Monday, April 6, 2020

Off the Minnesota Strip: Searching for Reality

Mare Winningham in Off the Minnesota Strip (1980).

There wasn’t an ounce of pretense or melodrama in Mare Winningham’s portrayal of the sheriff’s wife in the recent HBO miniseries based on Stephen King’s supernatural thriller The Outsider. Winningham has stayed on the periphery of fame for four decades, but her work has been consistently superlative, whether in movies (like Georgia, where she’s a folksinger who has to deal with the neuroses of her sister, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), on television (she’s the rare touch of reality in Todd Haynes’s misbegotten adaptation of Mildred Pierce) or on stage (mostly recently in Girl from the North Country at the Public). You have to check Youtube to see how stunning she was even at twenty-one, when she starred in the 1980 TV movie Off the Minnesota Strip, as a girl from a small Minnesota town who runs away at fifteen and winds up hooking in New York City – until her insistence on pressing charges against the pimp who beat her up lands her back home in the untenable situation that made her flee to begin with.

Michelle (Micki) Johansen is sharp and feisty; when her parents, Bud (Hal Holbrook) and Hughlene (Michael Learned), show up at the Minneapolis precinct to pick her up after a sympathetic cop has met her at the plane, she’s forthright as she answers his questions about the life she led in Manhattan with pimps who took all her money and fed her on pizza. But despite the ironed-out platinum blonde wig and the hot pants and the perpetual cigarette, there’s a scared-little-girl look behind her wised-up big-city cynicism. When Micki asks her mother what she knows about her lifestyle, you can see that she’s pleading for acceptance and forgiveness and understanding, though she doesn’t say a word to give herself away. Winningham conveys two opposing impulses in every scene in this utterly remarkable piece of acting, whether she’s trying to navigate Hughlene’s mixed signals (generally anger and exhausted resignation) or dealing with her father’s pathological tendency to skip away from confronting any truth that makes him uncomfortable or handling the fumbling efforts at courtship of a sexually inexperienced teenage boy (Ben Marley) who works at a garage and plays in a band with his best friend (Kirby Furlong). Winningham’s performance is a case study in how a gifted actress with impeccable instincts and a rock-bound commitment to emotional truth infuses a public tough-girl stance with private melancholy and banked rage, and provides revealing glimpses into the workings of her defense system. Sitting at the precinct waiting for her folks to show up, she sings “Just My Imagination” to herself in an affected rocker style; she could be any high school kid distracted by the musical voices in her own head, except that you can tell she’s staving off fear, loneliness, poisonous memories. Often in this movie she looks dazed – post-traumatic. 

Off the Minnesota Strip was directed by Lamont Johnson, a wonderful, too-little-known movie and TV director whose specialty was locating the shifting moods and unstressed three-dimensional realities of recognizable human beings. (He died ten years ago.) None of his best efforts made him famous – not The Last American Hero, with Jeff Bridges in one of his early triumphs as a stock-car racer, or his TV adaptation of Willa Cather’s great story “Paul’s Case” with Eric Roberts, or the offbeat western Cattle Annie and Little Britches with Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer as adolescent outlaws and Burt Lancaster as the head of their gang, or the moving three-part TV series The Kennedys of Massachusetts with Annette O’Toole as Rose Kennedy. (She gives a great American performance.) If Off the Minnesota Strip had a better script, it might have been another of Johnson’s gems, but the sensitive moments in the teleplay – an early-career effort by David Chase, who also produced – alternate with potboiler episodes, and except for Winningham and Marley, who has a clumsy sweetness and digs genuine low-key drama out of his character’s combination of empathy and hormones, the actors don’t have the subtlety to give Johnson what he’s obviously trying to get out of them. (Holbrook has some good scenes but his character is wrecked by an obvious melodramatic revelation.) Still, the movie has an unusual texture; he’s constantly on the lookout for moments that don’t play like the bland TV of the seventies and eighties. And he’s got Mare Winningham in almost every scene, and she must have been a dream for a naturalist like him. She’s the walking truth.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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