Wednesday, March 30, 2011



This is a true blue Signature Role. It’s a violent assault to the senses. Who else could have played this over the edge, manic, out of her mind stalker-kidnapper? No one comes to mind. That’s really my main criteria, (Who else?) when it comes to defining – what it means to be ‘Signature’. Sandra is the real deal.

She is street. Her look, her vibe, her ballsy tongue, her big BIG mouth. Gritty New York street with genius timing. Razor sharp and fast. She is Scorsese with a Vag J-J,  let’s face it. She takes her comedic skills to the brink so many times, so hilariously, I thought for sure she was going to crack herself up, or Lewis or DeNiro.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times said that, “Miss Bernhard, who is new to films and may be one of the decade's comic finds” How right he was but he also assumes that this would be the jump-start to her film career. This was the beginning, middle and the end of her film career – really. One role but it’s a furious, take no prisoners, manic crazed, hysterical ride to the end.  Unsettling, and so unpredictable her performance. She is voice of reason in an insane way. Even though she too is off her rocker. She's the only one that can reach Rupert, in terms of how disturbed and deluded he’s behaving. Takes one to know one. The film is a true satire and with Sandra, Scorsese's found the perfect fit to this NETWORK esk slam. This was the first time I had ever heard of Sandra Bernhard. After this I became a huge fan; in College and during my summers at Williamstown I wore out her concert tape, WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING. In her cabaret/comedy one woman show she talked about working with Scorsese saying, “don’t be impressed – I had to suck his dick” Maybe that’s why she never worked again. You don’t mess with a film titan.

THE KING OF COMEDY slams the People magazine  / now TMZ culture that feeds on Americans' obsession with the rich and famous. One of the ways in which THE KING OF COMEDY works so effectively is in the viewer's uncertainty whether it's going to wind up as terrifyingly as is always possible. It's full of laughs, but under all of the comic situations is the awful suspicion that our laughter is going to be turned against us, like a gun.

Almost as if our laughs at the film or the characters indicate our own guilt. Celebrity has taken over, this film has no problem saying it’s ‘you that did this – you jerk’. Sandra’s seduction of Jerry Langford evokes huge belly laughs – She plays it so truthfully and committed, (watch the scene where she dresses him up in a homemade orange sweater while her other crazy comrade has to get to the studio), you root for this unusual looking creature in a sick way. It’s love, its just twisted love. Then later, the second he wants the tape free of his hands  – you know she’s not going to be held by her secret lover, the uber famous talk show host, Jerry, (Brilliantly played by Jerry Lewis). My only tiny criticism in this wild, wild ride is she anticipated the slap - no biggie. Scorsese doesn’t shy way from taking advantage of Sandra’s lanky weird body – that last shot of her running down the street in her underwear feels like a great, watch through your fingers, horror film. Sandra is haunting, hysterical and riveting as Masha. This is one is the neck and neck along with TAXI DRIVER as my favorite Scorsese film. I love it. No movie disturbed me more, made me feel more uncomfortable – in a good way. Showed me something I had never seen before. What can I say, I have a soft spot for those deluded crazies – love em’.

And I’m fine with Sandra never doing another quality film again. Do one and then leave em wanting more. I wish more actors would just do a few films and than go away – give someone else a chance. Do a Scorsese and then take it on the road – you’re done - you can retire. Sounds good.



"Dying is easy Comedy is hard" 
Maggie Smith as Diana Barrie in CALIFORNIA SUITE is serious comedic joy at its best.  Maggie Smith proves here she's a master of both drama and comedy. Maggie Smith relishes her sassy, sarcastic quips and she does them with great ease. Her banter with the genius Michael Caine, in a classic Hepburn and Tracy like style, is joyous viewing. There is a tremendous sense of love and togetherness behind every jolt and zap. They balance each other perfectly, giving to the other - never stealing. Watching her pursue, cajole and corner him into bed and to make love to 'her' is both hysterical and heartbreaking. Of course there's that Oscar she wanted, but beyond that little gold man, what she really wants is her husband - who happens to be more gay than straight. She plays a dramatic character prone to big emotional folly, yet with Maggie Smith she's able to make difficult lines like "let it be me tonight" so tender, loving and truthful. Perfect.

When I was eight I enjoyed the Bill Cosby/ Pryor – Walter Mattau/ prostitute / Elaine May segments the best. They were campy, with lots of big physical gags – very mass appealing.  Today watching those segments…I think they're cute but they don't have any real guts or depth. Today, I just watch the Jane Fonda / Alan Alda, Michael Cain / Maggie Smith segments and fast-forward over the others.

