Sunday, June 19, 2011




I came to The Oprah Winfrey Show that first nationally syndicated episode in 1986 because I loved her acting in THE COLOR PURPLE. That trailer and this photo really struck me. ‘This is some good / authentic casting’.  This still photo of Oprah as Sofia I looked at a lot before I saw the film. Something about that look in her eyes I related to. That far-away gaze had a mixture of being present, but also being somewhere far, far away. Then I saw the film and became even more impressed with Whoopi Goldberg's range of talents and began my long love affair with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her acting career took a backseat to that other career. You know, that changing of the world thing that she was doing.

When an actor gives a great performance I always want to know more, know them off camera a little bit. Get a sense of the differences (between them and the character) or the similarities. How did they do it?, how did they connect, how did they do those big emotional scenes.  Oprah had a few of them in The Color Purple. The cornfield scene, the Christmas ‘thank you’ to Celie, and the big transformation Thanksgiving scene at the end where Sofia finds her voice and power again.

I remember an acting teacher took issue with her performance. I instantly wanted out of the class. ‘What are you talking about !!! She knows how to personalize and the ‘girl’ can deliver on those close-ups – what else is there?’

Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) is arguably the most tragic figure of the entire narrative because her self-assured and daring personality — a refusal to submit to anyone — is ironically her downfall. One single mistake made from an instinctive reaction transforms a strong-willed person to a quietly submissive individual. Her act of self-defense serves as part of a larger leitmotif — depictions of how hands are used throughout the film. We see her often with hands swinging at her side or with clinched fists. But after her prison release, those same hands are hidden in her lap or pretty much useless for the simplest tasks like picking groceries.

She does some amazing acting with her tight close-ups. It’s a full thrust and commanding achievement for a debut film performance. From the punch, (with that brilliant half squint after she is slapped) that got her in trouble in the street, to her prison scene, to her closing celebration moments with Harpo as Celie’s sister comes home. You are with Sofia to the very core of her being. Oprah completely lets you in with the smallest of moments. A quick sweep of the camera and you know exactly where she is at and you feel it as she does. Now we know that her trademark compassion, humanity and empathy as a person - those are exactly the true blue qualities of a good actor. Her selflessness and ability to identify with the oppressed. She believes in the material with the depths of her soul, commits fully with every fiber and it shows. I always say the best actors are the best citizens in life. They listen, they truly do care about something bigger than themselves. Sean Penn, Blythe Danner, Meryl Streep – when they see an injustice going on in the world, the good ones, aren’t afraid to act quick, speak out and do something. It’s not just PC Hollywood humanitarianism for copy – but real concern.

Lesson with Oprah for actors is that you can’t separate person with actor – they are intertwined. It's best to personalize. You can’t fake it. It has to really happen. Oprah Winfrey is THE COLOR PURPLE is a master class in commitment, ‘it has to happen for realzies’, and for the love of God... listen, and love thy scene partner and thy neighbor.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011



Expertly written and directed by ( THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, writer/director) Lisa Cholodenko. Her magic as a screenwriter is the truth under the story. The intangibles. The unseen forces that push our lives forward and the things that keep us frozen. Usually once you bring drugs into a story, audiences usually quickly judge the entire problems of the central relationships – as well “this is just about a bunch of druggies, who cares, they deserve whatever is coming”. But not in this movie. It takes you further than that. Deeper and you can’t help but care. HIGH ART deeply examines the lives that people who like to escape and that are stuck and a few that are trying to move forward. Is Syd using Lucy to further her career? Her brilliance as a director is her eye for details and casting. (This was daring, out of the box casting of Sheedy and for Clarkson). Along with her talents for telling a strong story, it's her detailed work within 'the frame' as it were - the surroundings, the light, and the performances. This by far is Alley Sheedy’s best work but the performance that blew my mind here was Patricia Clarkson as Greta. The heroin-addicted girlfriend of Alley Sheedy’s Lucy and a former Fassbinder actress. Lucy and Greta play host to an assortment of hard-living party kids. The two women, who lived in Berlin for a while, have relocated to New York so that Lucy could pursue her artistic calling. Unfortunately this film was about twenty years before it’s time. Audiences never really found it because of the girl/girl stuff, or the drugs or possibly its overall  smarts but it’s one to search for and watch. Patricia Clarkson succeeds in creating a complete, complex character without ever overplaying the stoned behavior. 

This performance is why I like talking about actors, acting and what makes something signature. It’s a very specific quality that only that actor could make possible.

Having made her film debut in The Untouchables in 1987 and her career-changing German-lesbian heroin-addict debut in High Art in 1998, Patricia Clarkson has over the past ten years transcended the ageist stereotype of the American female actor. Since turning 40, she has had major roles in over 30 films including The Station Agent; Pieces of April; Far From Heaven; Good Night, and Good Luck; Lars and the Real Girl; Married Life; Vicky Cristina Barcelona; and Elegy, to name a few. With a career as distinctive as the voice that has given it life, it is her generosity of spirit that one remembers best. On screen and on stage she inhabits characters with a deep humanity, a languid, exquisite intelligence and charm that lives, breathes, and simmers inside.

She has a Tennessee Williams quality to her acting. A very powerful poetic realistic quality. A softness with smarts with a sprinkling of the tragic. She infuses Greta with all of these qualities. Her face shows us everything – the past and the future. There’s a lot of photo stills used in HIGH ART – even in the tiniest of snapshots of Greta – you feel her inevitable tragic future. When asked about Greta and if there were similarities – how did you play someone so different than you? , Ms. Clarkson said “It’s cliched, but it’s always more challenging to play a character further removed from one’s own. That said, sometimes with that challenge you can travel the greatest distance as an actor.” She points to her training at Yale Drama school and Lisa Cholodenko for her good fortune in the movie business.
Greta’s will is strong. She’s trying to bring Lucy back to the way they were in the beginning, when times were better. When love was easy, new and fresh. How tough it is to be in a relationship when it’s over and you’re the only one wants to stay in it. Plus she’s got the dope on Lucy and knows where she is going, and what she wants. Ultimately, Greta pulls her back, dangling their seductive past and some killer dope to a tragic end for everyone.
After her early brush with Hollywood left her cold, Ms. Clarkson found herself at home on the fringes and re-emerged as cinema’s independent woman. A rotation of eclectic, shrewdly chosen roles has resulted in mainstream success, a devout following and an orderly queue of directors running her ragged.

 It’s a paradox in keeping with a career built on contradictions: over 25 years she has reserved the right to be both chameleonic outlier and known quantity, self-effacing artist and scene-stealing operative, consummate mother and quintessential dame, indie stalwart and A-list darling. Patricia Clarkson has become a stealth weapon of choice for Hollywood's best directors.
Funny, warm, tough, troubled, demanding, insightful, piercing and full of zingers and sass, Greta is the life of the party. And Patricia Clarkson will have many more chances to show us her range, grace and gifts thanks to her incredible, funny, daring performance in HIGH ART. She is exactly that, high art.