Friday, June 13, 2014

Neglected Gem #58: What Happened Was . . . (1994)

Karen Sillas and Tom Noonan in What Happened Was... (1994)

As Tom Noonan’s 1994 two-hander What Happened Was . . . begins, Jackie (Karen Sillas), an executive assistant at a Manhattan law firm, gets ready for a date; she’s invited one of the paralegals, Michael (Noonan), home for a meal. Sillas has a sensuous vulnerability, and as Jackie rushes about, semi-distracted, driven by something unspoken – loneliness? sexual desperation? – we’re hypnotized by her mysterious inward focus, her almost balletic gracefulness, her unexpected tempo shifts.What we’re watching might be an acting exercise performed by a stunningly gifted actress. We register that there’s nothing to the scene, really, except Sillas’s invention, her ability to keep the moves fresh through a conviction to stake out every corner of this woman’s personality and through the high premium Jackie places on how well the evening turns out.

In fact, all of What Happened Was . . . – which began as a stage play, written by Noonan – isn’t much more than an extended acting-class encounter on the theme of the tensions underpinning an attempt at a romantic interlude. Michael is a cynical know-it-all who’s made himself persona non grata among the lawyers at the firm, but he’s impressed Jackie, whom he pays attention to at the office and who thinks he’s smart and funny. But from the moment he arrives, too early, things start to go wrong. He’s so nervous and ill at ease he can’t shut up, and he makes a faux pas right off the bat by mocking her title at work (“Is that what they call secretaries now?”). She takes the wrong tack when she tells him she’s always defending him to co-workers who don’t see how insecure he really is. The movie, which is beautifully acted and directed, is a kind of sonata spun on their eccentricities and crossed signals. It’s slight – and the more serious it gets, the thinner it feels. (The script keeps reminding you of Paddy Chayefsky and other dramatists of the kinescope era who liked to write about the “little people.”) But you’re absolutely held by the two actors.

You’re held especially by Sillas, whose vividness is almost exotic. She has a transcendent fragility reminiscent of Piper Laurie and Barbara Harris and the now forgotten RenĂ©e Taylor when they were young. Jackie’s transparently set this evening up as a seduction. We see her handle the details – the intimate dinner; the carefully chosen music; the reading of a strange story she’s written herself (called “What Happened Was . . . “) in a candlelit, lavender-curtained corner of the apartment; the skirt slipped surreptitiously higher as she edges closer to this bumbling, self-conscious man, who’s all tumbledown defenses and exposed nerve endings and conversational blind alleys. Her obviousness in the face of his neurotic shambling is very touching. As he keeps letting her down – making comments that leave her stranded, seeming to ignore the direction she’s struggling to guide the evening into – Sillas animates Jackie’s bafflement yet her determination to stick to her plan when he short-circuits it at every turn.

Noonan has a spooky, abandoned look. (It served him well when he played the serial killer in Manhunter in 1986; he gave one of the creepiest performances on record.) Michael dropped out of law school, and now he pretends that his whole disastrous life has been a choice – that he’s “taking a stand,” protesting against all the corruption out there. He pretends he’s writing a book about the legal profession that’s going to shake it up. We’ve all seen this pompous, self-deluding loser before; there’s not much kick left to the inevitable moment when he confesses there’s nothing to him but hot air. But Noonan gives Michael an unsettling New York edginess and the beached-intellectual quality of a Clifford Odets character. When Jackie tells him that her story is going to be published, we see him flounder, dashed by the thought that this lowly executive assistant has succeeded where he’s failed, and then we see him regroup when he finds out that, after all, she’s had to lay out the bucks for the printing. (His sense of his own superiority is restored.)

Joe DeSalvo’s photography has a modest poetic quality: when Jackie reads Michael her story, their heads seem to be floating in the near-darkness. What Happened Was . . . draws you in, and even if you finally reject the small-time dramaturgy, the character revelations that sound too much like they were improvised by actors, there’s so much beauty in the craftsmanship that you suspend your objections. And Karen Sillas puts on a hell of a show as Jackie, devising strategies to stop her date from walking out, bouncing into hyperactivity to keep from despairing over his sexual unresponsiveness. This is Sillas’s only leading performance in a movie, and it’s a stunner.

– 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 Review 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.

1 comment:

  1. Tom Noonan's de facto retirement from directing was a great loss for (american) cinema. By the way, there are no "little people", only little minds.