my name is mayukh sen and i'm a student at stanford university studying film, history, and creative writing (or something like that). i happen to like jane fonda. a lot. CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, May 21, 2012 10:40 PM
I've belonged to the cult of Miyazaki since fifth grade, so, naturally, I'm not as fervent a Pixar devotee as many in my generation are. I had the luxury of seeing Kiki’s Delivery Service at the age of, I don't know, eight, and I spent much of my time in middle school extolling its virtues over the imminent, sickeningly benign watchability of Finding Nemo. Nowadays, it seems there’s a sharp dichotomy between the two studios within cinephilia (or, at least, the pocket of cinephilia that respects animated films as an art form – my late mentor Damien Bona, for example, despised them). You either like Pixar, which means you’re a bumbling American idiot, or you worship Miyazaki, the sign of a truly developed palate. In hindsight, I don’t exactly subscribe to the notion that Miyazaki’s illustrative, pseudo-surrealistic works are inherently superior to Pixar’s, because Miyazaki can often lose touch with the most basic of emotions in trying to craft these exotic, chaotic worlds.
And this is precisely why I treasure Monsters, Inc.. Through Boo, its frustratingly adorable central character, the film conveys a deep, affecting sensitivity I've scarcely seen in the studio’s other works. Pete Docter invests this "there's a metropolis in my closet!" gimmick with humanity. Boo is thrown into a world where she’s seen as a contaminant, an unwanted alien, but she's too young to even have a slight awareness of that basic truth. So she traverses this scary, horrifyingly unknown-to-her place with an refreshing spontaneity. She doesn't know any better, because she's just a kid. She hasn't lived through experiences that can inform her otherwise, ones that can tell her that the world she's approaching is harsh and unforgiving; she is a far cry from the hyper-cerebral, maddeningly self-aware person the world instructs us to be.
Docter treats the "outside world" (I understand I'm being broad here) as a scary, brutal, oppressive place that children, in all their impulsively ignorant glory, approach with wonder. It’s not unlike what Malick did very well this past year in The Tree of Life – this sense of contradiction, of not having properly-developed conceptions of what is objectively "wrong" versus what is "right", of how we simply act upon our curiosity because that's all we're armed with when we're so new to the world. For Boo, childhood is a time when these binaries between good and bad that we develop so logically, so moralistically as we grow old aren’t yet set in stone. It is her sense of delight that propels her to see the honest, good-natured intentions in a world filled with corruption. She is pure. Boo does not think; she just exists, she "is", she feels.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I mildly enjoy this film, which I first saw in theaters when I was nine years old. While I have a number of reservations with it, Boo isn't one of them. She's the film’s consistent force of gravity. Docter treats childhood in an impressively adult manner, crafting the world Boo enters into one that's at once both distressing and inviting. Pixar’s best films are the ones in which they begin to question what we, as humans, lose when we grow up – what we abandon in this transition to cynical, jaded adulthood. What's so gently sad about Boo is that we know she'll grow out of this odd, fantastic fixation she has on some anthropomorphic creature that's a product of her storybook mind. As she grows older, she'll no longer be the judge – the world around her will definitively teach her who is and isn't a monster.
BERENICE BEJO, THE ARTIST
Thursday, January 5, 2012 11:45 PM
Berenice Bejo does not capture my imagination in The Artist. The role requires her to be charming and compassionate, and she has these qualities in spades. But Bejo coasts on her charisma; she barely invents. She does not have the tools to consistently make these states of feeling seem interesting, fresh, and genuine. Her look is too contemporary for this role. That is a weird case to hold against her, especially considering Bejo is an incredibly beautiful woman, but her beauty does not have the classic force or authority of an actress I imagine could ignite popular opinion in her favor. (Kind of like how I felt about Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love – likable enough girl, hardly enough to inspire furious dramaturgical passion) This ultimately reveals the limitations of the way Hazanavicius conceives his world and his characters. Peppy, like all other characters, is a mere accessory to George. She is a narrative device ultimately in service of influencing his trajectory; she barely changes herself. The role could have been more complex. Though the writer and director are understandably to blame, a more expressive actress could have added shades of vanity to this character. There is a potentially rich power dynamic and role reversal between George and Peppy that isn't explored. As it stands, Peppy is merely the little girl who could. The film world barely corrupts her sense of morals; she is angelic and idealized in a way that tires quickly.
