Mary Beth Hurt and Anjelica Huston
Mary Beth Hurt
After a decade-long run of increasingly sophisticated comedies, Woody Allen threw a startling curveball with 1978’s Interiors. Deeply influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s stark chamber dramas – in fact most critics view it as an homage as much as a piece of art in its own right – it eschewed the satirical buffoonery which had made Allen’s previous discussions of metaphysics and psychology so much fun. This time, existential angst was as serious, and as dangerous, as the death it portends. In her first screen role, the sublimely mousy Mary Beth Hurt provided a revelatory performance as Joey, the untalented and overlooked sister of a famous poet and actress (respectively) who has become stuck caring for her deranged mother.
In this utterly confident debut performance, Hurt channels the rage of the underappreciated, and the anxiety of the unaccomplished, into a tightly wound ball of repression. She manages throughout to appear as close to the edge as her overtly unhinged mother through rigid shoulders and a series of carefully uncontrolled outbursts (“She’s a vulgarian!”). She is tough to watch too closely – one fears she might pop. As she heaps praise on her successful sisters (which they play down, or even refuse as meaningless), we know that she is burning inside with her own lack of it. Her poetry is mediocre, we learn, and her photography is simply amateurish. “Joey doesn’t have an eye” remarks her sister. As her academic husband Mike, Sam Waterson putters around her, oblivious to her concerns, and very nearly openly hostile to her mother. His attempts at intimacy are few, and fleeting. Indeed, their marriage never feels like it has an ounce of sexual energy in it, nor of passion of any kind for that matter.
Hurt and Waterson play their scenes together with a desperate coldness; theirs is an emotionally crippled union that belies their young ages (and works as the analogy to the broken marriage of Hurt’s parents). We see nothing in their future but further drift. When Waterson turns to her and tells her that he loves her, her response is both defensive and reasonable: “Why do you stick with me? I give you nothing but grief!” A pessimist and a depressive, Hurt’s Joey struggles with her own shortcomings, internalizing her (to us) obvious psychological turmoil. Her helmet of a haircut – severe fringe over sad eyes – speaks volumes about her desire for order in an horrifically unstable situation. As her mother becomes ever more suicidal, Hurt’s identification with her becomes ever more intense, leading to the famous climax where, just for a moment, we lose sight of which is which, mother or daughter, as they thrash in the sea. It is one of Allen’s most stirring moments.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Huston’s roles in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery are both what may be considered small roles. She is not the star, necessarily, but she is still central to each of the stories.
In Crimes and Misdemeanors Huston plays Dolores, the desperate other woman coming apart as her affair with Martin Landau’s Judah is ending. Dolores is quickly introduced via a letter intercepted by Judah. Addressed to Miriam, his wife, the letter is a confession of their affair. Immediately it is clear that she is distressed and rash. Confronted by Judah, Dolores threatens to tell Miriam everything unless he leaves her. While playing a very familiar kind of character Huston injects a despair that is punctuated by the frequent flashbacks to a better time in her relationship with Judah, and manages to bring something fresh to the role.
Huston’s role in Manhattan Murder Mystery is almost the polar opposite of Dolores. Marcia Fox is a successful author – the word “brilliant” is used to describe her frequently throughout the film. She is confident and exudes a worldliness that stands in stark contrast to the hopelessness of Dolores’ character. One of Allen’s most underrated films, Manhattan Murder Mystery exhibits some wonderful performances from Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, and Woody Allen (in what may be one of his most charming roles), but it is Huston’s self-assurance that serves as a well-needed breather in this world of neurotics. As the murder mystery takes center stage, they all jump to wild conclusions and concoct more than a few hare-brained schemes. However, it is Huston’s theories that are most convincing and her coolness is especially persuasive not just in the film, but to the audience, as well.
Huston is effortless in her portrayal of such distinctly different women. As much as Dolores is a classically tragic character, Marcia is cool, collected, and draws those around her to her. Despite the obvious differences between these characters, they do share the characteristic of being a polarizing figure to those around her. Dolores is clearly a threat to Judah’s marriage and the kind of life he has built over many years; while Marcia creates friction by causing insecurity and jealousy on the part of Keaton’s Carol. The degrees may vary, but Huston is no wallflower and her characters exhibit a strong presence in both films.
Worth noting is Huston’s sense of humor and comic timing in Manhattan Murder Mystery. Dolores may have been a despondent wreck for most of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Huston reveals a sly wit as Marcia that seems tailor-made for her. She is quick and sure and displays a real understanding of people. Again, this contrast between Dolores and Marcia serves as another example of the ease in which Huston steps into such different characters.
Huston’s turns in both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery present an actress with a genuine insight into her characters. Varied though they may be, Dolores and Marcia are both equally compelling and reinforce Allen’s strengths as a writer and director. Huston’s presence is an undeniable force in both films and the ease in which she inhabits each character is absolute – in short, two wonderful performances.