Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lily Tomlin in Nashville

Lily Tomlin received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Linnea Reese in Robert Altman's Nashville. When I picked this year at random, for whatever reason the film I was least excited to see was Robert Altman's Nashville. I think it was some combination of not liking either of the previous two Altman ensemble films I saw very much (those being The Player and Gosford Park), which led me towards not seeking out any others and the film's centering on the country music scene, which simply doesn't interest me on paper. But I don't know if I've ever been more wrong and misguided before in my life because Nashville is a simply astonishing film. It's a film of gargantuan ambition and scope, focusing on an uncountable number of characters over the course of a few days in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. It's rare that film with the level of ambition and audaciousness that Nashville has comes together so seamlessly. It's a near-perfect film, casting a wide net in terms of style and tone and somehow gelling together seamlessly. It dances from heartbreaking drama to goofy comedy and works because of the way it aims to encompass anything and everything about life. It aims to represent us all, and does so thrillingly and humanely.

One of the largest virtues of Nashville is the way in which is balances characters of widely different tones. There are goofy characters, like the kooky Barbara Harris. There are tragic characters, like the endearing Gwen Welles. And then there is Lily Tomlin, acting as the calm center of the film in many ways. She plays Linnea, a gospel singer in a stagnant marriage to a big time music executive with whom she has two children, both of whom were born deaf. It's weird to see an actress as energetic and charismatic as Tomlin giving such a calm, quiet performance as this one but that is also the main reason why this performance really works. Gone is all the mugging that perpetuates her other performances, and in it's place is a beautiful and subtle simplicity. It's fortuitous that Tomlin recognized that this role needed a less heavy hand than usual, because there were many opportunities where she could have gone for bigger but decided not to. In a lot of ways Linnea is the most mysterious and guarded characters in the film, an average housewife who clearly loves her children and even her husband in an oblique way but has a hidden longing for something else in her life. Tomlin captures the plainness of the character by simply giving off a motherly normalcy in all her scenes. Free from any affectations or mannerisms, Lily Tomlin exudes naturalism and averageness.

The driving force in peeling back some of Linnea's layers comes in the form of Tom Frank (a ridiculously attractive Keith Carradine), a popular young folk singer who has come to Nashville in order to record a solo album after separating from his band. He remembers a time months back in which he met Linnea and decides to call her up and blatantly ask her on a date, with the full knowledge of her marital status. From that first phone call we begin to see the subtle ways in which Tomlin's Linnea becomes in touch with the desire and uncertainty stirring within her. At first she's a little oblivious, as any married mother would be, to this young man's hitting on her and it's amusing to watch her ask him over for lunch with the children multiple times, simply not getting it. But most of Tomlin's best work comes simply from the look in her eyes and the subtle expressions on her face. The amount of emotion she pours into each expression, often the same expression held for an extended period of time is astounding. It's subtle, but the longing and the conflict that comes with it is all displayed in her eyes. Her ability to express so much with so little outwards "acting" is a testament to the level of emotional complexity she pours into her role.

As the most guarded and mysterious character in the film, Tomlin often disappears for long periods of time only to pop back up after being invited to a club where Tom is performing some of his new songs. Her big scene comes when she's sitting in the back of the club while Tom performs "I'm Easy", a song he explicitly dedicates to her without even being sure she's in the audience. A little ways into the song he catches sight of her and proceeds to sing the rest of the song directly to her, which all the other patrons take notice of. The way in which Altman simply plants the camera pointing at Tomlin sitting in the back in plain view and allows her expression to say everything allows for some truly sublime acting. Tomlin keeps an even keel on her subtlety and allows her eyes to once again do all the heavy lifting, with that iconic expression that is both emotional and opaque in expressing this woman's realization that this man is singing to her. He could have any woman in the room but he wants her, and she doesn't understand it and doesn't know how to really process it all. It's the crowning moment of the performance, helped out greatly by the beautiful Oscar-winning song.

