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: email@example.com
BEST ACTRESS 1982: JESSICA LANGE IN FRANCES
Saturday, March 26, 2011 3:07 AM
In Frances, Jessica Lange is a bit like Werner Herzog – wildly spontaneous, unpredictable, off-kilter, bordering on the perverse. She is filled with the kind of energy that is desperately, crudely in search of form. Lange gives herself to the role of the impetuous, stubbornly dignified Frances Farmer – the actress whose rather tragic private life seamlessly blended into her splintered public persona – with such an all-out physicality that her performance is a monument. In this case, that's a rather good thing. With her impishly lewd smile and delicate, airy voice, Lange is capable of seeming weightless at one moment, devilishly forceful the next. We are terrified by her; we are excited by her. We don't know what she'll do next. Was this what attracted people to Frances Farmer herself – this dizzying, unpredictably brash quality that signaled her presence, that drew people to her even if it should have repelled them? I doubt we'll ever know. Chances are that Farmer was, most likely, not t he highly dramatized tornado-giantess of a woman Lange interprets her as. Indeed, Lange does not so much play Farmer as she comments upon her with a grand sense of emotional battery – evoking her memory, her tragedy, her haunt through that ghost-like, death-whisper of a voice; that all-too characteristic head tilt; that wailing, banshee-esque listlessness that has now become a trademark of the actress.
I view Frances as a grand, dexterously ambiguous elegy for one of Hollywood's eternal losers. Perhaps I'll never understand the vitriol thrown at it so readily – director Clifford, whose editing work for Nicolas Roeg I have found brilliant, precisely evokes what is so difficult to pinpoint, even now, about the figure. Should we love Frances? To what extent is she a put-upon martyr, or is she really one at all? Can we blame her for the fate that has befallen her? That Clifford does not seem to take some sort of concrete stance on such a view of his subject is, to me, a dangerously bold filmmaking decision, for it is so easy to engage in harmless, didactic biopic portraiture in which our subject is deified to the point of oblivion.
Clifford's film is ripe with morally contrarian views of its subject, and in Jessica Lange – what, with her slightly detached, not-always-quite-there sort of charisma – he has found the perfect idealization of this vision. In the span of one moment, her head tilts one way, her body another. She grins gently; seconds later, a forceful, domineering roar erupts from her mouth. Lange refuses to let us be charmed or disgusted by her spritely, pixie-esque victim. She lures us in with the sheer power of her gaze – which, more than often, seems to evoke a sense of innocence, of guilt – and then deconstructs the general harmlessness we've coated her with, manipulating our trust, giving us reason to hate her. Yet she never loses us. I don't know how she does it. Lange's presence has such sympathetic force that I just can't take my eyes off her, even when her character annoys the hell out of me. Ricocheting between different moods almost constantly, Lange astonishingly seems to keep a palpable sense of something that resembles a soul underneath that mercurial exterior – and she, too, telegraphs the tragedy of this soul's slow, methodical, gradual disappearance.
Lange's highly visceral, stylized approach to acting seems grounded, I think, in deep emotionalism – a point many disagree with, regarding her performance as hamola of the highest order. Yes – truth be told, Frances' passionate, heavily politicized candor often externalizes itself in the form of loud, uncontrollable fits of rage, shouting, anger. This is, indeed, a case of actressing. But why shouldn't it be? Jessica Lange's work in Frances is far from camp – though I will admit that I thoroughly take pleasure in watching her performance, it is simply because I find her one of the more interesting artists of her generation, working from what always seems like instinct to create women who are a little surprising, not always believable, but still wholly fascinating. Lange is playing an actress, after all, and though I don't forgive obvious overacting by commenting that "she's playing an actress, so it's justified", Lange's performance does, to an extent, function as a critique of the rather sordid historical position of the female actor in Hollywood. Her performance is meant to shock us into sanity, consciousness. It has a deep, almost buoyant sense of emotional anchoring – equal parts disturbing, moving; grand, finely-tuned; impulsive, meticulous.
BEST ACTRESS 1982: DEBRA WINGER IN AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
Sunday, March 20, 2011 3:17 AM
Debra Winger’s eyes contain such a beautifully pained, sad lifetime in Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) that she transcends the otherwise hackneyed, misogynistic film she inhabits. The actress’ downtrodden, sub-proletariat paper mill worker is perhaps her greatest creation in a depressingly small oeuvre – full of aching, brutal pathos and stark realism. It reminds me of some of the greatest performances from the British Kitchen Sink films of Richardson and Reisz, for she communicates such a palpable, fully-realized malaise with the banalities of her character’s working class trappings. She is terrified that her life will amount to a nondescript mediocrity. Paula is not just a woman who wants love. She is something of a retrograde character, for she desires to escape the unending, cyclical fate of doom she feels herself destined to, and she views social mobility as the only way out of this.