Still, I don't remember a smile as wide as the one I had when I saw her dance. Her charm does accomplish quite a lot. The Artist is a benign film and I don't mind that. We shouldn't expect it to contain some abstruse thesis just because of its high concept. Hazanavicius possesses uncommon grace in the way he structures the film. It is given weight because I feel the film's "happy ending" has a palpable sense of sadness – hearing those clinical human voices readying for the next take is, to put it bluntly, less than wondrous, and I love this subtle cynicism. But for a film whose central conceit, and claim to fame, is invention and challenge to convention, Bejo disappoints, and the ruse is uncovered. She's lost at sea in this role, a gorgeous talent from 2011 placed unwittingly in 1927. I don't really buy it.
SHAILENE WOODLEY, THE DESCENDANTS
Shailene Woodley is not yet a very fluid actress, but she remains for me one of the few vaguely insightful elements of a film I otherwise found painfully lacking in a basic understanding of human relationships. She cannot handle some terrible lines given to her (I don't ever want to hear her say the word "twat" again), and the way she handles her character's pottymouth is sometimes too awkward to really affect. But Woodley suggests the contradictions and complexities of that period in any teenager's life, particularly when one is forced to juggle impulses and duties against each other. She is ambivalent, wounded, and moody.
I was particularly impressed by the physical expressiveness of her turn. Whereas Clooney's body language suggests an uncomfortable tension (a polite way of saying that he's just not right for the role), Woodley's captures the combination of brashness and defensiveness of her character. Part of me wants to give her this role at the hands of a better writer and director and say, "try again"; she could knock this one out of the park. But I'm slightly interested to see what she's capable of doing. As it stands, this is the kind of "nice start; come back with more later" work from an ingenue. An Oscar nomination would be too much, but there have been worse performances recognized. Like I said on Twitter, it'd be a little odd if that girl from The Secret Life of the American Teenager got a nomination instead of Vanessa Redgrave. In a movie full of characters who cast contemplative, grieving stares into the distance, though, Woodley's ring true. Maybe there's a career here.
I don't know what to say. This must have been how people felt when they saw Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights or Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter or James Dean in East of Eden. To know that you're seeing a major career forming in front of your eyes is overwhelming. I certainly didn't "get it" about Carey Mulligan (I still don't), and even if Lawrence bowled me over last year I didn't think she'd be much of a versatile actress. It's been months since I've seen this movie and I still can't get Olsen out of my head. I'm continually astounded by the imagination she brought to this role. It is a performance in which Olsen primarily reacts. She is intuitive, and her interactions with her fellow actors plumb the depths of human relationships that run the risk of seeming superficial on paper. This could've turned into a role full of ersatz emotionalism but Olsen expresses empathy for her character. It is enough to silence critics of the film who decry Durkin for not giving Martha a clear-cut "backstory". She is moody, full of spontaneity, and free of affect. Her outbursts are not method experiments, but, rather, genuine expressions of human suffering. You feel her longing to connect. Between Olsen and Jessica Chastain, I feel like American movies have finally been revitalized. Elizabeth Olsen has the kind of face that can inspire, arouse, and motivate directors. She makes me hope that this generation can produce cinema of thought and feeling.
A DANGEROUS METHOD
Wednesday, December 21, 2011 7:08 PM
A DANGEROUS METHOD (CRONENBERG 2011)
Disappointed. I thought this was impressively misguided. At best, it is an interesting failure, though interesting is too strong a word. It was "deep" only under the pretenses of its expository dialogue; the relationships between the three principals are absolutely devoid of the complexity this material deserves. Cronenberg wants to arouse and complicate this narrative with titillation. But all that ends up doing is cheapening the richness of this history to a spank-and-bang-me love story – dare I say Hollywood romance – where psychoanalytic theory is an afterthought (a tad similar to how Juno just happens to be pregnant). Nothing affects.