Maggie Smith, has her best screen role since THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, (and Michael Caine equalling fantastic), playing a celebrated English actress and her bisexual-homosexual antique-dealer husband who come to Hollywood for the Oscar ceremony.
In the film's early scenes she is pricelessly funny, getting ready for her big night in a magnificent display of hope, panic, and despair, knowing that she doesn't have a snowball's chance of winning the Oscar, but listening eagerly to even the dimmest person who thinks she has. Most of all she just needs her man's approval and devotion. Without melodramatic effort, the tale becomes an examination of a marriage that has slipped into compromised intimacy, she and Mr. Caine create characters of unexpected depth and compassion. 

"Why the hell didn't I wear my black pant pants suit". The way she bites into 'hell' is magic. Gritty and pissed - but also very funny and desperate to connect to her mate. She's always aware of her characters true desires. Not just to please a national audience and look pretty but to get her man. "Because I am wearing it". Watch the way they look at each other. They are as close as two people can be being opposing sexualities. He loves her and she adores him, she steals glances whenever she can, always trying, always trying to entertain him. And when she falls - she falls hard and attacks him but she ultimately doesn't want him to leave her so she retreats. Gives him his space. Losing the Oscar was one thing but seeing him with a young actor - that's the devastating blow. She finally gets him back. They have something. Sex isn't everything - but she keeps trying. God bless her.

There is no question why Maggie Smith won and Oscar for her portrayal of, ironically, a movie star who is nominated for an Oscar. This segment is side-splitting funny, sad, witty, and tender. The chemistry between Smith and Caine is remarkable and one of the best examples of showcasing an entire history - an agreed back story. They are not playing two different pasts but the same. This type of clever writing and superb acting is what is missing from the garbage that passes off as comedies today.

Monday, March 28, 2011



I have to say when I went into this film in 1995, I went in with great trepidation. Looking at the ads and poster before going in, I thought, ELIZABETH SHUE… MISCAST. There’s just no way. Another hooker with a heart of gold – seen it. Wait a second here, not so fast. This is something new, something real.
I knew I was in for something tremendous with Nicolas Cage. Everyone was talking about his performance but her performance was just as shattering as his. Even more so, because I wasn’t expecting that level of rawness and depth from her, Happy-go-lucky, sweet ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING / SOAPDISH, lovely little Shue to deliver such an exhilarating / affecting / moving performance. It one of those films I love and love talking about… the specific scenes and her especially, but I can’t watch again and again. It’s too devastating, too bleak. Maybe it hits too close to home – whatever it is – I can’t watch it again. SOPHIES CHOICE and FRANCES I can play on a loop, but not LEAVING LAS VEGAS – it’s too tough.

Hookers have always been a lucky place for actresses to get noticed. THE APARTMENT, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S and PRETTY WOMAN made the actresses that played them legends. They all were engaging and showed their smarts but went just surface deep in the world of prostitution. This one cuts in deep all the way - it amputates. It takes you into the world of being paid for sex and into the psychology of those that do it. Those therapy scenes are amazing. I always thought Elizabeth Shue needed a few more voice classes and needed more depth to her characters. But not here. I thought her sweet voice was perfect for Sera and she reached great depths – depths to spare. It’s a shame we’ve lost her over the years – she really proved herself to have the talent. The combination of director, right script and co-star makes all the difference I guess. I have a theory about Elizabeth Shue - I don’t think Hollywood knew what to do with her after this film. What she is? Is she a good girl or a bad girl? Her entire career before LEAVING LAS VEGAS she had established herself as the good girl, the good friend, and the trusting best friend. Whatever happened she bared all and her true ability with Sera in LEAVING LAS VEGAS.

Sera, like Cage could have turned cliché, playing a hooker and a drunk, but with them it’s anything but Hollywood trope.
Sera is bruised and hardened with a deep need to take care of someone. Her face in and eye express her desire and longing to save this fellow down an outer. Cage got all the heat and deservedly so, but Shue is right there with him. When an actor takes on something like alcoholism it can be like acting wearing a mask – it frees you. Shue doesn’t have anything to hide behind, any tics or mannerisms to use, she has to play it straight, alert, together, the responsible one of the two. She grounds the film and his performance. When I think about this film, I see her face and the tragic reflections of where Cage is heading, his pain and how she feels nothing but love and hope for him. It’s a remarkable achievement – her reactions. Her hope to rescue him is her  own redemption and how she punishes herself, (walking into a motel room with a group of frat boys) when she betrays him is the climax of the film and then her finally returning to "be" with her new love as his body LEAVES Las Vegas. A haunting, gorgeous image in the motel room at the films close, sweet yet brutal.

Her performance had more raw emotional impact than any other of the decade, (the 90’s). Her warmth and dedication to this new friend is overwhelming. It’s all in her eyes and in the silences. Watch her closely every time he takes a drink. It hurts. And then as she watches him push his food around his plate - trying to will him to eat. Heartbreaking. No other actress conveyed her needs and characters mission so strongly using no dialogue. Then she has to play this other character as well, the hooker persona. The callus, be whatever you want me to be call girl seductress, as well as the young lady trying to find herself in therapy, the friend, the lover and then to watch her turn on a dime with her apartment managers - (Laurie Metcalfe is genius as the apartment manger – her best screen performance in those tiny little moments.). As much as I wanted Susan Sarandon to finally win her OSCAR, which she did, I was secretly rooting for ELIZABETH SHUE.

