the sun.

Still, to claim that Ava Gardner excels in Mogambo is to take a specific stand on what can count as great acting, and to acknowledge how a left-of-center approach to that question is all but forced by the strangeness of Mogambo as a vehicle, an up-to-the-date entertainment in some ways and a half-hearted throwback in many others. On the one hand, it's a color-saturated transplant of Victor Fleming's Red Dust from Indochina to Africa, with a commercial eye on recent adventure tales like the same producer's King Solomon's Mines, the modern affectation of having no musical score, and a seriocomic, self-conscious ironization of the frontier ethos and the theater of local color that Ford had brought to so many pictures, many but not all of them more sober in this one. (Recall that Mogambo follows by one year the natural-light merriment of The Quiet Man.) Then again, Gable's presence feels as backward-looking as Grace Kelly's is an arrow into Hollywood's future, and he seems less than happy about it. Ostensible set-pieces like the tense encounter at a village taken over by insurgent tribes barely feel like they've gotten off the ground, and the jarring discontinuities between the fervid location photography and the brazenly mismatched stock footage of apes and lions feels no more advanced than it did in Trader Horn. Ford doesn't seem all that committed to the material and Gable's increasing dramatic focus on his character's churlish self-interest seems like the only way to countenance his palpable air of peevish boredom as a proper take on the role. All of which might sound like Mogambo is much less fun than it is when, in fact, some second-hour slackening of the pace notwithstanding, it's a pretty juicy diversion, a tangy location-shoot tagalong, erected around a boilerplate romantic triangle among Gable, Gardner, and Kelly that occasionally springs to lurid life. Gable whipping the handkerchief off of Kelly's head after carrying her in from a highland rainstorm, while she gazes back at him in outraged but pleading arousal, is as potent an emblem as you'll get in mainstream 50s cinema of surging erotic desires (for which the Swahili word, incidentally, is "mogambo").

To no one's surprise, Gardner extends some automatic provisions to the film's exploration of eroticism. She makes an entrance showering behind a low bamboo wall, her bare shoulders nearly upstaged by her sexily insolent facial features. Watching her case out the grounds with the giraffes, the elephants, the leopards, the and rhinos is like seeing one exquisite, improbable specimen take a loping tour of fellow creatures that God designed while in the same buoyant, slightly absurd mood. Mercifully, Gardner doesn't gild the lily by doing anything to play "sexy" in these scenes; her figure and her costumes do that work for her. Her bigger accomplishment, the kind of thing that is perennially under-rewarded as good acting, lies in asserting her ease so quickly in what is nonetheless an uncomfortable locale. Neither in terms of her gender nor her carnality nor in any other respect does Gardner belabor Eloise's incongruity amid this scrappy, masculine, member's-only environment, even as the story and the direction take pivotal note of her flamboyant, temperature-shifting unexpectedness. All the guys around Gable, and eventually Victor himself, take a shine to the globetrotting gal as one of their own, not by any metaphorical association with her vocation but as people who don't require a lot of pillows or pretense. They're generally easygoing adults who know exactly who they are, despite their harsh, competitive, rough-and-tumble context. Leaning neither on an overdone masque of femininity nor on a strategic performance of "masculine" hardiness, gauging herself somewhere between a woman who's obviously out of her element and one who is pretty hard to unsettle, Gardner gives the movie swing, lightness, and personability, resisting all the typical routes for selling some generic persona of oneself to the audience or the other characters. She's witty, whipsmart, and confident of her attractiveness, but in a refreshingly rounded way that doesn't break a sweat flaunting any of those traits, or privileging one as her signal calling-card. She doesn't compete with Gable or with anyone to be the spitfire, the party-gal, or the wisely nurturing influence. She presumes her complementarity with him rather than figuring out how specifically to pitch it to him and to us, despite simultaneously suggesting that Eloise is more instantly drawn to Victor than he is to her.