Knightley was so the wrong actress for this role. She obviously isn't proficient on a technical level (dreadful accent), but she also projects no sense of being. She is all physical mannerisms and surface-level displays of emotion. Before one chimes in that, oh, such was hysteria in the early 20th century, raw and animalistic and unexplored, a new phenomenon – fine, but we cannot simply call upon our actress to inform her characterization merely through grotesque expressionism. Knightley has no soul. Furthermore, she and Fassbender have no chemistry; Fassbender's characterization is entirely wrongheaded, so suppressed that he does not even register, and he certainly doesn't even begin to suggest the arousal and fascination Spielrein ignited within him. Taste is taste, but seeing so much of the blogosphere (and, strangely, so many critics – take a look at the IndieWire and Village Voice polls) fawning over Knightley's performance makes me question how far our definition of what constitutes skillful screen acting has regressed. I really wonder what a more soulful actress could've done with this role. All of this is just such a missed opportunity, and I feel like Cronenberg's directorial obsessions have become diluted over the past few years.
I MISS YOU, JANE
Wednesday, November 30, 2011 7:59 PM
Jane Fonda had raw talent. There was an earnestness that characterized her early performances, but it served her well. If she lacked technical proficiency, she more than made up for it with her presence. Her nervousness gave you a reason to root for her. She was wanting. You could tell she wasn’t quite there yet, that she hadn’t reached the state of eloquence and mastery of craft that she would later, and you wanted her to pull through. You could see an actress trying very hard, yet she was the kind of ingenue with whom you could empathize.
I think she is delicate and lovely in Barefoot in the Park. Her comic timing is off, but she fills her lines with such cadence and light humor that she affects anyway. In Roger Vadim’s films, especially La Ronde and La Curee, she is treated as mere window-dressing, yet she is capable of expressing passion. She is unexpectedly sexual and slightly dangerous. You could not predict what she would do, how she would twist a line or use her body. I love her even more in her early films. Joy House, Sunday in New York, The Chapman Report, Any Wednesday. She is so game and quite funny. It was clear that she treated acting as an art. She tries, tries, tries in her early performances. We see her trying. For this reason, we connect with her. She invests us in what she does.
She had reached a level of technical proficiency by the time of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, a performance that left me, if I'm allowed to hyperbolic, at a loss for words upon first viewing. Even though the character was frighteningly damaged, she rattled off her lines with confidence. There was an eloquence to her acting I hadn’t seen before. Her voice was changing, and she used its husky, guttural qualities to inform the character’s self-contempt and history of trauma. We could see an emotionally dilapidated soul lurking beneath upon first meeting Gloria, but Fonda carefully (though, also, seemingly, without much effort) revealed her character’s hurt as the film progressed. She had somehow managed to make her vulnerability so palpable, so affecting, even when the character seemed abrasive and defensive.
I don’t need to talk much about Klute. It is both her finest performance and, I believe, one of the finest of its medium. She calculates everything, but it flows organically from her. Though her movements, diction, and mannerisms are studied, she makes them feel natural. They are in character, and this works because the character feels full. Fonda is expunging personal demons with the performance. You can tell that she is exposing us to truths she has not come to terms with herself. Even if the performance is a showcase for her technical achievements, it is also an exploration of her obsessions. She trusts the audience, and she asks us to move forward with her. Even when the performance feels too calculated, such as in the oft-praised and improvisatory psych scenes, she projects a sense of being. The minor flaws in her performance do not matter because Fonda has internalized, and thus projected, such a complete sense of who the character is, what she feels, and what disturbs her. She is self-aware, but not offensively so. Klute was her peak.
She was there in Julia, but you could tell something was amiss. It wasn’t the same Fonda. The Fonda we knew could be forthright, daring, and vulnerable without having to think about it. Fonda’s life was so rich, complex, and contradictory in her early years that she did not need to try so hard. What she gave us in her early performances was an extension of her baggage and persona. She suddenly began to calculate her feelings; nothing seemed to emerge naturally. She developed a number of unmistakable, trademark affectations that made it difficult to see her in character. Sally Hyde was never the naive, apolitical housewife Fonda, Ashby, and the screenwriters wanted us to believe; she was Jane Fonda, deep voice and careful diction and all. She brings considerable feeling to the role, but she cannot overcome the fundamental deficiencies in her casting. This can be interesting to some – an unorthodox way of playing this sort of role. For me, it is a performance one can appreciate only upon second, third, and fourth viewings, only after one has developed a full appreciation for Fonda the artist and woman. Otherwise, she is miscast. You can tell she is actively playing against her mannerisms and the wised-up type she has excelled at, and you can see the effort, yet there is an element of self-congratulation in what she does. We no longer root for her. We merely see Jane Fonda, the proud actress who has achieved mainstream satisfaction, the one who has already won an Academy Award and expects to win her second. And we see her trying. She thinks she is there, but she isn’t; she is damagingly self-aware. She uses the character to further her political agenda (a political agenda I quite admire, mind you), yet she invests it with little feeling, passion, or conviction. Her expression of political awakening is half-hearted. She is so nuanced that she barely registers.