A “job” well done. I hope she finds another role someday to suites her ability. She's fantastic. Come back Shue, come back.

Thursday, March 24, 2011



HUSBANDS & WIVES goes beneath the surface of marital woes in a way few movies ever do. It examines marriage, from the insides, of what keeps people together and what rips them apart. It makes you laugh, deeply, and it makes you squirm. Part of the discomfort is intentional, for the movie is designed to cut close to the bone. At the time, we were all going to find some juicy psychological nuggets regarding Woody and Mia’s split – boy were we in for more than we bargained for –it’s all right here in HUSBANDS & WIVES, plus a powerhouse performance from Judy Davis.

The strongest, most self-reliant, independent character Sally (Just Davis) is actually the one needs a relationship the most. Like Taylors’ Martha – Davis’ Sally is a hurricane of emotions with all the brains and language at her disposal – but is defenseless to control what’s really going on inside of her.

(I once let a friend borrow my VHS copy of HUSBANDS & WIVES years ago. When he gave it back to me – he told me he was leaving his girlfriend. “Gee I’m sorry, I probably should have let you borrow ‘Babe’ instead”.  I can’t believe I haven’t written about this Signature Role sooner. It’s one of my all time favorites. If you’re a good friend of mine you know that I can do Judy’s Sally lines almost verbatim – with the same inflection – everything – cigarette included. I’ve seen it at least a 200 times.)

Sally is a familiar Woody Allen construct: a woman who has it all -- looks, brains, talent, wit -- who is deeply, desolately unhappy. This Woody Allen "stock female character" is defined both by her desperate loneliness and by her private gnawing certainty that she has been cheated of some undefined something that is her due. Sally is always bitter, sad and possessed of a vicious tongue. 

When Davis's Sally announces that she and her husband (Sydney Pollack – also the best performance of his acting career) of nearly 25 years will be separating, she does so with the obliquely self-satisfied verve of a novelist announcing the sale of movie rights, or a parent proclaiming their offspring's acceptance to Harvard. (Of course, we later learn that Sally thought herself to be the one who had settled in her marriage, that something better surely awaited her.)

‘The feast at lele resistance scene’ is Sally going back and forth on the phone with Pollack when she agrees to go on a date with an unsuspecting suitor (Timothy Jerome) caught in the revolving door of her anger. It is a classic date from hell with Davis going from being unhinged to trying to be somewhat interested. “A Don Juan story, (in one of her many brilliant asides to herself), fucking Don Juan’s… they should of cut his fucking dick off.” (Laughs, lights – inhales – puff) Yet, as Allen and Davis are both careful to communicate, Sally's obnoxiousness as is part of her powerful appeal, as men fall this way and that over themselves in pursuit of Davis's Sally. Some men retreat (like this unknowing co-worker Paul who stands helplessly as Davis rants and rages on the phone).

Twitching with brainy, neurotic rage, Davis is explosively funny as the hypercritical Sally, a woman whose overactive mind won't give her-or anyone else--any rest. What I also love about this scene and her overall Sally is her classical blue-blood poise – at the same time making the most ugly faces one mask can allow. She throws her vanity completely out the window in pursuit of her needs.

Davis's Sally is perhaps most remarkable among Allen's "difficult women" for her utter lack of apology. Davis permits the character's self-absorption to be total, self-ratifying, an end unto itself. She does not flutter with self-consciousness, or implode from the weight of her own angst. When, however, she realizes that her marriage had been the only thing keeping her devastating loneliness at bay, and that her husband has apparently found happiness with another while she remains alone, Davis's Sally soldiers on, guns-ablazing -- unconcerned with casualties left behind in her scorched earth strategy of complete vengeance.

Rather, Davis's Sally is solely concerned with maintaining the formidable edifice of her own ego (and blithely oblivious to whatever collateral damage she might cause). I love that Davis's full-throated delivery transforms what might have been throwaway barbs into ballistic missiles. For Davis's Sally, the act of judging others comes as naturally as the act of breathing and -- in some ways -- is more essential than eating. As a result, Sally's sideways insults amplify both the character's grandiosity (as when she rants about Mahler not knowing when to stop) and her interpersonal tone-deafness (her articulate disdain for pretty much anything her date professes to admire). As a result, Davis's Sally is not nearly as pathetic as other iterations for this Woody Allen stock character. (She is, however, a lot more obnoxious -- emphasis on the noxious.)

