Monday, January 14, 2013

Keeping It Real and Going for Broke: Notes on Recent Performances, Part II (The Women)

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down

Jessica Chastain’s Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty was predictable, given her rather baffling promotion over the last few years to everyone’s go-to character actress, and given the showcase role of the CIA agent who leads the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. And she gives a perfectly competent performance. Chastain’s always efficient; offhand I can’t think of a moment in any of her pictures that stands out as unconvincing. The trouble is that nothing she does stands out at all; she isn’t remotely interesting. By contrast, the performances of Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down have an explosive immediacy; the night I saw the movie, they seemed to alter the energy in the suburban cineplex. Won’t Back Down passed virtually unnoticed except for some nasty critical swipes, the kind that could have been written by reviewers after seeing the trailers. The actual movie, an unabashedly partisan drama – clearly inspired by the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ – about two mothers of learning-disabled kids, one of them a teacher herself, who struggle to take over a dismally stalled public elementary school, isn’t especially clever or complex; its approach to filmmaking is fairly basic. But it struck me as an honest piece of work; the fact that the scenes don’t feel rigged for easy emotional effects makes the film satisfying in a way that social problem pictures hardly ever are, and audiences evidently don’t expect them to be. The director (Daniel Barnz) and his co-writer (Brin Hill) get the temperature right in the exchanges between the teachers and parents, the teachers and the union officials, and the teachers on both sides of the issue. And the two actresses are, as always, marvelous to watch. (I wouldn’t have considered missing a movie with both of them in it.) Gyllenhaal is an unerringly fresh actress: she leaps off the screen even in tired, gray indie movies. Here she plays a young mother whose limited education and working-class, single-mother status haven’t spotlighted her natural leadership abilities before now, but who instinctually draws on her vivacity and humor and an apparently indefatigable optimism to rouse teachers and other parents to get worked up over what initially sound like impossibly far-fetched ambitions. Davis plays her first convert: Gyllenhaal’s character rescues her from cynicism and defeat.

Davis is sui generis. It’s not just that she can’t sound a false note but that she’s possessed of a withering authenticity: when she walks through a movie she exposes every iota of fakery – even in a medium-grade, perfectly acceptable melodrama like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, where she invests her two minutes on screen as a distraught woman searching for her missing brother with such bone-deep conviction that you expect the scenery to fall behind her. She should have been playing leading roles in movies long ago, just as she’s been doing on stage – she’s all the reason you need to see any play she happens to be appearing in. When she finally landed a lead in The Help she was so extraordinary (she had three or four great moments in her first scene alone) that I had the eerie, lopsided feeling that I was watching two separate movies: the Davis one and the other one, a rabidly manipulative soap opera whose treatment of life in a southern town during the Civil Rights era was so obviously, insultingly implausible in every detail that I thought I could feel my IQ going down while I watched. Won’t Back Down is hardly earth-shattering, but for perhaps the first time since her one-scene role in the film noir-romance Out of Sight Davis’s presence didn’t make the movie around her look phony.

Seth Roger and Barbra Streisand in The Guilt Trip
Gyllenhaal and Davis’s work aren’t the only neglected female performances that gave me pleasure in 2012. I got a kick out of Barbra Streisand’s old-pro vaudeville turn in The Guilt Trip, in which the choice to cast her and Seth Rogen as mother and son was a happy inspiration (like the match-up of Albert Brooks and Paul Rudd as father and son in This Is 40). Streisand is a staggeringly gifted screen actress but she’s often been her own worst enemy, both because her taste is unreliable and because once she hit middle age she became fiendishly self-protecting. (The news that before he died she and Arthur Laurents worked out a deal for her to star in a movie of his musical Gypsy was both delectable – who in the history of musicals would make a more exciting Mama Rose? –  and terrifying – if she softens the character she’ll destroy it.) Streisand hardly bothers to make movies at all anymore, but in The Guilt Trip, as a possessive, infantilizing Jewish mother who travels across country with her son, who at about thirty doesn’t seem to have started his life yet, she reanimates the comic instincts that made her so memorable in early-seventies comedies like The Owl and the Pussycat and What’s Up, Doc? Streisand has the Borscht Belt in her veins but the beauty of her work in this movie is that she knows she doesn’t have to push to get her laughs, and she never does. It’s her first starring performance in two decades; the movie’s a doodle but an effortlessly entertaining one, and it would have been nice if her comeback had been greeted with more enthusiasm. Streisand’s so unapologetically herself that she’s always been an easy target for cynics, though when she first appeared in movies in 1968 (when she was already a Broadway, recording and TV star) the era was perfect for an old-style Hollywood star who didn’t look like anyone else and who had a contemporary quirkiness. She still has all those qualities, and I can’t think of anyone who made me laugh more in any of this season’s movies.