Linnea's final major scene is simply her and Tom in bed after their rendezvous, and we see the return of the reticent motherly type we got at the beginning of the film. Tomlin manages to keep Linnea's motivations and emotions a well-guarded secret throughout the film, and even as Tom tries to get her to stay a little longer with him she shoots down his advances with a the clarity of purpose that this average woman has had since the beginning. This isn't your typical Oscar-nominated performance in that Tomlin doesn't give a performance where you can see the acting happening onscreen. Her greatest strength is her reserve, and what results is a supple and powerful performance that doesn't need histrionics or mannerisms to convey everything that this woman feels. It all feels all the more real and moving because of it. 4.5/5 Thelmas.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lee Grant in Shampoo

Lee Grant won the Oscar on her third nomination for her performance as Felicia Karpf in Hal Ashby's Shampoo. This was my second go-round with Shampoo, a film I absolutely despised on the grounds of it all feeling like a Warren Beatty vanity project in which women embarrassingly throw themselves at him. Though I now feel that might be a little too harsh, the central problem of the film remains the same: Warren Beatty's vacuous leading performance. The plot centers on Beatty's George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser with a healthy flow of female clients who is attempting to open his own salon while also navigating the complex array of women he has fawning over him. See, George can get any woman in bed with him, often without even really trying because he is simply irresistible. The three main women in the film are all hopelessly in love with him: the sweet but needy Jill (Goldie Hawn), the glamorous and sophisticated Jackie (Julie Christie), and the lonely, desperate Felicia (Grant). Also in the mix is Felicia's husband Lester (an Oscar-nominated Jack Warden), a powerful businessman who offers to finance George's salon and is having an extra-marital affair with Jackie. Hijinx ensue, culminating in a final party with all five characters in attendance where a series of revelations and secrets are spilled. The problem is that, as played by Beatty, George is essentially a charmless idiot, despite being proclaimed some kind of irresistible lothario whom all these interesting, sophisticated women fawn over. He's got about as much personality as Frankenstein's Monster.

In the wrong hands, the role of Felicia Karpf could very easily fall into rote stereotypical trappings because Felicia isn't a particularly original creation: she's a bored, aging housewife carrying on an affair with a much younger man in order to recapture some sense of youthful vitality and alleviate the boredom of her life. However, with an actress as dynamic and calculated as Lee Grant we see an unusually complex portrayal of this particular stereotypical "bored housewife" role. Another actress might play up one particular aspect of this relatively small role, and lean heavily on either the sympathetic, unlikable, or pathetic nature of the character but Grant endeavors to do them all wrapped in one, crafting a busy portrayal that both thrives and struggles under that level of ambition.

The pure volume of tics and cadences that Grant heaps into her portrayal works well in the early scenes in which Felicia is constantly fighting to keep George's attention. She's simultaneously fussy and desperate while also jealous and domineering in the way in which Felicia plays mind games with George to grasp his attention. Grant so often contrasts what Felicia is saying with what she is feeling in an electric and interesting manner, often with a spiky look and a stilted line reading. There's a sharp contrast between her dialogue in the earlier scenes, which all feel painfully overdone and calculated with manufactured stutters and over-thought pauses, and the emotions that Grant expresses simply with her face and eyes in silence. There's so much depth and emotion in the simple way that Grant can convey longing and envy in her eyes that comes across much better than her over-rehearsed line-readings.

Her face continues to be her greatest weapon as the film goes on, as Felicia faces some competition for George's affections. Whereas the first half of the film has Felicia interacting merely with George, the second half has all the characters coming together during which she realizes how little George and her husband really care about her. During the film's big party scene she continues to reek of insecurity, embarrassingly dragging George into the bathroom and making out with him in the middle of a large group of people. However, the key moment for Felicia is when she meets Julie Christie's Jackie, the woman who both George and her husband are deeply in love with. There's a look of instant recognition that flashes across her face, followed by something of a predatory scowl and the eventual resignation that she can't compete with this glamorous young woman. It's a fascinating moment, ice cold between the two women, both of whom spend the rest of the party sending glares from across the room. Grant does the bitchy stares really well, but it also marks the end of Felicia's usefulness in the plot.

It's clear to all watching (and perhaps even Felicia herself) that neither man is going to choose her over Jackie in any way, and instead of going for sympathy or sadness Grant freezes Felicia up and removes all the previous electricity and fight she had. There is no big emotional moment or breakdown, only an icy coldness until she leaves the film and the men behind. The film kind of tosses her away after that, giving her only the middle finger moment that is funny but ultimately not a satisfying end to her story.