She is quite fine in The China Syndrome, yet that performance is more the type we expect to see from Meryl Streep today – a technically accomplished, highly acclaimed turn that is more dependable or serviceable than anything. It is of rote and nothing of major consequence: minor Fonda.
The nadir of her career is, of course, the distressing On Golden Pond, an embarrassment for just about everyone involved. (At least Henry is not terrible in it.) Fonda does not ground her character. She overflows and overemotes. This performance is also, as she and many others have reminded us time and time again, a personal exorcism for Fonda with regards to her father. Yet she overburdens the simplistic source material. It cannot carry the weight of this lifelong struggle she has weathered with her father. The film borders on the unwatchable, and it is largely because of her unmodulated work.
I know I have praised her performance in The Morning After on parts of this blog before, but, truth be told, I now find her too earnest in that role. She relies on affectations that seem out of character. She has too much self-awareness. Nothing flows from her. Everything is contained and deliberate.
Fonda’s career is interesting to study, and, for this reason, she is one of the most endlessly fascinating figures of her era. The seamless, yet also contradictory, convergence of politics, public persona, and a highly personal sense of vulnerability has made her my chief inspiration over the years. I love her because I connect with her, even when she condescends to her roles or tries in earnest.
But, objectively I have always hesitated before putting her on the same level as Redgrave, Stanwyck, or Magnani. These actresses, even when wrong for a role, are consistently fascinating and skilled. They possess an authority that intrigues. Redgrave has a similar political history to Fonda, yet I am simply in awe of her each time I see her. She has such a dazzling, wondrous quality. I do not see the Redgrave of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Redgrave who protests on Trafalgar Square, or the Redgrave who supports PLO when I watch Julia. Such readings could enrich her performances, but I simply find myself trying to sift through her puzzling, quixotic qualities whenever she appears on screen. Fonda is fascinating when she is miscast for other reasons, ones that have more to do with her well-established public persona than for the complexity and breadth of her screen presence. Watch Fonda doing a backflip for her dad and, well, you might understand why I have some problems.
SHELLEY LONG IS THE BEE'S KNEES
Monday, September 19, 2011 1:07 PM
Shelley Long's been on my mind these days. A little channel around these parts called ReelzChannel has been syndicating Cheers lately. Historically, Cheers was a show I hadn't seen but didn't imagine I'd much care for, and this had much to do with my (grossly misinformed) preconceived notions of it. I thought it was one of those tired sitcoms with the stock humor American television has in spades today. But I happened to catch an episode of it just weeks ago, and I was stunned. I understood the hoopla. It's a brilliant show. I find it a humanist, profoundly sensitive piece of work. The first episode I saw, actually, was from the show's Kirstie Alley days. I was totally taken with her. Mind you, my view of Ms. Alley had been limited to her Jenny Craig commercials and ads for Fat Actress I caught in middle school, but I felt, watching that episode, as if I'd discovered in her a totally captivating, striking screen presence. She reminded me of Kathleen Turner, only one who was slightly less put-on – her voice, her hair, her eyes. I want her to read the phone book to me. It'd be fascinating. She's ravishing in a non-lewd way, in the vein of those careerist types Hepburn and Russell played in the forties. The kind of woman who wishes she was turned on more by work than sex, and one who wears that bearing, but is really vulnerable to the bone.
