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
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 SUPPORTING ACTRESS 1972: GERALDINE PAGE IN PETE 'N' TILLIE
Geraldine Page is anathema to celluloid. She is mannered, fussy, and slightly schizophrenic. The Academy decided to saddle her with eight nominations – who knows why – and a few rank among some of the most ludicrous the supporting category has ever seen. Her nomination for Pete ‘N’ Tillie, an otherwise affecting film, is absurd. I prefer Geraldine Page in her leading roles (she was fantastic in Sweet Bird of Youth, and I imagine I would've adored her on stage) simply because her self-conscious tics seem so wrong for supporting roles in film acting – she does not know the definition of the word “support”. She seems insistent on acting showily, so much that she forgets what it truly means to support, which is, in such small cases as these, to infuse it with a sort of ephemera.
Here, the “Greatest Actress in the English Language” (goodness, F. Murray Abraham), plays Gertrude, an obnoxious, aging, hippy-dippy socialite who fancies herself ageless. During one of her house parties, she introduces Tillie, the lovely Carol Burnett, to Walter Matthau’s sleazy curmudgeon, Pete. The film’s narrative is concerned with a rather dire topic – loss of a child, to leukemia nonetheless – and the inability of the titular couple to cope with this reality. Martin Ritt, an affecting actor’s director but also a very subtle visualist, struggles to find the right tone for the film. It falls somewhere in between understated drama and high comedy, the latter, of course, being what Geraldine Page fulfills rather tiredly. Gertrude represents that antiquated, delusional angle of decadence entirely out of step with reality. Cozily couched in her little bougie fantasy, she harbors an outlook on life that does not have to deal with such horrors as those Tillie has to endure.
Before she became as baity and obnoxious as she was in The Trip to Bountiful, Page didn’t seem to understand the concept of pathos. Everything she does is out of step with the film. She constantly strains for comic effect, not once infusing this rather insufferable character with any sympathy. There is an aggressively unfunny scene in which she, upon being asked to disclose her age, faints. She handles this scene all wrong, for Page – in all her mannered, overdrawn, garish glory – has no spontaneity. Following this scene is a terrible catfight between Gertrude and Tillie, as farcical and phony as The Turning Point’s infamously campy scene. Yet Page’s performance does not even work on the level of camp. I can understand her performance being so uncompromisingly decadent that she somehow nails the vapid, moral degeneration of the aristocratic type she plays. But I can’t help but imagine other actresses doing this with more liveliness, spunk, and naturalism than Page.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 1972
Saturday, June 11, 2011 2:06 PM
Susan Tyrrell, Fat City
Shelley Winters, The Poseidon Adventure
Jeannie Berlin, The Heartbreak Kid
Geraldine Page, Pete 'N' Tillie
Eileen Heckart, Butterflies are Free
BEFORE THE REVOLUTION/FIRST LOVE/THE GREAT SANTINI
I've been fortunate enough to see a bunch of very interesting films over the course of the past few months, many of them little-seen and even a bit obscure, so I just wanted to share some of my thoughts on some of these films. In between my bouts of actressing, I'm going to briefly cover/review a few movies that have made an impression on me (good, bad, or otherwise):
Prima della rivoluzione (Bertolucci, 1964)
I am fascinated by Bernardo Bertolucci for many reasons – too many reasons, really (I’m obsessed). But what fascinates me most about him, I think, is his camera – mobile, fluid, and poetic. He has a way of mirroring the interiority of his complex, confused protagonists through sweeping, agile long takes that survey interiors; rapid jump cuts that create a sense of anxiety; extreme close-ups that reveal more about a character’s inner feelings than any dialogue could ever express. Though he would, I feel, perfect this practice six years later with Il Conformista, undoubtedly his masterwork, Prima della rivioluzione, or Before the Revolution, has a feeling of cinematic rawness, of something undiscovered that works entirely for the film’s protagonist. A confused, even tortured young man, Francesco Barilli's Fabrizio is a creature of paradox, Marxist on the surface but aggressively bourgeoisie at heart, having no political gall of his own. For him, as one character in the film puts it, ideology was “just a vacation”; the character’s own Marxist leanings were simply a fever dream he entertained. Another product of this desire to break from bourgeois confines comes with a non-normative, incestuous affair with his aunt, played with an Antonioni-esque neurosis by Adriana Asti. She's simply brilliant in this film, effectively telegraphing the confusion, the passion, and ultimate turn toward devilish control her character undergoes. Bertolucci’s film feels like a balletic, semi-autobiographical opera – beautiful, lush, but also tense and uneasy, suggesting a sense of impending chaos.
Erste Liebe (Schell, 1970)
Though I saw this German-language Swedish film, nominated for the 1970 Best Foreign Film Oscar, in its English dubbed version, I still can’t imagine having liked it much more in its original language. I was primarily intrigued by Schell’s directorial efforts – he seems to have directed quite a few interesting films, most notably 1984‘s Marlene, and I assumed that the Academy, whose foreign-language branch seemed to have some sense in those days (The Battle of Algiers, Tristana, Turkish Delight), nominated his film based on quality rather than Schell’s celebrity status. Schell’s film is one of those endless, banal exercises in style, like Lelouch’s vapid but much-loved A Man and a Woman (don’t even get me started on that little pissbomb of a film), that the Americans just fall for immediately because it reeks of a false European “sophistication”. They mistake the lyrical, fluid camera for philosophical and emotional depth, a trap that is especially evident here. Based on one of Ivan Turgenev's short stories, the film doesn’t even sort of seem as if it is set in Russia – Schell’s pastoral utopia does not even seem to remotely resemble the time, the place, or the politics of the Tsarist period (I wasn’t alive at that time, of course, but once one sees the flower-child visuals this film reeks with, I think he or she will agree). Dominique Sanda was once, I imagine, one of most beautiful women in the world. Her beauty here is distracting – she is too beautiful, especially under Schell’s gauze, and one has to wonder what she is doing even thinking about this young pubescent-looking boy. She is usually fantastic at communicating sexual tension – those lips! – but, here, she is . The film’s cinematography is its at once Schell’s best friend and worst enemy. His film is beautiful to look at, but the film is too lyrical, too contrived in its “poetics” to even register as anything more than a headache.