Others unwittingly pursue (like the lovestruck Michael [played here by an ideally hunky Liam Neeson] who has no idea how outmatched he -- a hedgehog -- is by Sally, a fox.). But these unsuspecting men prove to be merely obstacles in Sally's path as she pursues her single-minded goal: to prove her husband wrong for wanting anyone but her.

And unlike most of these particular Allen women, Davis's Sally is victorious in her pursuit. Her estranged husband returns and, for Sally, this is a victory to savor. Moreover, Judy Davis shows us this emotional foundation for Sally's generally awful behavior without ever excusing it. Davis's Sally is at first distance and resolved in her choice, then flails into rapid uncertainty like a pit-bull sent back to the cement rivers to fight her way back to the possible 'unresolved flare ups' of domestic doom.  He passions and lusts were never her strong point. She's an academic. All told, Davis is consistently spellbinding in the role. Woody Allen said in his book 'Woody on Woody' that "Geraldine Page is the best American actress, but that Judy Davis is the best film actress of all time". The movie becomes most alive when she's onscreen. And she somehow makes the most overtly obnoxious character on the screen also the most likable. Judy Davis's performance as Sally proves to be a provocative, memorable and perhaps the most hilarious of all of Allen's signature "difficult" women.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in WHO's AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Elizabeth Taylor

How many 33 year old actresses today would take on a mid-forties ball-chopping drunk? Not many. Even in a Pulitzer Prize winning play. No, no, no, they'd be to concerned how it would affect future roles. Female Actors today the first thing they look for is age. 'Can't we make her a little younger?' They all wanna go younger. Can't really blame them, right? Vicious business... kept your children out. The business has changed a lot since Liz Taylor's stunning, Oscar winning role Edward Albee's / Mike Nichols film version of WHO's AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF.  I said in the beginning of writing my lil SIGNATURE ROLES Blog that I'd only write about Female Actors since 1970, but I'm making a special amendment to my rule the day of Elizabeth Taylor's death. Her performance was and is still one of the best pieces of film acting ever. Her Martha is a ruthless, fierce, a thunderbolt of rage and unacknowledged grief. She enters hard, like a wheel barrel of bricks being dumped on your front porch, and never let's up - until the last moment. Her hard thrust and power is an equal match to the amazing film-making.

Back in the day, studio boss Jack Warner was insistent on keeping the integrity of the play, (Juan val Juan - what's this ? a studio head protecting the writer - those days are long, long gone.) and the teaming of real-life husband and wife mega-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the film was guaranteed success. The two portrayed an on-screen couple: a sharp-tongued but ineffectual professor (Burton) and his complaining wife (Taylor), in the company of a new professor (Segal) and his mousy wife (Dennis). (*The couple had originally been teamed in the mega-flop Cleopatra (1963). Robert Redford rejected the role played by George Segal.) It turned out to be roles of a lifetime for everyone involved.
The black-and-white film, masterfully directed by Mike Nichols (in his directorial screen debut), captured the greatest performance ever of Elizabeth Taylor's career (she won her second Academy Award as well as Best Actress praises from the New York Film Critics, the Nat'l Board of Review and the British Film Academy).

God, where do I start. You take every choice Elizabeth made, with the help of Mike Nichols, and write volumes on / for young actors - this performance is how it's done right. Playing a drunk, the husky-tragic voice, her laugh (howl), the physicality, her mannerisms (the way she pointed her finger / gestures with her hands - genius). She makes all the right choices and puts more choices on-top of those, it's layer after layer of brilliance. This performance is in the gut. That's where it hits you and that's where she centers her performance. Daring stuff. (Did I mention she was 33. 33 years old.) When she laughs, her whole body buckles and shakes - the head goes flying back. Scary and dangerous. Taylor is the driving force of the film  - her heartbeat is the pace of the film. From the first scene - the camera is kept close on her, prying; giving us a sense of her insides - her very breath, bad breath, held breath; tracking her face - her rhythm - her sudden withdrawals and then plugging us close again for lots of pores and bile. 

Elizabeth Taylor always talked about how instrumental Mike Nichols was for her during the preparation process - developing Martha. They had long talks about Martha's hair, her voice, her clothes, the way she moved...God, would I have loved to have heard those conversations. 

Martha is a restless spirit, perhaps a former beauty with nothing left but her wits and the only thing that will entertain  her is the dark repartee she has with the only person on the planet that understands  her - her husband. Whom she lovingly brutalizes, (sounds like most marriages I know), and treats horribly. George and Martha are platonic soul-mates, perfectly suited to one another. Emblematic of the death cult of modern society, they have descended into a folie a deux, locked in a sadomasochistic love-hate relationship, which neither of them can live without. Too, George and Martha (like the Father and Mother of Our Country) have spawned dreams which have only been dashed.