A few days later, though, I caught episodes of the Shelley Long seasons. Kirstie Alley may have gotten me hooked on the show, but she isn't Shelley Long. I'd never before heard of this actress (or, rather, I had only heard of her in passing), and I regret that. That shows that she hasn't had the career she, and her talents, probably deserved; my generation hasn't been properly exposed to her, save Modern Family (which I don't watch). And it's a shame. I hate superlatives like this, but I firmly believe that Diane Chambers is one of the finest pieces of acting committed to television.
Only after seeing the first five seasons do I realize how much Cheers regressed in quality. Rebecca Howe was an interesting creation but the writers didn't know what to do with her. She just sort of drifted in and out of each episode, and the interactions between her and the rest of the cast were limited and, quite frankly, not very interesting. Alley projected a sense of self-loathing and wounded pride that was in service of a character who was progressively becoming more and more of a non-entity. The dynamics between Rebecca and the rest of the group weren't well-defined. Kirstie Alley certainly had talent and presence but she didn't have what Shelley Long had. What made Cheers just a little more special than the other sitcoms of its era, I think, was the careful, witty banter between Sam and Diane. (I heard that Lisa Eichhorn, an actress I like, was almost cast as Diane until the casting directors realized how wonderful the chemistry between Danson and Long was.) On a show whose basic asset was, in its glory days, its ability to carefully sketch out complex, nuanced human connections, I'm afraid that Cheers ultimately began to wane on that level.
But the first five seasons are golden. The way the show is written, the way it's directed, especially the way it's acted – it is all so sensitive. The camera seems to probe into every character. It's interested in each one of them. Flaws become virtues. The director is compassionately invested in everyone's reactions, and the actors deliver. Another sitcom would've limited these people to individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, but Cheers goes a step further. Each character has so many shortcomings, but these shortcomings are painfully human. They possess hateful qualities – Carla's dismissiveness towards Diane, Sam's misogyny, Frasier's neuroses – but I never dislike any one of them. They're such sympathetic, complex creatures, and they're treated with warmth and respect. Just think of the unabashed schmaltz-fest "I Do, Adieu" could've become had it not been pulled off with such honesty by that cast.
And I feel that Shelley Long was the one whose presence illuminates the flaws, hopes, and desires of these other characters. Shelley Long had charisma. Look, for example, at the way she raises and lowers her voice with each sentence, or how her lower lip quivers – she somehow reveals the profound insecurities and false self-estimations of her character. And through subtle, telling glances, she projects a basic sincerity that makes her character's vulnerability tremendously affecting. It helps, of course, that her comic timing is genius. Her intelligence is luminous. Diane Chambers is a character of excess. She's kind of full of shit and she knows it. I don't doubt that she has a genuine love and passion for the arts, literature, philosophy, what have you, but you know that she uses it all as a crutch. No matter what her hoity-toity pretensions and literati leanings may suggest, she was just going to end up as unhappy and lonely as everyone else.
This is what I love about the show – the very subtle, and astonishingly unsentimental sense of sadness that runs through each episode. It's pretty much an accepted axiom that life doesn't turn out the way anyone wants to in that world (much like real life, of course). Nothing works out for anyone. And the characters have all seemed to tacitly, quietly accept that. I'm glad that the writers didn't betray the show's basic thesis with that finale. Diane and Sam weren't supposed to end up together; it shouldn't have been that easy.
Bottom line is, I have a huge crush on Shelley Long. I'm not hetero but I do. She brought controlled emotionalism and boundless charisma to a show, and a cast, that worked well with an anchor. Cheers was a pretty damn good show without her but it was astonishingly harmonious when she was around. Some see her as obnoxious and maddeningly neurotic and I don't get it. Just looking at her, I think Woody Allen could've done wonders with her neurotic urban persona. Everyone gives Shelley flack for leaving Cheers but I don't really care. Her subsequent mild success in films just shows that the show's thesis had firm roots in reality – shit falls into place for some of us; most of us aren't that lucky. I just watch this show and think that this woman didn't get the roles she deserved in cinema. Though I wasn't alive in the eighties, I'm guessing that she brought a lot of people joy when they watched that show. Diane Chambers was a beautiful, enchanting creation – passionate, graceful, sensuous, caring, a little dangerous, and sad as hell. I am discovering this character for the first time and I am captivated.
