Alice (1990), Husbands and Wives (1992), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity(1998)
According to Judy Davis’ Sally, all people fall into exactly two categories: “fox” and “hedgehog”.
What does she mean by this? Why is she obsessively demarcating her acquaintances into these two groups during her first tryst with the hunky Michael (Liam Neeson)? The “fox and hedgehog” scene is a revelation both in terms of the character and the performer: the scene affords Davis a rare chance to show Sally’s vulnerability, sadness, anger, revelation, and razor-tipped, rapier wit – some of the signatures that link the actresses’ gallery of strong, opinionated women in films such as My Brilliant Career (1979), The Ref (1994) and Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, where she blazingly portrayed the troubled title star, and for which she took home her third Emmy.
What does the animal metaphor mean? Perhaps nothing, but for Sally, this discovery of the hidden ‘truth’ about everyone is a turning point in Allen’s story; a profound crossroads where she finally understands herself, her lovers, and her friends and changes from cold to warm. You see these realizations all play out on Davis’ face during this particular scene. In the beginning of the film, she is all sharp edges and angles, hard to handle, but by the film’s end, after she has discovered the “fox and hedgehog” analogy, Sally is able to cope with her own frazzled, confused emotions, whereas at the outset, she might have been read as brittle and high strung. In the first scene of the film, Jack (a brilliant acting turn by director Sydney Pollack) and Sally go to Gabe and Judy’s (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) apartment for a pre-dinner glass of wine and announce they are separating after many legendary years together. They claim that they are at peace with this revelation, but their impending divorce sets into motion a chain of events that will shake the core of all of the romantic relationships closest to them.
Every character in Husbands and Wives is questioning or examining who and why they love, but it is Davis’ Sally that gets closest to the ‘truth’ and goes through the most discernible changes, mainly thanks to Davis’ gift for chameleonic physical change by simply using her face, voice, posture and detailed, thoughtful gestures throughout. Davis can work a cigarette and a glass of dry white wine like no other actress can and wrings every single ounce of juice out of each minute she is onscreen – you cannot take your eyes off of the buzzing fury that is Sally, even though there is something vaguely unlikable about her, something a bit too brash and intimidating (the scene where she tells off Pollack’s Jack as she is preparing to go on a first date will make you scream with laughter and shudder with embarrassment).
Davis avoids falling into a pit of neuroses and caricature, grounding Sally with a deep, real depression that gradually falls away as she takes control of her own desires. Davis, who was the favorite to win the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Husbands and Wives nearly 20 years ago, is in my mind perhaps the singly most egregious Academy snub of a truly deserving actor during the entirety of the ‘90s (she lost the statue to Marisa Tomei’s comedic turn in My Cousin Vinny in a shocking act of extreme xenophobia from awards voters and perhaps bad will towards Allen given the timing of the film’s release). Though Davis knocked it out of the park with her performance as a scorned lover filled with righteous anger in Allen’s 1997 Deconstructing Harry, and gamely suffered through the tedious Celebrity in 1998, Husbands and Wives, a film that is dually, justifiably noted by Allen himself as a favorite in his cannon, criminally remains her last Academy Award nod to date.
Perhaps it is high time for the fox to re-team with the hedgehog?