All of that speaks wonderfully to Gardner's presence and discipline in Mogambo, but what really distinguishes her work here is the saucy, showmanly comedienne that she turns out to be. For sure, she is pushed in that direction by the delicious dialogue that the script affords her, and at times, she is too grandly, incessantly sarcastic or too smug about how handily she's stealing the film from Gable and Kelly, from Africa, and from the animals. Still, the loose, limber physicality she finds for Eloise—whether swinging onto to a moving flatbed truck, or comically scrambling up a ladder from a low river, or dropping to her cot in loose-limbed relief after a cheetah skulks through her tent—finds an even tastier corollary in the spry, mordant, adaptable sense of humor that Gardner furnishes the character in almost every interaction, either with her friends or in teasing rebuke of her one, icicle-assed enemy. I love how flippantly Gardner reacts to the phrase "Dark Continent" as if it's the dumbest thing she's ever heard, and as much as I felt that Gardner wasn't playing an Eloise who's so sheltered as to be stumped by what a "marsupial" or an "anthropologist" is, she manages to be perplexed, annoyed, and self-mocking when Victor tosses these words at her, expecting her to be at a loss. "Excuse me," she responds, "I left my cap and gown at the cleaners," fessing up without embarrassment to what she doesn't know but hitting a return bull's eye at his priggish arrogance, laughing at herself and at him.

Gardner persists with this kind of sporting, fetching personality performance, making the first hour of Mogambo such a plummy and borderline-camp delight that the movie sails past what would otherwise be the obstacles of rather indifferent assembly and technique, a familiar story, and pretty hidebound clichés of frontier masculinity. I hooted at how she was just being herself but also deliberately offending the well-heeled sensibilities of the Grace Kelly character in their first conversation. Sauntering onto a porch after a long day outside, Eloise sighs, "I haven't walked that far since some palpitating halfback told me he'd run out of gas," grinning at herself and also at Kelly's ill-concealed retraction from such earthiness. I clapped at Eloise's annoyed indulgence of Gable's wishes that she go easy on the visiting innocents, pretending that she and he haven't just been enjoying each other's company for a few hot nights in the encampment: "I'll just act like your sister, down from Vassar for the holidays," she drawls. There's a lot more where that came from, across a spectrum of willful provocation, ungenerous needling, justifiable defense of herself, and a kind of baseline pleasure at tickling the ribs of social niceties. Then again, even at her cattiest, Gardner never loses that facet of Eloise that palpably does believe in a very square myth of romance. She looks suspicious that she's running out of time to find real companionship, though she's not the kind of gal who's going to humiliate herself running after it.

Gardner's not quite sure what to do with some of the scenes where the script backs her into an expository monologue about her past, and there are stiff close-ups and amateur gestures here and there that reveal her jitters, or her lack of training, or Ford's spiteful withholding of interest. (He wanted Maureen O'Hara.) Plus, as I've mentioned, she eventually has to wean herself of being the snarky showboat, after a midfilm safari sequence in which her performance teeters on the edge of canned schtick. Still, she had amassed so much good will from me by that point in Mogambo that she could more than withstand some shaky scenes. In a larger sense, Gardner seems to know when it's time to background herself a little. Of the three headliners, she's the only one who is capable of punching up what could otherwise be a slow and obligatory hour of exposition at the campsite, and boy does she come through with some home runs. Eventually, she passes the baton to Gable for the second, more sour, and more action-driven second hour. Yet Gardner is nobody's non-entity, even in that latter half of the film, and especially when she nails one of her strongest, most maturely played scenes, trying to extend an olive branch and to offer some feminine insight and understanding to the Kelly character, who predictably wants nothing to do with her. Gardner plays Eloise in these and the neighboring sequences as though the character truly believes she has lost Victor, an avowedly dubious catch, to this swannish blonde society girl, veering hopelessly far from her caste. When things come through for Eloise at the eleventh hour, partially through her own athletic leap to seize a lurid opportunity, it's almost as gratifying as when Shirley MacLaine earns her first, full blast of blissful satisfaction after putting up with all the sludgy middle-class constipation of the other characters in Some Came Running. Gardner's character is more emotionally guarded than MacLaine's, and as an actress, she's working with a much less compassionate director. Ford abjures dialogue and holds almost entirely to a mile-off long shot during what should, by rights, be Eloise's big, triumphant finale. But then, not only is Eloise not the kind of gal to require a big brass-band parade at the moment of getting something she wants—especially as she appears to know what a flawed prize she has actually won—Gardner's is not the kind of performance that a stingy camera angle and an unsympathetic director can wipe away. She's a joy and a pro in Mogambo, playing her tricky hand as nimbly and patiently as Eloise plays hers.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 15 to Go