Thursday, August 11, 2011 9:50 AM
Wow, sorry all – I've kind of fallen off track with my blogging. I apologize. A very small part of this is because I have unresolved feelings about Susan Tyrrell in Fat City, haha, but the primary reason is because I've been busy working away at my internship for the past few months!
For the summer, I've been writing for Artlog.com, an arts magazine based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It's been pretty awesome thus far, because the internship basically involves me going to different galleries and openings around New York City, interviewing artists about their newest work, and, then, writing features on them. I've talked to a bunch of amazing, talented people with rich histories and lives and career trajectories, some of them legends even (Dara Birnbaum was a highlight). Let's just say that I hope to ingratiate myself with the city's art world for a long time. I've also written features on a bunch of film screenings going on around in the city, especially those that aren't talked about too much – Sidney Lumet's The Sea Gull (1968) was screened recently as part of a Lumet retrospective recently, for example, and I was able to write about it (and Vanessa Redgrave's beautiful, nuanced performance), I've also written on Bergman's Summer with Monika (1953), the list goes on. Anyway, you can keep up with my posts for Artlog right here.
I plan to begin blogging again very soon. I have no desire to discontinue this blog, trust me – the whole "pick a year, review every performance" thing is indeed rather tiring sometimes, particularly when it's difficult to work up any enthusiasm about a certain performance (and the enthusiasm needed to write about it), and so you may just be seeing a few random posts from me about a performer, a film, whatever's been on my mind or captured my imagination. After I finish 1972 up I may move over to Best Supporting Actress 1991 because I love Kate Nelligan and Jessica Tandy, but we'll figure it out when the time comes.
For those of you still here and still reading after so long – I imagine many of you have dropped off, no worries, I would've given up on me a long time ago – thanks.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 1972: JEANNIE BERLIN IN THE HEARTBREAK KID
Friday, June 17, 2011 6:57 PM
The Heartbreak Kid should've been a cultural phenomenon. Opening five years after The Graduate, it had all the makings of a classic. To my mind, it is a classic, though most people don't even know about it, or Elaine May's talents as a filmmaker, these days. It's a perfect film. I can't say anything bad about it. It's a masterpiece in satire and emotion, effectively picking up on a certain zeitgeist while also commenting on it with a sense of spontaneity, mercilessness, quickness that The Graduate, a masterpiece in its own right, couldn't capture. (May and Nichols were, after all, a comedy team, and it's interesting to compare how their careers seemed to end up in two different places.) May's cast is phenomenal. Charles Grodin brilliantly humanizes a slightly despicable human being, coming off as less of a scumbag and more of a seventies-child-in-crisis. The angelic Cybill Shepherd – I wish this wonderful actress had an Oscar nomination to her name, but alas – is perfect as Grodin's WASP of a fever dream, always keeping her feelings toward Grodin ambivalent – is she attracted or simply bemused? Eddie Albert, Oscar-nominated for his role as the obsessive and oppressive father of Shepherd, is devastating – charming, funny, stone-cold. Anyone who can make Neil Simon sound tolerable must be a magician – May seems to unearth some sad, sardonic bite beneath Simon's one-liners, saving the film from descending into the claptrap seriocomedy something like, say, The Goodbye Girl was.
At the crux of May's perfect film, though, is her daughter. It's a shame Jeannie Berlin didn't become a bigger star. I haven't seen Sheila Devine is Dead and Living in New York, which was apparently something of a minor catastrophe, but she's just phenomenal here. A filmmaker like Paul Mazursky, I think, really could've shaped her talent into something special, particularly because he, too, is one of those directors who prided himself upon ethnocomedies. It's everything you'd want from a perfect supporting performance – hell, it's everything you'd want from a perfect comedy performance, equal parts hilarious, tragic, and satirical. Her mere presence in the film is therapeutic. Berlin plays Lila, Charles Grodin's trainwreck of a first wife. Lila's a bit like Fran Fine – loud, whiny, lumpy, and certainly bordering on, if not surpassing, the grotesque. She chews with her mouth open. In bed, she gnaws on chocolate bars. Egg salad gets stuck on her chin during lunch. Grodin's realization that this Yiddische-mama-to-be isn't really the love of his life drives him away from her, culminating in a hilariously tragic divorce scene.