 The film is a classic largely due to Elizabeth Taylor's risky no-holds-barred relentless achievement. Those sweet, soft edges that we came to know and love were wiped away completely in her Martha. She destroyed everything is her path. Give me that second Oscar baby! Is this what Liz is really like in person? The performance was so real and so jarring for people at the time - people started to question Hollywood persona's - what the heck is going on here? We've never seen this side of you Liz... Unfortunately, we never will again. Movie Star, Life Saver ( and I mean that sincerely: Life Saver), Actress. You will be missed. There have been many Signature Roles in her lifetime but none greater than her Martha. Thank you Elizabeth Taylor - your time on earth was well spent. You kicked some serious ass.

As mother would often say when a legend past away, "They don't make em like that anyone."

Monday, March 21, 2011



Without a doubt, one of my most thrilling, purely inspired moments in the last thirty years of being a lover of quality acting came when watching Amy Adams in JUNEBUG.  I can recall Roger Ebert talking about Robert DeNiro in MEAN STREETS (he also went Cuckoo for Coco Puffs over Amy in this film) or hearing my mother talk about seeing Babs in FUNNY GIRL that first time. I freaked while watching this young female actor as the unsinkable Ashley. I knew in that first sit down scene I was watching a pro at work. Someone who I had seen before briefly in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN but here she was doing something new and exposing something very real. Detailed and full. When a talent like this breaks through, I get totally obsessed; I can’t stop talking about them. Friends have to tell me to take a chill pill. Luckily my friend Dana said, “come her birthday party this weekend so you can tell her yourself. Give our precious ears a rest”. Amy was delightful and smart and I told her she’s our generations Frances McDormand / Holly Hunter and here to stay. After her consistent work in DOUBT, ENCHANTED (Genius, down to the ends of her finger tips!) SUNSHINE CLEANING and THE FIGHTER. I need to make an amendment - she’s our generations Meryl. In twenty years, she’ll be holding strong, still working, still doing quality – mark my word.

Meisner used to say, “Behavior is worth a pound of words”. What are you doing? Not just the words, but how does your character behave? You see this especially with Adams, in the little nail saloon session with her new sister-in-law who was born overseas. She puts her hands out and says something about the glitter nail polish, “fizz", sticks her tongue out slightly, makes this very endearing 'tiss' sound, and shakes her head sweetly. I literally went into convulsions at Sunset 5 Laemmle Theater.

The film belongs utterly to Amy Adams, it’s written that way, but Amy delivers a depth and non-judgmental love that could only come from this particular actor. When actors play someone who’s not exactly a rocket scientist – they usually indicate, ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ to the audience that they themselves are not this person. ‘Look ma no hands’ I’m acting. Amy relishes Ashely's  limitations, her characters excitement and beliefs – she doesn’t comment on or condemn her character. She plays Ashley to win… with total love.

In Ashley, we find liveliness, childlike humor and a soul not to be put out easily. Her love for her under-achieving husband is touching and each time he knocks her back, she fights back playfully, covering up her own insecurities, "God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way," she declares, and her words resound through the film... which are all revealed in her tragic hospital scene. On the hospital bed, with her brother that she misses and loves, her faith is rattled and shook to the very core and she goes head to head with her God. Real, very real, not movie real, but from the gut real tears flow and you are witness to something profound. It was a performance that could have easily been annoying or repetitive, but Adams’ performance is perfectly heartfelt and has an intelligence and soul all her own.

Adams hasn’t relaxed at all. I thought perhaps after ENCHANTED and DOUBT she was going to get pigeonholed in innocence type roles, even though both were completely different kinds of naive and trusting. Hollywood doesn’t have much insight on talent – they love the same – they want the same – the same is money. THE FIGHTER she made subtle shifts into the hard-edged ‘MTV wild’ barmaid - she made another big leap (as a working actor that’s in it for the long haul) in terms of showcasing her ability. She’s stayed raw and hasn’t relaxed at all like many working actors do after they break through. Amy Adams has stayed sharp and found great roles to showcase her huge talent. She coming out with ON THE ROAD this year and I’ll be first in line on that Friday day showing. In five/six years Amy Adams has become someone, we movie acting snobs can rely on, in terms of giving something of substance each time out. Sounds a lot like a lil Meryl right? ‘Yes it does, Yes it does’.

Saturday, March 12, 2011



Strong at the broken places. All the adult characters in ONLY WHEN I LAUGH are doomed somehow; bitter, self annihilating and really good at teasing each other with humor to mask their own pain. This movie always feels like old home week for me. I loved it this film as an 11 year old and I still love it. This is really how my mother’s side of the family operates. In the face of unspeakable ugly and pain – we tease each until there’s a big bursting laugh with a tiny catch at the end.