The Great Santini (Carlino, 1979)
The Great Santini is not a great film, though it certainly could’ve been – regardless, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in quite a while. I can’t help but comparing this beautifully-handled, subtle work to what is essentially another domestic drama, Ordinary People, that sentimental hack of a film whose Timothy Hutton undeservedly beat out Michael O’Keefe for in that year’s Best Supporting Actor race. The central performances are astonishing. Duvall has never been better – though he unnecessarily sounds too much like, as Stanley Kauffmann noted, a city tough instead of a suburban army lieutenant, he gets everything else right. His loud, caricaturish approach to the role works in the same brilliant way Shirley MacLaine’s performance in Terms of Endearment would – he manages to find a sense of humanity behind this volume, suggesting a lifetime of regret, personal failure, and even a crisis of masculinity. Michael O’Keefe is simply sensational – I’m not sure why he didn’t become a bigger star. His approach to the role is, I think, diametrically opposed to Duvall’s stylism – O’Keeffe’s performance is an exercise in subtlety. He effectively communicates his own character’s frustrations in a totally accessible, but still complex, manner. Compare his work to Timothy Hutton’s embarrassing over-emoting – there’s no comparison. Towering above all, however, is the exquisite, lush Blythe Danner, who can express more in a matter of seconds than most actresses can in a whole film. She is brilliant here, conveying how this woman has weathered years of suffering, terror, and personal sacrifice and learned to hide this under the veneer of warmth, kindness, piety. Though Danner is – or, at least, was for a time – known as one of the great American ladies of the stage, she should’ve been a star on film, too, and seeing this film merely pains me that Hollywood hasn’t given her her share. Her lissome, nymphlike beauty; her soft, aching voice; and her searching, empty eyes have stayed with me long after the film ended.
BEST ACTRESS 1982: THE RESOLUTION (FINALLY)
I don't even know why this took so long – sorry about that! I'm going to move onto another year right after this.
5. Julie Andrews, Victor Victoria
As usual, Julie Andrews gives a heartwarmingly bland performance – full of air, lightness, and such obviously constructed wit that, quite frankly, isn't the least bit funny. Her dignified, grande-dame persona is completely out-of-touch with those loony performers around her. Though this clearly could've worked to Andrews' advantage – making her that sort of cool, calm, placid being of calm in the eye of the storm – she barely registers. Her theatrics and seeming perfect comic timing are uninspired, flavorless; she is, as Pauline Kael (with whom I don't always agree) so beautifully put it, "infuriatingly sane".
4. Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice
I don't think I can begin to describe how much I want to like this performance. Meryl Streep is one of our greatest artists – so intelligent, so entrancingly beautiful – but I find her work here, quite frankly, so self-aware that it borders on the offensive. It is more suited for theater than for the cinematic framework it should fit into, and, as a result, these grand, overdrawn tendencies result in a performance that is all wrong for celluloid. Streep is simply too obviously, mechanically intellectualized for this kind of role that calls for high emotionalism, letting this very tortured, complex woman's life reveal itself in a way that is so methodical, so rote-like and planned out, that it simply becomes an embarrassing celluloid rehash of William Styron's beautifully nuanced, complex characterization. I certainly don't recoil when I detect coldness in art – quite the opposite, actually – but Streep's work here is so icy, so devoid of anything remotely resembling human feeling, that it is grotesque in a lurid, exploitative way.
Jessica Lange gives herself to this role with such an all-out, ultimately winning physicality – she plays the character with an intriguing ambiguity that never asks for sympathy even when we do, in the end, sympathize with her. Her performance is an exercise in tragedy precisely because Frances seems to ride that blurred, gauzy line between sanity and madness, intelligence and naivete, allowing Lange performance to function as that comment on Hollywood's sexual politics I imagine the film desperately wants to make.
2. Sissy Spacek, Missing
Here, Spacek plays an extension of the persona that has defined her career – that of the all-American misfit, this time in the form of a staunchly liberal, slightly inarticulate hippy child-woman – and she does it brilliantly. Spacek's face, with its wear and evidence of tire, shows the character's own self-awareness that she occupies a time (a post Reagan-era framework, that is) that she, particularly in her mode of political thought, doesn't necessarily belong to. She is like that radical leftist waiting to be awaken within all of us – feeling herself capable of anything, able to see herself as part of a grander social fabric that extends beyond the confines of America's individualistic, capitalist ideologies. You truly get the sense that this woman was once young, idealistic, politically impressionable. But time has softened her. Her face has a sense of failure, dejection. Spacek palpably telegraphs her character's gradual, growing sense of disillusionment, and it results in a performance that is, I think, masterclass in subtlety.
1. Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
I'm alone in thinking this, I know, but Debra Winger's downtrodden, hardened paper mill worker is one of the most subtle, affecting characterizations in 80s American cinema. Her combination of cynicism and hope reminds me of Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria – hardened, embittered, but also more than a little optimistic. Like Spacek, she has this ability to suggest at this woman's more complex and somewhat tortured inner life, and this mere suggestion within the span of, say, thirty minutes trumps anything Streep is able to do in her two hours. It's a performance I will never forget.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
Nathalie Baye, The Return of Martin Guerre
Diane Keaton, Shoot the Moon
Rosel Zech, Veronika Voss
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.