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 of...you 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.

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