BEST ACTRESS 1986: SIGOURNEY WEAVER IN "ALIENS"
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Though Sigourney Weaver nicknamed herself ‘Rambolina’ during the filming of James Cameron’s “Aliens”, that moniker’s such a discredit to her work – she’s so much more than a feminine update of Sylvester Stallone’s macho-macho, beefcake gunslinger. She’s Ellen Ripley, a symbol of flickering human resolve – this is a character who’s become iconic simply because she’s an actual human being. In this cesspool of actors who may as well be action figures, Weaver’s the only one in this cast who gives a shred of humanity to this cardboard world. Her comrades may as well be the aliens themselves – they’re such one-note caricatures of bravery, spouting their heroic sci-fi jargon all over the place, that it’s as if they aren’t human. But what can you honestly expect from James Cameron, such a visionary technician who, like David Lean, often ends up dwarfing his human subjects? He’s hardly an actor’s director, so it’s up to an actress of Sigourney’s feral instincts and distinctive talents to really make something like this work – and it does.
This pretty much goes without saying, especially now that Ripley’s such an indelible part of pop culture, but no one other than Sigourney Weaver could’ve pulled this off with such aplomb – there’s a gallant, towering physicality about her that seems to transcend any preconceived gender stereotypes; she doesn’t necessarily appear ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ as much as she appears a collective symbol of the human capacity to persevere. This film opens where the original left off, apparently – after some fifty-seven years in stasis (or “hypersleep”), Ripley wakes up, and she’s so beset by her own psychological paranoia that it seems she’s lost the will to survive at all. When she dreams of an alien bursting through her stomach, for example, she pleads with the doctors to kill her – she’s so traumatized by her past near-fatal experience with an alien that she can’t find that steel-strength we take for granted in most action heroes. But she’s got it – and, eventually, she takes on an expedition that’ll allow her to come face-to-face with her anxiety. Here, Weaver’s no-nonsense in the same way Jane Fonda was in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, only she goes a little bit further; she even looks a bit like a young la Fonda, too – her face is considerably more masculinized, but she’s still exquisite to look at in some scenes. Her bones have a sort of fascinating chisel, and she’s got that same heavy-set jawline Fonda has that evokes a deep sense of determination and world-weariness that has the capacity to withstand the direst of circumstances.
And that’s exactly what she does – Weaver’s Ripley becomes the face of human strength for this troop of Marines, who initially doubt her. Weaver seems to almost inherently radiate a sort of all-knowingness about her through her mere presence on the screen, and that’s at its most concentrated here – wherever she goes, she’s guiding people through her sheer wit and intelligence. But there’s always a slow, tidal undercurrent of fear and vulnerability that’s running through her, too, at any given time. She has that deep, boom-booming voice that’s unmistakably commanding, but there’s always a chord of fear to the way she speaks, a gulp in her throat, and Cameron lets his camera get so close to Weaver that we never lose contact with these emotions. Through this, we’re experiencing everything she's going through in the moment. This film is essentially, like Pauline Kael called it, a “boo” picture – one that’s just filled with scary jack-in-the-box alien appearances when we don’t expect it – but the reason that it works is because of Weaver. She has that otherworldly talent of channeling us into all of Ripley’s fears, hopes, and expectations with just one glance; even when she seems to tower above us, she's always acting with one eye on the audience – when she sighs fearfully, we realize she’s scared, and we’re scared right along with her.
Weaver’s most fantastic achievement with this, then, is that she shows us that constant mix of fear, doubt, questioning, rage, hope, and complacent goodness that all blend together to form what we’ve come to know as human resolve. But what makes her the first true, real female action hero is also what’s perhaps the most humanized aspect of Weaver’s achievement – her instinctual maternity. What’s implied here is that every woman, especially one in her very dire situation, may demonstrate a need to care for someone else – every woman's endowed with some sort of maternal instinct. As she also demonstrated so beautifully as Dian Fossey, Weaver has such a beautiful, willowy way of distilling tenderness and genuine connection with other beings; her skill for this couldn’t be more clear than in her relationship with Newt, an orphan the crew finds by chance. This little girl becomes what Ripley’s life revolves around, as if she’s given Ripley a new reason to start living again. Even when that little girl’s constant “Ripley!” in that horrid pseudo-Briton accent gets tiresome as fuck, the two actresses have intensely beautiful chemistry; Weaver’s required to play a few ‘mommy’ scenes, but these scenes never feel jarring compared to the heavier aspects of the film. And that’s what is just outstanding about Weaver here – she could’ve just approached this character scene-by-scene, communicating a sort of disconnect that never really coalesces into one constant characterization, but Weaver's characterization is too firm and grounded for that to ever happen.
I just can’t see how anyone could begrudge this nomination. So many people tend to write it off these days, claiming that she didn’t really “do anything” in this film, but I’ve never seen anything like this performance – her badass, gravel-voiced Ripley is really something to behold. Weaver is an actress of intense charisma – I’m so drawn to her whenever I see her – but she doesn’t rely on just that; she breathes life into what we’ve come to term a ‘hero’, conveying that those we admire aren’t just charismatically strong by nature. She’s one of those few brilliant actresses who manages to communicate a slate of human emotions within one frame. There’s something strangely meditative about her work here – she’s at once both in-the-moment and deep in thought, constantly surveying her surroundings with this brew of bewilderment, grit, and faith. Weaver shows us exactly what forms human strength, and how complex so abstract a concept like ‘strength’ really is – and, for that, she deserves to be iconic.