Saturday, July 31, 2010

Naomi Watts' Face: Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005)

The first time I saw Peter Jackson's King Kong, about 4-5 days after it was released, I adored it. Everything worked for me, including the maligned-by-others centre portion that some felt went on far too long. I saw it in Goa, India at a beautiful movie theatre called the Inox -- built the year before for the Indian Film Festival -- that could rival any theatre in North America. Afterwards, I wondered if my reaction may have been affected by the fact I saw it in a very unique place on the planet. So, upon our return to Canada, my wife and I went to see it again at the local theatre in Markham near where we live. It was cold and snowy and the First Markham multiplex ain't anybody's idea of a great venue. It's serviceable, but that's about it. My reaction didn't change. We might not have been in Goa anymore, yet I still loved Jackson's King Kong.

Yes, I get that the centre portion, set on Skull Island where Kong first snatches Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), has too much of too much: Kong versus Dinos, Kong versus humans, humans versus revolting insects, Dino stampedes, on and on and on. Yet the first two times I saw it I couldn't stop smiling the entire time. I've now watched the film five or six times and my reaction is still the same. I finally viewed the 'extended cut' last week and another observation came to mind: the key to this film is in the performances. The original King Kong (1933) was the film that made Peter Jackson want to become a filmmaker. It is not overstating it to say he's been in love with Kong ever since. By way of quoting film critic Adam Nayman, my Critics at Large colleague Kevin Courrier said he thought one of the reasons the centre portion went on so long was that Jackson loved Kong so much he wanted to stall for as long as possible the New York sequence where Kong finally met his fate. It's clear watching the film that Jackson loved the big brute, and gave him enough loving close-ups to prove it. But there's another filmic love affair going on here. I think, for good reason, Jackson may also have been in love with Naomi Watts during the making of this film. He lavishes long, luxurious and frequent close-ups on her too.

When a director or producer becomes smitten with his star, it can sometimes be disastrous. I recall Jennifer Jones, an actress from the 40s and 50s. She was a beautiful woman (she died just this past December) who was the mistress of producer David O. Selznick. He was so enamoured of her he gave her starring roles in numerous pictures, including Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Duel in the Sun (1946). Both were legendary flops in their day, partially because Jones was, at best, a mediocre actress. Fortunately, Jackson didn't have that trouble because Naomi Watts is a wonderful actress and she gave an absolutely outstanding performance in King Kong.

The film needed to show that Darrow herself was falling in love with Kong. If the actress wasn't up to the task, the film would not have worked. I hope some of the images here give a hint of what she did, but the best thing to do is just watch the picture. Watts was extremely fortunate because, when she was interacting with Kong, she didn't have to just pretend she was looking into the eyes of the big, hairy hunk. She had the very-talented Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films) to react to. Serkis, in motion capture, played King Kong, but he also was there for her, on set, in an odd monkey suit, to give her something to react against. Beyond her close-ups, Watts' performance is practically without dialogue; she relied totally on her face and body language to tell the story, and she was masterful at it. Two playful scenes sum-up what she did in the film. On Skull Island, Kong has taken Darrow to his lair high above the valley floor. At that point, Darrow figured she's going to be a blonde snack for the big fella, so she resorted to the one thing she knew best (she was an unemployed vaudvillian back in New York): she acted the silly clown, doing pratfalls and juggling in an attempt to dissuade Kong from eating her. It's a wonderful bit of almost silent-film acting that showed Watts' incredible range. The other is in New York after he's grabbed her again. After a rampage through the streets, they find themselves in Central Park. Kong stepped on a frozen pond and almost slipped. Nervous at first, he soon discovered the joy of sliding about on his bottom, so he, with Ann in hand, spun and flopped around on the ice.

Kong's joy is totally real and in those moments they share a well-earned respite before the inevitable climb up the Empire State Building. I think we feel the agony of Kong's death at the end, beyond the fine work Serkis did, because of Watts' great performance. Her screaming atop the Empire State Building at the approaching planes to get them to stop sends chills up and down my spine every time. Perhaps that too is what I reacted to. Watts performance kept me interested even during the moments of mayhem that distracted other viewers during the long Skull Island sequence. Here she was, at the top of her game, in a performance that required her to act with all her skills, and she never once faultered. Others clearly disagree, but for me Jackson's King Kong is a masterpiece.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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