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.

1 comment:

Antonio Djordjevic said...

As i can remember, she was nothing special, for me Julie Christie stood out but that also wasnt enough for Oscar nominated performance. In a perfect world one of Nashville ladies should have won, but because they split votes the one who was thir actually won.