Georgia Hines is one of the most interesting, complicated characters that Mr. Simon, the master of the sometimes self-defeating one-liners, has ever written. Georgia is played with remarkable gusto, edgy, self-mocking charm by his wife, shortly thereafter, ex-wife Marsha Mason. It’s not the playing of one emotion (fear, dread, jealous, anger, joy) at a time that’s good acting; it’s playing both at the same time. Playing opposite emotions are signs of true greatness, but it isn't easy. This is a great example of a strong willed character that is also completely vulnerable. Two opposite emotions co-exiting at the same time. I watched JULIE & JULIA last night again. Meryl's letter from her sister is a good scene example of how that is done right.  When her sister, Jane Lynch, is pregnant – and Meryl reads the letter aloud to her husband. Her being happy for her sister and jealous sad, (for herself), in the same breath... with no dialogue. Marsha Mason does the same thing in ONLY WHEN I LAUGH throughout. Tittering on the edge playing two opposite emotional currents pulling her each way at the same time. 'I'm fine', but underneath she's not fine. She’s raw and unstable and has to try to get through day by day without having a drink. Alcohol is the antagonist in this film. It hovers over each scene like Hannibal. The daughter arrives needing solid ground / stability. It’s been thirty years, but any recovering alcoholic would know this is too much, too soon. But in 1981 – 12 step living had not really just begun to take hold; ‘trigger’ or ‘enabler’ weren’t part of our lexicon yet.

Up to this point, Marsha Mason has received three Oscar nominations (for ''Cinderella Liberty,'' ''The Goodbye Girl'' and ''Chapter Two''), but she has never given a performance to equal this one. A role that was mirrored a reality so closely – usually when they cut so directly to the bone – and actor will distance him or herself but Mason stays right on the brink and it’s exhilarating. This is one of my favorites. Like a warm fire with my mother sitting behind me sprawled out on the couch, (drinking a Gin and Tonic) and lil me on our shaggy carpet in front of her. This film and this performance brings it all right back.

Before there was Aaron Sorkin and THE SOCIAL NETWORK there was Neal Simon – especially in this film - The movie has the look and sound of New York on crack… but completely understandable and sane. All of the performances are excellent, beginning with Miss Mason and including the buoyantly optimistic and lonely work of Mr. Coco, (one of the first full bodied truthful Gay representations on film – with depth and folly) and the hysterical, pampered, upper east-side Miss Hackett (She knew how to through a phrase with a punch. She was a delicate, graceful tall creature that had a nuclear powered thrust in her sweet rezoned voice).

Marsha Mason is wonderfully funny and touching as "Georgia", the recently re-habbed actress. Neil Simon, and taken from his original stage play, "The Gingerbread Lady", it is full of witty New York theater repartee, as only Simon could write, incomparably delivered by Marsha Mason. It starts with "Georgia's" somewhat premature (fresh out of rehab) re-immersion into the world of theater via the starring role in a somewhat biographical play, written by her former lover, with whom she had the turbulent relationship that preceded her breakdown.

Through the emotion of that experience, and her relapse, her two best friends, also wonderfully played by James Coco and Joan Hackett, accompany her. Their 3 way friendship would be called co-dependent nowadays, was just being a supportive good friend. It’s a New York threeway friendship for sure, in LA I think they’d just find another group to hang with. Even though they are all messes; you want these kooky, dear, flawed people as your best friends. Kristy McNichol, who really chews up some furniture in the big scene at the end, projects and does what’s best for her mother and herself at the end – but never stops loving.
Georgias attempts to re-establish a relationship and trust with her previously somewhat ignored daughter are very funny and very touching, with McNichol often ending up as the parental figure. This is just a wonderful, under-rated little gem of a movie, a sweet story in which Marsha Mason gives her best performance. The moment that always kills me is when she’s on the pay-phone trying to reach her doctor, white-knuckling-it, suppressing her emotions. No one submerges tears better than Marsha Mason. She slams down the phone THREE TIMES HARD but not without giving the operator a earful. It’s painfully funny. I consider her a terrific actress, and it's a shame that, for whatever reason, she is not creating more wonderful roles. A lovely, funny, truthful, timeless film about friendship, human frailties and perseverance. Joan Hackett who died shortly after she lost the Oscar, and James Coco died a few years later as well. And Marsha Mason who’s barely worked since – are all truly missed.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

MERYL STREEP as Sister Aloysius in DOUBT

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep is held to a different standard - her own. Especially when it comes to passing out Oscars. She should have at least five by now, but unfortunately, the Academy has adopted the attitude of - "Well... she'll be back next year, so who ELSE could we pick ?"

Meryl Streep has given many Signature Performances (SOPHIE'S CHOICE, SILKWOOD, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE), but the one that keeps haunting me is her turn as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winning play that became a film - DOUBT. Meryl has an endless multitude of talent, power, and range. Her significance can't be denied - the quality of films and characters is unprecedented. In the early 80's I remember people saying, "cold", "heady", "too much of a technician" - incapable of doing a comedy. We now know this is absurd. Here she is in the one of the most gripping dramas ever. Threatening and coarse, but her portrait as the strong minded principal is also very funny, soft and vulnerable at the films close.