Modesty has never been one of Streisand’s virtues, but then there haven’t been a hell of a lot of modest movie stars this side of Gary Cooper. (There’s Clint Eastwood, but his modesty is less impressive when you realize that he’s an actor by profession only, not by ability.) Of course, it’s always been easier for men to hang back in American movies; with the iniquity still of male and female roles, women have to fight twice as hard to get noticed. Helen Hunt isn’t a star, and movies haven’t been as kind to her as TV was when she and Paul Reiser co-starred in Mad About You. If Streisand’s self-protectiveness used to present itself in her insistence on taking parts she was too mature for (A Star Is Born, The Mirror Has Two Faces) or striving to lay a glamorous patina on roles that should have been played as supporting characters (The Prince of Tides), Hunt’s does in the way she usually tries to keep from revealing too much of herself. That’s the kind of modesty that comes off well on the small screen – she was delightful in Mad About You – but on the big screen it can make an actress seem chilly. I don’t usually enjoy Hunt in movies; she’s so repressed that when she goes for the usual big emotional effects, as she did in As Good as It Gets, she seems artificial. But in The Sessions, as the sexual surrogate helping a man (John Hawkes) who spends most of his time in an iron lung lose his virginity, she does something surprising: she uses her own limitations as a dramatic resource and then transcends them. Her Cheryl is friendly and sympathetic, but she substitutes professionalism for warmth, and you understand why: her clients aren’t romantic partners (she’s happily married) and she has to reserve her emotions for her personal life, which, she makes clear to Hawkes’s Mark O’Brien, she doesn’t share at work. Hunt is naked in most of her scenes in The Sessions, but like Cheryl she’s careful to remain emotionally clothed, so when Mark gets to her and she starts to feel something for him, her vulnerability catches her off guard and she panics. It’s a superb piece of acting: just because both Cheryl and the actress keep so much of themselves in reserve, when they open up, the results are startling and very moving.

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams, on the other hand, always unpeels herself emotionally on camera.  Williams is one of those performers, like Julie Christie, who challenges you to figure out where intuition takes over from intelligence. (You can’t.) Williams is a master of moods, and so is Sarah Polley, who directed her in the Canadian picture Take This Waltz. Polley is an actress-turned-director whose distinction is her gift for translating an actor’s way of thinking through a movie to the directing process; you could see it in her work with Christie in Away from Her (Polley’s directing debut, where Christie played a woman descending into Alzheimer's) and you can see it even more clearly in Take This Waltz, which has an experimental, unfinished quality, like a sculpture whose artist hasn’t freed it fully from granite or bronze. The work that the Australian director Gillian Armstrong did with actresses in the 1980s represented a kind of women’s collaboration that generated a more delicately shifting depiction of female characters than you got in other movies. Polley doesn’t have Armstrong’s technical expertise – at least not yet – but what she does with Williams in this picture is comparable, I think, to what Armstrong accomplished with Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel and Judy Davis in High Tide. Williams plays an aspiring Toronto writer whose relationship with her husband (Seth Rogen), a writer of cookbooks, is playful, perhaps uncomfortably so for us; it feels like something they should have grown out of, and though they love each other, there’s evidence that in different ways both of them are growing out of it, or at last pulling against it. When she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), an artist, on a business trip and then discovers they’re neighbors, the chemistry between them challenges her to weigh the inadequacies of her marriage, though to do it unsettles and frightens her.