As she exhibited with her cameo in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), Winger’s naturalistic, plucky screen presence seems enough to breathe life into any dreary film. Her emotionally forthright, direct approach to screen acting seems entirely unstudied. Of course this is true of her here – we can only take so much of Richard Gere’s strained, tense approach to what should probably be a complex character before Winger appears. She provides the emotional gravitas of this film. Her initially tough, no-nonsense exterior gradually wears away to reveal a deep, longstanding insecurity she holds about her own future. Winger’s performance is one that is full of contradictions, and, miraculously, they all seem to fall into place perfectly. Her Paula is by turns insolent and emotionally delicate, naive and beguiling, idealistic and invariably level-headed.
Winger’s role is of course hilariously underwritten (underlining the militaristic and chauvinist leanings of Hackford’s film, for she is relegated to the love interest) but never once does she strike me as limited by the confines her script provides her. Her prickly, spirited screen persona allows her to establish such a forceful sense of rapport with the audience, so much that she becomes perhaps the only reason to watch the film. Though practically every scene in Winger’s performance is marvelously fleshed out, there is one in particular, near the end of the movie, that strikes me as a brilliant piece of film acting. As Zack sits inside a bar, Dire Straits’ “Tunnel of Love” humming away on a jukebox in the background, he notices Paula with another man – the quiet, almost neurotic sense of self-awareness Winger conveys in this scene, underlining both her desire to make Zack jealous and her palpable sense of longing for him, is one of the most perfect displays of human emotion I’ve ever seen on film. That Paula is so desperate for Zack’s love is grounded in the fact that she knows she is “right” for him – she is a character who possesses such agency, for it is she who is ultimately rescuing him from the annals of his emotional frigidity. So many notions about this film strike me as absurd and disagreeable – Paula sees a man as her ticket to changing herself – but Winger presents these in a way that seems so genuine, so sincere, that it is tremendously moving. It's a great performance.
BEST ACTRESS 1982: JULIE ANDREWS IN VICTOR VICTORIA
To refer to Julie Andrews as some sort of axiom of cinema seems a gross overstatement, for she typifies everything I find so wrong, so conventional about American filmmaking. Is there anything more harmless than her overly genteel, nun-full-of-pleasantries Maria von Trapp? The general infatuation with her work, along with that of many American musicals, seems grounded in the luridly campy pleasure she brings to an audience who seeks joy through instant, sensory gratification. This isn’t to say, though, that I don’t enjoy musicals – I just prefer them to be a bit probing, perhaps even as politically incisive as Fosse’s masterpiece Cabaret (1972), rather than providing a quaintly escapist, unchallenging revision of the world we live in. Though I can’t say I have much affection for her, Andrews is a performer I admire. She surely possesses an undeniable onscreen charisma that is enough to ignite the even the coldest of viewerships. This generally agreeable, gracious screen presence is, like Edith Wharton’s May Welland, tempered by a palpable undercurrent of cold, unforgiving steeliness. What made her Mary Poppins so fascinating was the reality that she was, in fact, much more of a harridan than she initially let on.
What you think of Victor Victoria (1982) may have less to do with Blake Edwards’ filmmaking – which I find technically polished but a bit soulless when it comes to presenting new, edgy ideas about sexuality – than with how much you like Julie Andrews. The Julie Andrews I speak of here, of course, is not the one who possesses this fascinating melding of inoffensiveness and resolve. It is the Julie Andrews who puts forth this benign, innocuously amiable view of the human condition. With her generally placid demeanor, Andrews somehow seems completely out of place in the zany, slightly madcap filmic framework Edwards creates for her. Her Victoria is a woman surrounded by a constant state of chaos, frenzy. Yet she doesn’t quite fit in the camp all around her – I suspect this element of the film, the awkwardness of seeing queen Julie amongst madmen, is supposed to be comic. Our heroine is one who, upon first sight, just isn’t quite game enough. She must constantly reconcile her own self-conceptions of identity as she slips between different veneers and environments.
There is no denying that Andrews is charming in this part. Of course she is charming, in a gamine, lightly playful sort of way. She possesses such charisma that she, at times, even seems to glow. “Le Jazz Hot” is something of a minor masterpiece, presenting an artist at the apex of her beguiling craft. It's rousing to watch Andrews gradually, throughout the course of the song, find within herself these small reserves of wit and conviviality she had previously never let on to the public.
Watching Andrews‘ slightly regal, distanced screen presence interacting with the other nutty players is interesting, yet I’m not sure it entirely works. Her mix of aloofness and pep comes across as somewhat stale, and the performance is ultimately tedious to sit through. Something about Andrews’ approach to this role strikes me as a bit too entitled, a bit too rehearsed and noncommittal, as if she seeks to coast on what she knows will bring her viewership easy satisfaction. I’d probably be more invested in watching this film if I shared the general enthusiasm so many seem to hold about Andrews. She is charismatic, but not so charismatic that she invests me in her movie, let alone in her character. Her performance here is a case, I’m afraid, of Julie Andrews just being Julie Andrews – a blessing for some, a bore for me.
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
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Winona drawing from Fanpop.