Here, in this scene in particular, Berlin is so dynamic, so spontaneous that she becomes a comic spectacle. She seems to have a kind of comic intelligence that she translates into spontaneity. Compare this, for example, to Goldie Hawn – one of the finest American comediennes, in my eyes, but one who nevertheless calibrates her performances a bit too perfectly, too neatly. Before Grodin breaks the news to her (that is, the news that he'd like to break up with her), the two characters have a hilarious row about ordering pecan pie, during which Berlin's nervous gestures beautifully communicate her character's impulsiveness and neurosis. What follows, though, is at once both heartbreaking and hilarious – her character's slow, steady progression from obliviousness to her keen awareness at her husband's sleazy proceedings is magnificent.
I've heard the role of Lila described as an actor-hostile role (compare this, say, to Susan Tyrrell's enormously actor-friendly role). The magic of May's film is that she allows us to understand, though not necessarily like, characters who ought to be repulsive. She presents them with a kind of sincerity that few directors have been able to find in Neil Simon pictures. May directs and frames her actors in such a way that they're never aggressively annoying; Berlin, miraculously, seems to have inherited her mother's talent for balancing pathos with the excessive. Her character – aloof, frustratingly unaware of her surroundings, yet subtly perceptive – forms the film's emotional backbone. Only after the Grodin character, clearly unhappy, marries Shepherd do we understand what a huge mistake he made in divorcing Lila in the first place. Berlin's presence hovers over the remaining hour of the film – she disappears after the first half – as both a constant reminder of Grodin's moral backwardness and as a prophecy of what may even befall him. I can't help but think, perhaps even fear, that Grodin will suffer Lila's same fate at the hands of Shepherd. Shepherd fetishizes Grodin as much as he does her, yet, even by the end, it isn't quite clear whether she's still puppeteering him or if she's developed any true, palpable romantic feelings for him.
The Heartbreak Kid is as much a tragedy as it is a comedy. Berlin never shies away from commenting upon the archetype she's playing, refusing to downplay how inherently annoying or pathetic Lila is. Yet in doing so, she manages to find a sense of humanity in this, on the page, obnoxious soul – one who's more than a little lonely, sad, broken. What's perhaps most brilliant about Berlin's performance is that she works beyond this, subtly hinting at Lila's self-growth. Her increasing sense of self-awareness, disillusionment with her Jewish fantasy of a husband, and, ultimately, her intelligence usurp Lila's measured self-loathing, her indulgent neediness, her cluelessness. Her speaking voice, by turns a little vulgar and whispery, is so evocative – cloying but also palpably tragic, as if she's constantly on the verge of tears. Berlin's nuanced, unaffected work here is a masterpiece of social commentary, emotion, and comedy I hope I'll never forget.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 1972: SHELLEY WINTERS IN THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE
Tuesday, June 14, 2011 1:01 PM
Famously gaining thirty pounds for her unbelievably ludicrous role, Shelley Winters is a hoot in Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure. Winters, in the later stages of her career, developed into a very interesting character actress – though two Oscars is, admittedly, a bit too many even for her, she was alluringly grotesque in some of her better performances. This is a quality she miraculously possesses in The Poseidon Adventure, one of those tiresome disaster flicks of the same ilk as Airport and Earthquake. The film is absurd, the epitome of stunt Hollywood filmmaking. Yet it is, somehow, totally winning; it depends upon stars like Gene Hackman who must believably play such characters as a rebellious preacher. The whole affair feels so parodic, so farcical, but the actors proceed through the framework with a tired earnestness that never rises above the shoddy source material.
Winters’ role smells a lot like bait. As Belle Rosen, the Olympic swimmer-turned-overweight-Yiddische-mama, she reeks of easy pathos. How tragic – she and her husband were on their way to Israel to meet their young grandson. She is the fat lady exalted to martyrdom, swimming to her death in order to save the others trapped in the ship. Winters navigates these trappings with incredible, unforgiving charisma – as Damien Bona noted, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her whenever she’s on screen. She has considerably more verve than most of the castmembers, magnetic in a way that so many of the actors surrounding her are not. Winters is so entrancing that she somehow makes us believe in, or at least feel for, her character’s absurdist tragedy.