What we are left with is a role with a bizarre trajectory,  simultaneously a tool for Beatty, a desperate sad sack, a plot device, and ice cold bitch. A more focused (and less engaging) actress wouldn't layer so many facets in her portrayal, but that's simply not Grant's acting. By crafting such a busy, inconsistent characterization, Felicia feels like something of a erratic mess of a character who never quite makes coherent sense. It's a blessing and a curse, because by doing so much with her performance Grant has simultaneously injected energy and verve in her performance while also making it a somewhat incomprehensible and scattered. I appreciate the ambition displayed, even if the results are sketchy and mismatched.

There's a visceral watchability to this performance, which is bitter, pathetic, sympathetic, and bitchy, but is Felicia Karpf a discernible human being? Not really. But is she always fun to watch? Absolutely. 3.5/5 Thelmas.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Brenda Vaccaro in Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough

Brenda Vaccaro received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Linda Riggs in Guy Green's Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough. I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and say that Once is Not Enough is the trashiest film ever nominated for a major Academy Award. By a fairly wide margin. It's the story of January Wayne (a perpetually blank faced Deborah Raffin), the daughter of a famous movie star (Kirk Douglas) who struggles with disturbing daddy issues. Her and her father have an intensely close relationship, so much so that basically every other character in the film brings up the weird incestuous overtones in their relationship to their faces, to which they promptly agree. They both seem to openly pine for a partner just like the other, and know that they will never find anyone as good as each other. The film has no real plot besides dealing with January's aimless life and the people who drift in and out of it, specifically her relationship with an much older man who reminds her guessed, her father. Brenda Vaccaro plays Linda Riggs, an old "friend" of January's, and the editor in chief of a fashion magazine who reconnects with her and becomes her confidante and boss, offering her a job as a "researcher" on her magazine.

The only explanation for this performance getting nominated is that Brenda Vaccaro stands out as a source of entertainment and more importantly fun in a film that is decidedly creepy and purposeless. We've seen many performers get nominations for similarly standing out as the "one good thing" in an otherwise egregious film (Amy Madigan, Barbara Harris, and Jocelyne LaGarde are examples I've already reviewed). I suppose the contrast between giving a competent performance next to a group of incompetent ones makes competence seem nearly excellent. The character of Linda certainly has a lot of potential on paper to be great--we are told before she appears on screen that she was an ugly teen with a "great personality" only to be 'shocked' when it turns out that she has completely remade her looks via various surgeries and, as she says "screwed every guy in this organization" to get to her high position. It's this type of crude humor that the character thrives on, and Vaccaro throws out all of her one-liners with energy and spot-on timing. Vaccaro is very beautiful, but her husky, throaty voice allows her to be believable as a former ugly duckling.

In her playing of the raunchy and worldly sidekick, Vaccaro excels at being both likable and also a little desperate. Linda's constant (and I mean constant) sexual jokes never really become annoying or forced because Vaccaro knows how to throw them out casually and with a naughty glee. They key to this performance is truly Vaccaro's likability and great screen presence. Whenever she appears on screen you know that you are going to get a nice jolt from whatever slumber January has put you in, via pure charisma and comedic chops. She plays a woman with no filter, someone's who's always "on" and always on the prowl and not in an obnoxious, forced way.

As I watched this performance unfold I began to wonder what the root cause for Linda's crassness was, and began to place all these assumptions around this performance. Maybe Linda is a total horndog to make up for all the insecurities of her presumably unpleasant teenage years? Or maybe she's all talk and no action, simply telling these stories to January to make her seem more experienced than she is? More anything, this performance got me thinking about how we as viewers inject these types of film conventions into characters almost more so than actors do. Because Vaccaro's performance doesn't particularly unveil any deep insecurities or personal problems. Sure, she offhandedly mentions them once or twice in passing, but we never see any of that in any substantial way. The script throws out little hints of insecurity through dialogue, but it never comes through in any emotional or physical way through Vaccaro. So I began to project it onto this performance myself a little. Then I finished the film, which ends with a big outburst scene in which Linda loses her job and January consoles her. Vaccaro capably plays the rage and frustration of losing the job, but once again the emotional side left me wanting more.