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Actress Files: Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts, This Sporting Life
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1963 Best Actress Oscar to Patricia Neal for Hud)

Why I Waited: Until very recently, I also had Leslie Caron's and Shirley MacLaine's nominations to fill in from the same year, which, short of Hud and , has generally not offered a treasure-chest of great discoveries. Still, I figured it helped to catch 'em in close succession for sake of comparison, and if the Criterion Collection endorses this film, I figured it was worth looking forward to.

The Performance: To read Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution, as everyone seems to have done by now, is to make the indelible acquaintance of Rachel Roberts, the banshee wife of Rex Harrison, downing bottles of liquor till she's barking like a dog, howling for sex on or under the table, and rivaling the hundreds of animals on the Doctor Dolittle set for sheer cacophony and uninhibited instinct. This portrait hardly resonated with the imposing face but cast-iron reserve of the school mistress I had met in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and though I know I've seen her in two other pictures—Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, which I've seen twice, and John Schlesinger's Yanks, for which she won her third BAFTA—I can barely remember more than a vague image of her from either performance. Not only has it been strange trying to reconcile the actress who is so often described in awestruck tones by the most demanding critics with these utterly evanescent semi-impressions, but I couldn't imagine anyone as harrowingly outlandish as Harris describes being so forgettable.

Just a scene or two into her one Oscar-nominated performance in Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, I decided that I had seen Roberts before on one other occasion, playing one of the velociraptors who ferret those two kids out of the stainless-steel kitchen in Jurassic Park. With her scalpel brows, her incensed gaze, and an aura as tense as the surface of a drum, Roberts seems more than cut out for the role of the furious harridan. If anything, one of her obstacles, especially in a performance like this, is that her natural features and resting facial expressions imply that she's innately overacting the part, such that Roberts needs to act peevish, pessimistic, and miserly without looking like she just is this way; she may even need to pull back from the profound sourness that seems to course in waves off her body. But obviously, if she'd made this kind of forceful impression in the other films, I'd have a clearer recall of whom she played, and how. By contrast to those trace recollections, though, This Sporting Life's Margaret, more frequently called "Mrs. Hammond," constitutes an impressive etching of scabrous disillusion—suggestive of what the vituperative daughter in Secrets & Lies or the young protagonist of last year's Fish Tank might turn into after 25 more years of unreliable men, cruel setbacks, gruff but committed maternity, and tiresome chores in dark apartments.

Mrs. Hammond lost her husband Eric, a promising rugby player, in a freak drilling accident. We later connect this mishap to the tense, murky, disconnected impressions of danger and violence in the film's prologue, abstractly cross-cut with the groaning, intimidating sights and sounds of another rugby match (plus some chords of shrill, modern, experimental music thrown in for good measure). There is some question as to whether Mrs. Hammond has curdled into the broody, lemon-sucking skeptic she is today because of her husband's loss—as well as the various forms of class-based vulnerability that had him working such a risky job in the first place, despite the ostensible attention and salary paid him by the men who run the squad. Alternatively, Mrs. Hammond's withering hardness may itself have been one of the burdens that her husband had to shoulder during his life, possibly prompting him to tempt fate with tactical on-the-job carelessness. Does Mrs. Hammond know that some people think this about her? Did she conceive the possibility that she motivated Eric's suicide long before anyone else did, perhaps even while Eric was still alive? How much grief or humiliation is mixed in with her toxic mood of distrust and resentment? She still polishes Eric's shoes and leaves them out well past his death, but in the spirit of any plaintive, denial-based longing that he'll come swinging back into the door one day. Roberts suggests a powerful, ongoing, even carnal attachment to a man we suspect she would keep at arm's length, maybe even scream at, if he materialized for one more visit from the grave. No "ditto" and floating pennies and Whoopi-channeling and late-night pottery for these two; we imagine that no woman could look so armored and so forthrightly scabbed if Eric's premature death had interfered with previously uncomplicated bliss. Nothing about Margaret seems uncomplicated, not even her straight, no-chaser penumbra of hostility.