Margot admits to Daniel early in the picture, “I don’t like being between things,” but Williams’s peculiar gift is locating precisely that moment when one emotional state blurs into another. She feels her way into the mood of a scene, almost like a blind person figuring out the geography of a new place; you can see it slowly take over her face and her body, and you can see when she tries to resist it. It’s tricky to describe the key moments in a Michelle Williams performance  because they’re rarely big, showy scenes, and if another, less completely convincing actress attempted them they’d probably seem silly and insignificant. For instance, she has a tender, affecting speech to Daniel about how, when her baby niece cries for reasons that none of the adults can figure out, she identifies with the child because sometimes just the way the sun fills a space of sky can make her cry. The unusual kind of emotional territory Williams lays claim to – tentativeness and overlapping feelings – made her the ideal actress to play Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn; it was also a boon in Blue Valentine, where her character is a woman who has outgrown a childish husband (Ryan Gosling). She may be doing the most innovative work of any American film actress right now. The only female performances I saw last year that were comparable were by the French actress Emmanuelle Riva in Amour and the British actress, Keira Knightley, in Anna Karenina.

Khandi Alexander as LaDonna, in Treme
I should amend that statement:  these were the only performances of that caliber I saw at the movies. Have viewers been noticing the fearlessness of some American actresses on TV in 2012? I’m thinking of Khandi Alexander in Treme as LaDonna, the New Orleans bar owner who tries to put her life back together after being beaten and raped. Perhaps the most elegant woman on television (in my view she’s also the most gorgeous), Alexander makes her refusal to let go of that elegance while she digs into her character’s fury and sexual vulnerability a sort of metaphor for LaDonna’s ferocious grasp on her own ravaged dignity. I’m also thinking of Nicole Kidman, who was practically reborn as an actor when she played Martha Gellhorn in Philip Kaufman’s HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn. These are ferocious physical performances.

A more obvious example of how far women have been able to go on TV is Claire Danes as CIA Agent Carrie Mathison on Homeland, who for two seasons has shared the small screen with the prodigious Damian Lewis (whose work I discussed last week in Critics at Large) and, as Saul Berenson, the veteran company man who trained her and is her closest friend, Mandy Patinkin (doing the best work of his career). But terrific as these two men are, it’s hard to take your eyes off Danes when she’s on camera. The character, an agent with uncanny instincts who is also bipolar, would be a gift for any young actress, but I can’t imagine anyone who could take it as far as Danes has. Carrie’s dedication to her job is inseparable from her need to prove herself to her colleagues, and also to herself. At the end of season one the pressures of her job and especially of her attempt to persuade her co-workers that she was right about Lewis’s Nicholas Brody, a POW in Afghanistan for eight years she was convinced had been turned by the enemy, unhinged her; she fell off her meds, had a terrifying manic episode that outed her illness to Saul and the CIA director (David Harewood), and wound up bounced from her job, her theories dismissed as crazed, and committed to a psychiatric hospital. When evidence backs up her perceptions about Brody early in season two and she’s brought back to the CIA and reassigned to Brody’s case, her need to reclaim her territory wars with her need to keep herself psychically healthy, and Danes and the series keep us – who, like Saul, know how fragile she is – in a constant state of suspense and anxiety. As Danes plays her, Carrie’s identity is so neurotically defined by her performance at work and she’s so clearly incapable of shielding herself emotionally that you’d think she was a basket case if she weren’t such a brilliant operative. Like Lewis’s Brody, she’s always coming apart yet she’s also always aware of everything and everyone around her, always weighing its potential danger. No TV series to my knowledge has ever attempted anything quite like this before – a high-wire act that’s simultaneously a game of truth or dare. It’s like those psychotherapy movies John Cassavetes used to make, but they were all showmanship, acting exercises that never seemed to cross over into the real world. What Danes does in Homeland is acting, not narcissism – it’s completely in character. She makes you quake for the character she plays.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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