I first saw Linda Hunt do the play at the Pasadena Playhouse and then twice with Cherry Jones. They both were incredible. I thought Linda Hunt was a pint size little bullet, but I think I was so overwhelmed with the play on the my first impression - I couldn't see anyone else in the role after her. Her size gave her room to be comedic in a few moments that were really perfect. But then I heard about Cherry Jones and how incredible she was. Cherry Jones was very serious, rough, had that voice down but believe it or not - actually called for 'line' a couple of times and that ruined that second viewing. I gave her another chance and thought she was amazing as well. Streep in DOUBT did something very interesting with this character that is nothing without her convictions. She gives of a hint of a woman that had a complete past way before she ever took on the habit. There is a line that indicates her past marriage but Streep drops little feeling hints of her past throughout the films journey. A character that had once suffered, felt joy, passion and once lived in uncertainty. A lessor actor would just played the latter - what she's become. Even though I heard that she didn't always know all her lines - she created a complete history for her character. A previous life. Something actors say they do in junkets, and are told to do in their training as young actors but never actually do it in a way that is felt in the performance. With Meryl you feel it.

Meryl does it here in DOUBT. She did her homework. She contemplated Sister Aloysius' previous life. She gave it detail. She made it real. Hey, I don't always think Meryl walks on water. In THE HOURS I thought she didn't do enough homework and didn't make a few of the crucial scenes work. The scene where she says she's 'unravelling' - I didn't feel it. I thought it was forced and she was still trying to find it. And when I first saw the movie DOUBT I didn't know what to think of the ending. I wasn't comfortable with her final moment. I've since changed my mind.

The church gave her rigid parameters and firm boundaries. There she can keep life the same and her firm beliefs safe, "There is nothing new under the sun". Even if at times I thought her accent was inconsistent, and the final head-to-head scene with Hoffman was too much of a shouting match. I still thought the film was incredible and a tighter version of his masterful play. The Best American play in 50 years. Great plays to great films, especially character driven plays, can get tricky. Long sections of dialogue are tough, especially here in the three-way confrontation scene. John Patrick Shanley did an awesome job with his own material. In the play, I definitely sided with Sister Aloysius. In the film, I just didn't know...I still don't. And that's exactly where I should be.

I've seen the film many times in the last two years. Every time it's on I have to follow it through to the end. Meryl Streep acts to get it right, to go deeply into another world, but it this film I really feel she's acting for her Meryl fans. She gives it those little extra sprinkles of deadpan 'Merylisms'. With this rigid character she still manages to find moments where she can throw in a dash of sarcastic humor and a touch of coquettish sexuality. Yeah sexuality. Not that she's seducing anyone but there's a hint of past romances and lovers. She can for the jugular with her all the sharp knives in her arsenal, all the while throwing in a little burlesque under-wink for her true blues. That may sound like a bad review - but it's a huge compliment. I thinking specifically of the scene with Amy and Meryl when then the house manager  comes in with the dead mouse - ' Takes a cat'. "Yes it does...(pause with only a look Meryl could muster - darting out of the corner of her eyes to Sister James, she repeats) Yes, it does". Genius!

I've heard some bad reviews on Meryl on this one. One calling her the "Chicken Little Lady" or something, that Variety guy nearly chopped her head off. He reviewed her performance so badly it nearly derailed her awards potential. She is operating with major constraints, so her performance is all coming out in only part of her face at a time, so she's turned the nob full blast; her frequency way up. I went in with major doubts in DOUBT, not only did I have two previous fine performances swimming through, but I had this Variety review buzzing around my head. I have a lot of small criticisms on this performance, her scene with Viola Davis I thought she went completely blank and lost a couple very important moments, (maybe it was the choice to walk her to work - I understand why they'd want to move it around a bit but that scene, OH THAT SCENE, those words are so incredible, I felt 'the walk' to work and 'the wind' were distractions). And the William Lundons 'wrist memory moment' - a pivotal moment - wasn't deep enough...but it's still an amazing performance. A signature performance that gets better each time I watch it. Streep on an off day is still better than everyone else on their best. The scene with Amy when she first sits her down to ask what she has seen, that ends with "Yes it does, yes it does". Is some of her most brilliant work. I remember when I fist saw it in the theater I start cracking up. The woman next to me thought I was watching another film - 'What? It's funny you cow!' And the scene with the three of them - Where Sister James (Amy Adams) and Sister Aloysius confront Father Flynn, is acting out of this world. For all three of them, (Amy, Philip & Meryl), are brilliant and it terms of capturing each of their independent missions and character layers: it's a landmark achievement. It feels like it's all in one take - it's tense and nuanced as any trio captured on film. I love it for all the reasons I love acting, theatre and film. It unfolds just right, it's a long scene that builds and builds. Amy is scared out of her wits in the middle of this see-saw of certainty, Philip Seymour Hoffman is in his truth and Streep is razor sharp. All being clever, intelligent and passionate about what they need from each other. Both Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius have been around the block a few times, maybe even, been here before.

