Monday, July 25, 2022

Random Notes on Actors

Matthew Mcfadyen and Colin Firth in Operation Mincemeat.

For anyone who follows British actors – and that includes just about everybody I know who’s turned on by actors these days – Operation Mincemeat (on Netflix) is a banquet. It features Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton and Jason Isaacs, with Alex Jennings, Hattie Morahan, Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn (from The Dig) in supporting roles and Simon Russell Beale, in a cameo, the latest first-rank actor to in recent years to play Winston Churchill. Across the board, the performances are superlative. The movie, beautifully directed by John Madden from an ingenious, immensely satisfying script by Michelle Alford (adapting book by Ben Macintyre), is a true-life World War II spy story and romantic melodrama. In 1943, British Intelligence Fleet Commander Charles Cholmondeley (Macfadyen, with a bushy mustache) whips up a scheme to mislead the Germans into thinking that the Allies are directing their attention to Greece while in truth they’re focusing on Sicily. Cholmondeley’s plan is to dress up a corpse as an English agent, plant phony documents on him, and have him wash up in Spain, in the Gulf of Cadiz, and then make sure that Allied moles get news of his discovery to Hitler’s ears. Working with Commander Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Hester Leggett (Wilton), head of the Admiralty’s secretarial unit, he appropriates a suicide named Glyndwr Michael for the dead man, renames him Major William Martin, and manufactures a biography for him that includes a romantic backstory. Jean Leslie (Macdonald), a widow working under Hester, gets involved when she offers her own photo to stand in for the sweetheart photo in Martin’s wallet. (Then they throw in a love letter.) Isaacs plays Admiral John Godfrey, their consistently wrongheaded boss, who is skeptical about the operation from the get-go and suspicious of Montagu because he’s convinced his left-leaning brother Ivor (Gatiss) is a Soviet spy. (The fact that the Russians are fighting on the same side as the Allies hasn’t calmed him down.)

In Ashford’s screenplay, the William Martin fiction acquires the emotional details of its inventors as their mission bonds them. Ewen, who is part Jewish, has sent his wife (Morahan) and children to America (that is, to safety, should the Nazis succeed in invading Britain), and in her absence he finds himself falling in love with Jean. But Charles has feelings for her too, so he decides that Ewen is behaving unconscionably. But Ewen feels that Charles is the one who’s betraying their friendship, because he’s sure that Godfrey has set him to spy on him.  And Hester, who is a personal friend of both Ewen and his wife, is caught in the middle. Charles’s brother is a war hero, now believed lost; their mother has glorified him, and Charles feels that he’s a disappointment to her. So William Martin’s heroic status takes on the qualities he wishes he might have demonstrated. He insists on accompanying the corpse to Spain and even reads scripture over him. And to add one more layer to the narrative, the voice-over that sets up the mood of wartime espionage turns out to belong to a young British Intelligence agent, Ian Fleming (Flynn), who’s writing his own fiction.

The scripture reading scene is very tricky, but Macfadyen pulls it off deftly; it’s his finest moment. Firth’s is the moment when he’s alone in the street after he’s touched her for the first time – he brushed a bit of lash out of her eye. (Madden is quoting Brief Encounter, of course.) Macdonald’s is the scene where she reads the love letter in Martin’s wallet from his beloved “Pam” aloud, at the behest of her three comrades. Operation Mincemeat has it all: it’s witty and affecting and gripping, and man, what a cast!

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, about the friendship that develops between Nancy, a retired religious education instructor (Emma Thompson), and Leo (Daryl McCormack), the sex worker she engages, takes you back to the potentially embarrassing spinster roles that Katharine Hepburn transcended so brilliantly in Summertime and The Rainmaker. Nancy is a widow, not a spinster, but she’s never had an orgasm, and she’s certain it’s not in the cards. Thompson has some wonderful scenes, and she brings all her technique to bear on the dialogue, continually surprising you with shifts in emphasis and tempo. She has to, because the script by Katy Brand – who is also, weirdly, listed as “creator,” as if “screenwriter” somehow didn’t cover it – is awful. Almost all the conversations between the two characters are rigged, and Thompson struggles admirably to make the things Nancy says to Leo convincing. At the end we get to see her completely naked, and though the material justifies it, it’s badly misjudged, like Thompson’s attempt to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd in concert on TV. She leaped into that role just as she leaps into the full-frontal requirements of this one, but I couldn’t reconcile either with the actress, whom I love dearly, and in both cases the disjunction made me uncomfortable, as if she were trying to prove something – in this case, I’d say, that she’s fearless. Emma Thompson – a luminous Beatrice, a bracingly intelligent Margaret Schlegel, the best Goneril I’ve ever seen, marvelous in Dead Again and The Remains of the Day and The Meyerowitz Stories – doesn’t have to prove a goddamn thing.

