Part 1

Life Support

by PopMatters Staff

15 February 2009


Gwyneth Paltrow and more

Gwyneth Paltrow The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

Paltrow presents cynical adopted daughter Margot Tenenbaum to us as a painfully private, preternaturally talented, and highly secretive type who hides more than her feelings in her heavy oversized fur coats. In fact, she’s so engulfed in keeping others at bay and generating her own mythology and dramatic stage plays in equal measure, she doesn’t even seem to register how she feels about her own severed finger. Wisely, Paltrow only reveals herself to troubled brother Ritchie (albeit subtly), which propels the story forward for both of the emotionally-damaged characters, and in turn shows how great of an ensemble actress and genuinely funny Paltrow really is when she is paired with a director who engages her like Anderson does here. TD

Thelma Ritter Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Ritter was so potent a performer that one feels reluctant to describe her as a “supporting” actress in spite of the six Academy Award nominations that back her up. Nevertheless, she arguably remains one of the most essential secondary players in film history, and Fuller’s brash Cold War-era noir exemplifies her immeasurable talents at their most gut-wrenching. The character traits that one associates with the actress are on full display here; the wisecracking scene-stealer with affectionately-barbed line delivery dominates her early scenes with her coarse charm. As the film progresses, the actress gingerly cuts to the frangible core behind the brassy persona and in turn exposes the world-weary humility that punctuates her film’s emotional subtext. Her expressive face and increasingly slouched posture partake in a damning indictment of social ignorance, and when the performance culminates in her brief but revelatory final scene, Ritter might well have created the most harrowing critique of the American Dream in all of cinema. SB

Winona Ryder The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)

Winona’s May hoodwinked all of us: The audience, Newland Archer, the Countess. Everybody. May Welland, a picture of a bygone, pristine society that Scorsese wrapped in white and floral compositions, pretty much always knew what was going on, maybe not exactly, but she was a picture of woman’s intuition in a time where such a thing was not talked about. She knew when her man wasn’t responding to her like he ordinarily would. In slight glances, a tilt of the head and sometimes silence, you could glean an insight as to what was going on inside her mind. Her position as Newland’s wife was utilized in the only way cunning women know how, as an all-controlling position of power, putting the enemy in retreat. And all without raising her voice or creating a scene or breaking into hysterics. May is a subtle, intelligent characterization by Ryder that makes her absence in contemporary film all the more depressing. At least with Scorsese, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day Lewis, we get a sense of Ryder’s depth and seriousness, as well as her steely reserve. Scorsese’s eye for casting is generally impeccable, and this is one of his strongest intuitive choices in that respect. KL

Anna Deavere Smith The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)

Smith, a commanding stage actress, NYU professor, and global health care advocate, did something amazing in this misfire of a film: she created a character that had never been seen before onscreen. A woman, a nurse, and someone challenging the preconceptions about women of color in a time where it was dangerous to be anything other than black or white, Smith’s gloriously expressive face has not been used to better effect on film. Navigating the tricky waters of skin color politics, a topic that is rarely discussed in modern film (outside of Spike Lee), the actress makes an indelible impression as the mother of a very light-skinned black man who wants to denounce his family because they are too black and he would prefer to be white. “Funny, I never thought of you as black or white,” she laments to her son, in the film’s most powerful scene. “Gold. You were my golden child.” With one sentence, and one controlled glance, the realization that her son is about to abandon her hits both the character and the audience like a train derailing. As Smith predicts her future out loud and castigates her son’s life-altering choices, her gravitas and presence take center stage and the power behind her eyes could illuminate a large city for weeks. Scenes like this leave the audience wondering why such a powerful woman isn’t given more substantial film work, though her recent turn in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married is a step in the right direction. MM

Maureen Stapleton Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978)

In a film that washes its mood in a sea of dour, static gray, Stapleton’s vibrant lady of the world Pearl stands out like a bright red buoy on a hopeful horizon, beckoning her new fiancée’s family to come into her safe harbor after a life of drifting out at sea. If you’ve seen the film, and are familiar with Allen’s generally more exuberant and warm oeuvre, this use of color could be seen as a wholly intentional homage to his hero, director Ingmar Bergman, right down to the wrenching, dramatic close-ups. Pearl may not be able to fit in with the intellectuals, who populate this desolate beach-front home, but she does not judge them and it’s her good nature, her humor and her grace that light up the film in its bleakest moments. Though her time on screen is, by today’s standards, brief—she feels complete to us. The actress fills in the blanks beautifully. We believe in her travels and want to hear more of her stories. Stapleton did an excellent job of really living in the character and engaging the audience, becoming a bright spot in a heavy film. And it’s ultimately ironic since, by default, her character, ‘the mistress’, is supposed to be the one you hate –- which is impossible to do when someone so likable and personable is playing her. TD

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