This is not a subtle characterization. The nomination itself – what, for such a clearly Hollywood film and a bout of heroic stunt casting – is silly. It is the kind of facile “acting” that Oscar votes usually fall for – look, the woman from A Place in the Sun gained so much weight for just one role! But it is not without its considerable merits, for Winters beautifully does what a true supporting player should do in an otherwise dreary film. She injects life into it, charming, defensive, vulnerable, and sympathetic in the same moment. Winters is clearly very committed to her character. She constantly seems so organic, so full of life, that she rises above the level of mere competence. Given the tire of her material, that is a considerable feat. But the notion of considering this film, or anything associated with it, worthy of awards doesn't quite sit well with me.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 1972: EILEEN HECKART IN BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE
Monday, June 13, 2011 6:44 PM
Conceived in the time of flower-child politics, Butterflies are Free feels like nothing more than a very un-cinematic filmic play. The characters assail us with lines so contrived, so forced, that we can almost picture ourselves reading them off the page. Katselas’ film itself, set in the Shangri-La of San Francisco, feels like nothing more than an artificial preach play. The handicapped young man, “blind” in that he sees past silly confines of class and race, longs for the freedom that his pain, stick-up-the-ass mother cannot grant him. Helping him along the way is Jill Tanner, the spritely hippie next door. A carefree little bubble of energy, Jill eases Don’s transition from dependence to autonomy, of course falling for him along the way. The whole film feels like a play – the actors, the camera move around the space as if stuck inside a Playhouse 90 setpiece. As usual, Goldie Hawn, playing the role that won Blythe Danner a Tony (if only, if only I could've seen her in that role), is spectacular, full of charismatic, nuanced spontaneity. Even when she rattles off lines that were clearly meant for the stage and for the stage only, she is fresh and colorful. This marked the point in her career during which she seemed to still be “finding” herself as a screen actress – she had talent, so much talent, but it seemed unformed. Edward Albert, in the lead role, is at once both appropriately detached and expressive, at times a bit bland but still an entirely capable leading man.
Eileen Heckart plays the kind of role Jack Lemmon played in Missing – the protagonist’s smarmy, old-timer of a parent who just doesn’t understand what those crazy old kids are up to these days. Her trajectory is the most obvious of the three characters. She goes from uptight, rigid mother deluded by her love to the one who gradually learns to let her son enjoy his independence. Pragmatic, no-nonsense, and, well, very “American” in the way she thinks, Mrs. Baker is an archetype of the highest order, just waiting for her conservatism to come undone. Showing up an hour into the film, Heckart infuses the film with a palpable stoicism that contrasts well with Hawn’s sunny, jolly expressivity. She is, after all, the foil to Hawn’s character. Her hard-edged, bitter voice has a sense of melancholy, of world-weariness. Mrs. Baker has seen it all. Jill Tanner believes herself capable of anything; she is unexplored. The two actresses play off each other nicely, particularly because Heckart does exactly what a supporting actress should do – she breathes some new life into the film.
Beyond the refreshing power of her presence, though, Heckart miscalculates her performance horribly. The ideological change forced upon her character, as she must become effectively “radicalized” (or, at the very least, “sobered” to the new youth of the seventies), is too pronounced to be believable. Like Page, Heckart is too methodical in her approach to the role. She is too self-aware a stage actress to pull this kind of change off with subtlety. We understand that she has played this character countless times before, on stage, and Heckart goes through the proceedings with rote-like precision. Something about seeing Heckart dejected at the end of the film, now understanding that she is no longer needed, rings terribly hollow. I find this whole affair to be somewhat didactic, and Heckart’s performance, so perfectly-calibrated that it ends up being detrimental to the film, highlights the tedium of the material.
BEST ACTRESS 1986Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married
Sigourney Weaver, Aliens
Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart
Jane Fonda, The Morning After
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
(SOME OF) MY FAVORITE BEST ACTRESS LOSERS, POST-1970Julie Christie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judy Davis, A Passage to India
Jane Fonda, Julia
Valerie Perrine, Lenny
Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
Liv Ullmann, The Emigrants
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
CreditsLayout by daphne/cadmium.
Banner/Icons by collapsingnight.
Winona drawing from Fanpop.