Streep is the best we got. Riveting and relentless as Sister Aloysius. She shows us a woman that is in the highest position allowed for a woman at the time - understanding of the limitations, full of piss and vinegar, perhaps in a battle she can't win. Her eyes dart about - disapproving when kids dance to modern songs, or when Flynn wants three sugars in his tea. She muses under her breath, shots feeling asides and screams without making a peep. Giving us a hint of a complete life before and a present that is more open and imperfect. DOUBT, I may have doubts, but none about Streep, (well a few). The ending, Streep flails and falls into Amy's arms, is visceral, rattles and shakes you to the very core. "I have s-such doubts", about her position or her life? You'll have to decide for yourself. I'm still wondering, (in a good way).

Saturday, March 5, 2011




“The smallest of roles can be the greatest opportunities,” I tell this to young actors all the time. Joan Cusack created wonderful niche for herself in the 90’s after her turn as ‘Jody’ in the terrific MEN DON’T LEAVE. Unfortunately, when Hollywood finds something this good, (Zooey Deschanel did the same sort of thing in the 2000’s with her offbeat, un-enthused approach), they usually beat it into the ground and pigeonhole careers. Joan did it first and she could have done it over and over again - but she didn't. She stole scenes in SIXTEEN CANDLES and BROADCAST NEWS. Creating this type of quirky, rogue, self-deprecating, supercilious (very tall), playing deliberately kooky to amuse herself and others around her yet more human than anyone else on screen with her. Her nick-name during this period of time was the "scene-stealer". It was in the 1988 film she got the Oscar nomination for WORKING GIRL but it was a smaller role in this 1990’s delightful human comedy/drama that she created an unforgettable eccentric character that was true signature work. Who else could have pulled this off with such little screen time? No one but Ms. Cusack.

Joan Cusack plays Jody, a late twenties nurse, (lab technician),who lives in the same building as Jessica Lange and her two boys. She is very strange, and atypical in everything she does. Her manner, her voice, her listening. Cusack provides a comic freshness that hasn't been captured on film before. A mocking subtle undertone that seems utterly real. Like someone everyone knows in real life, but haven't meet at the movies. Well, we have now. The moment you first see her, 'Jody', in the elevator with Chris O’Donnell, you know the movie has just found its heart and its clarity. She is the movie. Offbeat yet strong, insane but stable. “Why do you care about what I think?”

In the beginning we're amused by the way the nurse's bossy, take-charge competence bowls over the her new younger boyfriend and then mystifies Lange. Later Jody literally and figuratively awakes Lange from her depression and brings together the family. It’s a riveting character and a commanding performance. Savagely funny and then could get drop dead serious on a dime. When the level of awareness rises and you open up other brain receptors while watching a performance – you have something very special going on. Paul Brickman, the director and writer, seems to have accidentally stumbled upon a good thing with Joan Cusack. I’m surprised he didn’t use her more and create a vehicle for her after this film. They seem to be a match made in movie heaven – like DeNiro had with Scorsese and currently like Nicole Holofcener uses Catherine Keener. It's rare for a director to find that actor that matches their interior thematic voice. She embodies the unique way he gets from point A to point B - genre wise / theme wise – It’s all about what Joan brings to the table. Her perfect blend of comedy and drama in the same exact moment. Which is what Brickman's films were all about - that delicate balance. Something Lisa Cholodenko just did very successfully with this past year's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. He, Paul Brickman, was smart to make Joan the focus at the end of the film. No dialogue, the camera’s on Joan and she motions to Jessica Lange’s Beth to turn her life-vest around and put it on correctly. That’s the movie, right ? Genius! It’s all you need, camera on her face, her unique / one of a kind expression to help Jessica Lange’s character find her way.

AMC – American Movie Classics I just discovered out listed her as one of the 100 most interesting / remarkable characters in the last hundred years – Wow! Number 52. "Jody (Joan Cusack), Men Don't Leave (1990)

Serenely eccentric, winningly bossy and unstoppably blithe, Jody steals teenaged Chris O'Donnell out of his unhappy, fatherless home and takes him into her own home and bed, then cures his grieving, widowed mom. One of film's inexplicable, inimitable good souls."

Not bad for a cameo role. Thanks to Cusack's comedic fullness, complexities and choosing to keep her chin up no matter what is thrown at not only memorable but also decent and inspiring.

When friends ask ‘What do I mean by Signature Roles’? Joan Cuscack – as Jody in MEN DON’T LEAVE. Watch it if you haven’t already. Then watch it again. It's a great film and Joan Cusack 'steals' it.