So the conclusion that I came to was this: I need to be careful to modulate what I'm projecting onto a role and what an actor is actually bringing to a role. We all as frequent movie watchers can sense when a part has more to it than the actor is actually bringing, and need to recognize what actually makes it onto the screen as opposed to what the part was aiming for. Now that I've made it all about me, I'll say that Brenda Vaccaro brings a lot to the table with this performance. She's great comedic relief, and chock-full of charisma and charm. But it's hardly performance that digs deep enough to warrant an Oscar nomination, even if she tries her best to save us from the disaster that is OINE. 3/5 Thelmas.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sylvia Miles in Farewell, My Lovely

Sylvia Miles received her second and final Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Jessie Halstead Florian in Dick Richards' Farewell, My Lovely. This film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's detective novel of the same name, seems so desperately intent on evoking the mood of the great '40s noir films that it forgets to bring the heat in nearly every other aspect of its filmmaking. The design is all there (though black and white would have served this film vastly better), but Richards ruins it by casting all these fantastic actors and not pulling a single great performance from any of them. When normally excellent actors like Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling give such dull and uninspired cliches of performances, you know your film is underachieving. Sylvia Miles falls under the trap as well, playing the dirt poor widow of a former club owner who is sought out for questioning by Mitchum's Phillip Marlowe. Marlowe is searching for a girl named Velma who used to work at the club, and Mrs. Florian is merely one of Marlowe's many, many leads that all get significantly less screentime then is needed to make even the slightest impact.

But all of that is not to say that Miles doesn't at least attempt to pull together a good performance. For such a loud woman both in life and onscreen, she is surprising subdued and comfortable in her role here. Jessie Florian is something of a stereotype, the washed up wannabe actress who never quite realized her dreams and has become bitter in her old age. But Miles does well to imbue her character with a softness that is clear from the second she comes onto the screen. She is intrigued as this detective comes to her door, and it becomes clear that she is both an alcoholic and someone in desperate need for company. Miles plays it cool, expressing Jessie's want for connection mostly through looks and suggestive movements like opening her robe just a little too much. Her control on the character is truly admirable, and the way in which she subtly hints that there is more to Mrs. Florian then meets the eye is understated and effective. However, while her acting is certainly solid, it never really elevates into the next level that one expects of an Oscar nominated performance. It's capable supporting work in total service of the film, but at the expense of much impact.

The performance contains essentially two scenes, the first of which contains the most meat. It's in this scene that Miles establishes the emotional center of the performance, and the despair and poverty that Jessie's life has spiraled into. There are tons of little character moments, like when Miles performs a bit from her old show for a brief second, or when she swigs a sip of whiskey straight from the bottle before serving it to Marlowe. It's these little touches that make the performance always enjoyable and you can nearly feel Miles aching for more to do. Her second scene is almost entirely negligible, essentially rehashing many of the same beats as the first (dependency on alcoholism, casual flirting with Marlowe, etc). This scene more clearly shows the plot device that Mrs. Florian was designed to be, despite Miles's valiant attempts to do something, anything with this plot device character.

I'm quite baffled as to how Miles managed to secure a nomination for this specific performance. Unlike her performance in Midnight Cowboy, which was brief but incredibly loud and memorable this performance is smaller and subtler. Jessie Florian doesn't feel like too well defined of a character, and certainly not flashy enough to stand out above any of the other characters encountered throughout this story. None of this is Miles fault, and I can see her attempting to do something with this performance but in a film so unconcerned with her beyond the information she has to advance the plot, she can't really go anywhere with it. Never a bad performance, but nothing of note that makes it truly memorable or noteworthy. 2.5/5 Thelmas.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Best Supporting Actress 1975

And the nominees were....

  • Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean in Nashville
  • Lee Grant as Alicia Karpf in Shampoo (winner)
  • Sylvia Miles as Jessie Halstead Florian in Farewelly, My Lovely
  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese in Nashville
  • Brenda Vaccaro as Linda Riggs in Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough
The Field: Alright, I'll admit something: this is not a year I'm particularly excited for. I'm not particularly sure why I'm not excited for it, but it's just not one that I was itching to cover. I've seen Shampoo and have not so fond memories of that film (though those are mostly thanks to Beatty, who has never impressed me). I'm a little wary of Nashville, having never warmed up to an Altman film the way the rest of the world has (from my limited sampling of his films), though I'm always interested in seeing such a widely acclaimed film. As for the other two, I've heard nothing that makes me particularly excited. My lack of excitement for this year, I should say, comes more from the films than the actresses, because this is a somewhat interesting and atypical group of ladies for the Academy. Not a wallflower among them, and I'm glad to see a lack of fawning mothers and delicate young girlfriends (maybe the last year scarred me a bit?). Well, here's hoping my expectations are subverted! Sylvia Miles will be up first in a few days time.