At present, Mrs. Hammond rents a room to another rising rugby phenom named Frank Machin (a hulking and excellent Richard Harris), and when she says she's only doing it for the money, we know she isn't making it up. Bent over a sewing machine, shooting off fuck-you glares while she makes the beds and brushes off Frank's tyro enthusiasm about his rise up through the ranks, Roberts's Margaret unquestionably feels that she's seen this all before: as an abandoned woman, as a wife who competed with the rival thrills of sport, as a toiler and saver in a highly class-stratified society where the working class oughtn't lie to themselves about their long- or even their short-term prospects. It's a brusquely pragmatic arrangement, and yet Mrs. Hammond does seem to study Frank as someone for whom she harbors both contempt and a grudging interest, as someone who might teach her something about the man she lost and/or pushed away, as someone whose own motivations for charming her children and begging romantic affection from her don't make immediate sense... though she may not be as dead-set against his hardbodied appeal as she thinks she is. And the prospect of more money—for all that she doubts whether Frank's burgeoning celebrity within the league will continue paying dividends or inspiring protectiveness from his owner-managers—cannot be lost on Margaret, either. She cracks one of many bitter jokes when Frank, after some nervy negotiation, returns to the flat with a kingly £1,000 paycheck. Shimmering with pride and excitement, he wants her to guess his worth before showing her the check. "Threepence?" she fires back, like a taut tripwire of emasculating blasts, yet her bolted-down frown does crack into its first smile as he divulges the actual fortune. Then again, it's only another moment before she reflects, spitefully, "It's a bit more than I got when my husband died... You didn't have to do anything for it... Some people have life made for them."

Mrs. Hammond's basic sense is that the world is rude, buffeting, and venomous, which is quite possibly what the "sporting" in This Sporting Life would mean to her: to hail from her caste or Frank's is to be the sacked and winded player, if not the tossed and manhandled ball, if not the stamped earth, routed with cleats, over top of which other people hammer and pounce at their tainted, pyrrhic goals. Roberts has to suffuse Mrs. Hammond with this outlook at all times, and even make her a deliberate poisoner of other people's self-contentment. The risk, not entirely avoided, is that Mrs. Hammond will play as a one-note figure, a shrew, a kitchen-sink Maleficent with blazing, belligerent irises. She bristles, repeatedly, upon being told that things will get better when she knows they won't, upon being pulled into bed by a rugged Adonis whose interest seems to dismay her when it isn't merely irritating. She's a knife-edged presence, written and directed with a kind of implacability that inherently constrains the range of variation in the performance. Moreover, because a certain acidic quality seems to come so easily to Roberts as it is, her enactment of Mrs. Hammond can feel, if not relentless, then at least somewhat qualified in scope, or like a product of can't-miss casting as much as skilled portraiture. Roberts pops off with some harangues, she takes literal and metaphoric blows in due course, and she's shot and lit with an intensity that frames the performance as an embodiment of an intractable, almost antagonizing force, rather than a human-scale character. You see fairly quickly where the performance is centered, and basically where it is headed, and how fundamentally occupied Roberts will remain in bringing Mrs. Hammond's already-impressive boil to an even more aggravated roll without appearing to overact.

