Alfre Woodard received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Geechee in Martin Ritt's Cross Creek. The film is a biopic of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rowlings (a dismal Mary Steenburgen), the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Yearling, among other novels. After struggling for year to write a novel, Rowlings moves to Cross Creek, Florida in an attempt to have solitude for her to write, and becomes inspired by the colorful inhabitants of the area. Woodard plays Geechee, a stereotypical African American servant that essentially serves as the comic relief of the film. It's a role that is common in these types of period dramas (see: Hattie McDaniel), and one that can get pretty stale quickly. What Woodard manages to do in the film is make this cliched role a substantial one and very nearly steal the entire movie.
One of the virtues of this performance is the physicality that Woodard brings to Geechee. She's just a character with a lot of energy and is a force of nature, and Woodard creates a natural balance between the quieter moments and the scattered liveliness that is Geechee. She takes the stock character and all of the cliches associated with but elevates all of those elements to make her incredibly funny, relatable, and a relief from the dreafully slow pace of the rest of the film. Meant to be the opposite of the main character, Woodard's charisma and simplicity in her performance add unexpected amounts of humanity and joy to the film, and that really is all because of Geechee. Whereas Kinnan Rowlings is drab, boring, and reserved, the exuberance expressed through every single line reading and sassy remark just injects so much that is valuable into Cross Creek.
The scene for me that really clinched this performance as a movie-stealer is the pivotal moment where Geechee is about to leave Rowling's employment to go with her husband, who Rowlings got released from jail. Even though we have seen little in the way of chemistry between Steenburgen and Woodard thus far (once again because of Steenburgen's stiffness), Woodard managed to completely convince me that her and Rowlings have this great and meaningful friendship. When an actress can pull you in and create an entire relationship from nothing, and make you feel something between the two all by herself with no help from her costar, there is no doubt that the performance is a great one.
Oftentimes throughout the film you feel as if Woodard is saddled with basically nothing to do, part of her main storyline is terrible because after this buildup to the return of her husband, he stays for literally five minutes before taking off. But it almost doesn't matter, because this performance is all about defying the limitations set by the film and role itself. Woodard takes this stereotype and everything about the character and says "I'm going to make this great." It wasn't written that way, but is only because of Alfre Woodard. She's just so loveable. This review may have not indicated my grade the best because of the admiration I have for Woodard elevating the material, but this performance gets 4/5 Thelmas.