Part 1

Life Support

by PopMatters Staff

15 February 2009

These are the supporting turns that are ineradicable. Without these scene-stealers holding it all together on the sidelines, the leads of their respective films would be totally lost.

These are the supporting turns that are ineradicable. Without these scene-stealers holding it all together on the sidelines, the leads of their respective films would be totally lost. It is a testament to their craft that these women were able perfect the art of true character acting, in many cases they did this with few words and even less screen time.

Harriet Andersson Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)

Harriet’s Agnes is dying an agonizing death; she is being eaten alive by an insidious cancer. She is virtually entombed in a cold red and black mansion, withering away as her sisters’ rush to the manor to nurse her during her final days. Whilst she may no longer be a physical presence in their lives, she is the catalyst for upheaval particularly for Karin and Maria. And really, Agnes is pivotal as she states in the end, “Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.” It is her silent moments that hold the film together and her primal death that demands emotion drive the proceedings. Andersson provides the important centre that is strong, vulnerable, compassionate, and ultimately good that feeds the essence of Bergman’s crimson tale. KL

Annette Bening The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990)

“The fine setting and workmanship usually means precious stones, but it always hurts me when I find they’re not.” This line pretty much sums up the heart of Bening’s Myra Langtry. She is a gloriously upbeat, professional sexual creature and a grifter caught up in a delicious triangle as lover to a man who is still trying to reconcile with his mother. They are all grifters and set to outdo one another. Bening is indeed a fine setting, seemingly youthful in appearance but seriously aged and damaged goods with years of experience –- she balances these polar opposites perfectly. Whilst Anjelica Huston is the wise and hardened mother figure, and John Cusack is the small time hustler desperate for love and out of his league, Bening skillfully shows the audience she must be all things to stay alive as a grifter. KL

Joan Blondell Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)

One of my favorite things about cinema is watching the changing visage of performers from era to era, as their features change, and as the medium changes. Blondell began her career in vaudeville at age three, subsequently made it to New York to the Ziegfield Follies, and then, to Broadway. Known for her trademark wise-cracking, no-nonsense version of the “dame”, Blondell went on to appear in more than one hundred films in her career, garnering Oscar nominations and the respect of her peers who saw her as the complete supporting character actress package. In Cassavetes’ volatile film about the world of theater, Blondell was given one of most distinctive roles of her career as Sarah, the clever, unbending playwright of the show within a show that dealt with “Virginia”, a menopausal, aging woman, played by “Myrtle” in the film (that character was played by Gena Rowlands. Whew!). “If you can’t say your age, then you can’t accept my play,” the prodding Sarah snaps, in a no-nonsense manor, as dealing with the temperamental, argumentative, and alcoholic actress becomes, much to her dismay, a full-time job. The more diplomatic, though no less iron-willed Sarah must function as the glue that binds the entire production together by using her feminine wiles and her experience as a mature woman to secure Myrtle’s complete participation and allegiance to the piece, even as the actress starts cracking up and seeing ghosts. The resourceful Sarah even has a solution for supernatural problems. MM

Valentina Cortese Day for Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973)

The word “diva” has become synonymous with bad behavior, so calling Cortese’s masterful turn as international star Severine in Truffaut’s brilliant dissection of how a film is made is maybe not fair by such modern standards. But in playing a dipsomaniacal acting legend who can’t remember her lines to save her life, the director gives Cortese a plum chance to riff, in English, Italian and French, on aging and how it affects actresses, as well as the fragility and insecurity that come along with being a “diva”. Cortese, in her meaty, galvanizing scenes, plays comedy, rue, and hysterics with the precision of a surgeon, often times simultaneously. The actress was the heavy favorite to win the Oscar when she was nominated for her work in 74 but lost to a thrice-winning Ingrid Bergman (for in Murder on the Orient Express). So moved was Bergman by her compatriot’s performance as Severine, that from the stage as she accepted her award, she could only say “Valentina Cortese gave the most beautiful performance that all we actresses recognize. Here I am her rival and I don’t like it at all. Please forgive me, Valentina, I didn’t mean to.” MM

Ann Dvorak Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

In her frenzied performance as Vivian Revere Kirkwood, that is very ahead of its time, Dvorak (who starred in the original Scarface, among other pre-Code gems) gets to upturn the traditional concepts of motherhood and loyalty in a surprisingly shocking and raw way, playing a woman who has it all, wealth, power, a family, and all of the trimming. The problem is, she’s bored with the dream life, she craves adventure and abandon…and liquor and drugs. She finds love with a gangster who sweeps her off her feet, causing her to abandon her child and marriage to become a drunken party girl. As the material drives toward its lurid child-kidnapping denouement, Dvorak gets to be sophisticated, hysterical, and, ultimately, the embodiment of the self-sacrificing maternal archetype with a final scene that will leave viewer’s hearts racing. MM

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