But I must say, Roberts's moments of stock ferocity are much fewer and farther between than they might have been; that it's an achievement in any event to sustain such basically ill temper for two hours without the viewer wishing to be rid of you; and that she shades and layers Mrs. Hammond's personality over the course of This Sporting Life in ways that enrich the film as it plays. It's partly down to her and to the even hardier performance she helps elicit from Harris that This Sporting Life seems more complex as you mull it over, even after some climactic bouts of histrionic misery and needless literalizing of themes threaten to dull the force of a very strong, very sharp, robustly executed picture. When Frank takes his landlady and her children out for a day of picnic and sun, Roberts swipes a few occasions to show us a Margaret who enjoys a game, who appreciates company, who is pleased at seeing her children happy and her own consternations rendered unnecessary. Still, she unveils these hints in very brief, surgical strokes, avoiding the clichéd approach of showing a Mrs. Hammond who "softens," categorically, during anything so paltry as one sojourn in the fresh air. Indeed, her devices for evoking a bit of levity or unguardedness in Mrs. Hammond always manage to underscore, at the same time, the very formadibility of her usual defenses and overall disabusement. She fosters an impression not of a warmer woman eager to escape the body of this frosty and ornery one, but of a creature of kiln-fired habit for whom any restored sense of comfort pushes her awkwardly off balance, as though she's walking on legs she hasn't used for years.

One of the centerpiece scenes in Frank and Margaret's relationship—and in the script's mapping of how blue-collar heroes are as coarsely unprepared for privilege as they are systematically denied it—involves a doomed outing to a high-quality restaurant. Roberts is at her most labile leading up to this excursion: intrigued and even excited to be going, chagrined at the mink coat that Frank has bought her (which she knows her neighbors will castigate as the bit of childish ostentation it is), hopeful of finding some steady way of relating to this man who is also an eager and quite literal meal-ticket, furious at seeing what asses he makes of both of them in public, gratified in some dark way at having been right that he's an oaf, that the whole world is rigged, that she was foolish to imagine some deliverance into ease. This sequence hit home harder for me than some dramatically pivotal but on-the-nose exchanges between Frank and Margaret in the graveyard behind a chapel, although, during those latter scenes, Roberts takes a punch to the face with less flinching than many a male action hero. And it's here, as she howls about the late husband whom she dares Frank to even speak about, as she lacerates him with allegations that men as a race are a categorical horror, as she signals with a new kind of pain in her eyes that she'd yell just about anything to get him to leave her alone—it's here that Roberts makes Mrs. Hammond's anger the most total and harsh it has been to that point, but also the most polychromatic in its breadth and outrage and woundedness. She's a woman who's been used badly; a woman who maybe rebukes herself for not succeeding in keeping either of two men; a woman who might hate herself precisely for turning such a scouring, blaming eye on herself; a wise woman; a narrow woman; a self-consciously cash-strapped woman; a raped woman; a woman who'd rather be raped than paraded in tacky and ill-earned finery; a woman who saw all of this coming and didn't listen to herself; a woman who didn't see this coming and can't believe she's allowed Frank so close to her.

Sometimes you look at Roberts and see mostly that white-hot expression that serves as a backbone for most of her performance. That expression in turn can feel like the only affect she's recruiting into a scene: potent, but slightly familiar, and evidently close at hand for this performer. But at least as often, you look at that white-hot light and remember that white is not the absence of color but the total of all of them, and that inside the deceptive purity of Margaret's rage, there's a whole spectrum of separate frequencies. Not unlike the Patricia Neal performance that beat her to the trophy, Roberts's work comprises a series of deepening plunges into a predominating chord of feeling: plangent but aroused taken-for-grantedness in Neal's case, domestic truculence, ardor, and a taste for conflict in Roberts's. It's a smaller part than her male costar's and, in many ways, it exists to refract onto his. But Roberts, like Neal, manages not to seem like she's "supporting" anyone. She has her own story to tell, through and as this scrupulously drawn character. Within the film, you really feel the change once Mrs. Hammond, like Hud's Alma, departs for good; later, it's impossible to think back on the films without seeing these women's faces.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 16 to Go

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