Rebecca Hall in The Night House.

A friend alerted me to Rebecca Hall’s performance in the 2020 Amazon picture The Night House. Scripted by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski and directed by David Bruckner, this is a ghost story about a high school teacher who becomes convinced that her house is being haunted by her husband, a recent suicide. Not much about the narrative is distinctive (though the movie is creepy), but Hall is truly  fearless, like Annette Bening in Neil Jordan’s 1999 Gothic In Dreams, a terrifying piece of acting that went virtually unnoticed. Grief has enraged Hall’s Beth; her colleagues reach out to her, including her in social occasions, but she’s so gnarled and her claws are so sharp that they simply don’t know how to deal with her. In one scene, a student’s mother goes to see her in her classroom to complain about the boy’s grade, and Beth crushes the woman by hurling her own circumstances at her. I disliked the way the filmmakers presented this exchange to imply that the woman’s protectiveness toward her son is offensively insensitive; it’s as if Beth had written and directed the exchange. But as a glimpse into how tragedy can sour a person’s relationship with the world outside her private hell, it’s remarkable. The fellow teacher she’s closest to, Claire (Sarah Goldberg), isn’t scared off by the depth of Beth’s anguish, but when Claire reminds her, “I love you,” Beth throws her an uncomprehending look. It’s not that she has stopped thinking of herself as loved but that she can’t fathom how Claire could think her love made any difference now, when a chasm separates them. Even more startling is a scene where Hall touches the ghost, still invisible to us. This is a demand that would defeat many a skilled actor, but Hall’s sensory precision is flawless and she imbues the scene with a most unsettling sensuality.

Luke Kirby and Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The fourth season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was terrible, its plotting so implausible and over the top that even Rachel Brosnahan, in the title role, became tiresome. I understand that situation comedy by definition stretches the bounds of realism, but if it abandons its commitment to emotional realism it turns into blather. Watching the sequences built around Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge Maisel’s parents, one wonders what the actors themselves, comporting themselves like demented cartoons, could be thinking. But there were a few sweet father-son moments between Michael Zegen (as Midge’s ex) and Kevin Pollak (as his father), and in one episode LeRoy McLain reprised his gentle, layered performance as the tormented Johnny Mathis-like crooner Shy Baldwin for a few precious minutes. But the only reason I sat through all ten episodes was that Luke Kirby appeared in several of them as Lenny Bruce, contributing some of the finest acting ever seen on TV. In one, Midge is riding in a cab when she spots Bruce passed out on the street, so she hauls him home to the apartment she shares with her children and her parents. The next morning he wakes in acute distress: for this thoroughgoing hipster, whose entire state of being is predicated on distancing himself from the lifestyles of middle-class people, it’s as if he’s landed on an alien planet, and the fact that it’s a friendly one makes it worse. He runs out of the apartment, with a bewildered Midge at his heels, as though he were being chased by smiling monsters. In other scenes Kirby and the writers show us how he handles her anxiety when she finds drug paraphernalia in his bag (lightly, calmly, with a kind of gallantry), how he becomes turned on by her (his seductiveness is underscored with curiosity and kindness), and how furious he gets when he feels that her professional choices sideline her. This last was the unmistakable high point of the season, probably of the entire series: after his triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall, he leads her out onto the now-empty stage to taste the aura and excitement and then, with a feverishness that almost makes him seem possessed, he pleads with her not to throw away her chances because she’s committed herself to a set of principles. (Having declared she is done fronting other performers, she’s turned down an offer to open for Tony Bennett.) It’s been clear since the beginning that Lenny considers Midge a kindred spirit; what he’s doing here is trying to make her see the world of professional comedy through his eyes, as a madness that you have to leap into rather than believe you can fit it into a balanced existence or the priorities of ordinary people. There’s a straight line from the scene where he hops it out of her apartment and this one, and Kirby illuminates it.

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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