Part 1: Life Support

[15 February 2009]

By PopMatters Staff

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

Linda Hunt and more

Linda Hunt The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1983)

So your agent tells you about this role where you get to play a Chinese/Australian dwarf of all things; it’s probably not what an aspiring actress would have dreamt of doing, though Hunt is far from your average actress, as anyone who has seen this film can attest to. Aiding an Australian wire journalist during political turmoil in 1965 Indonesia, her pivotal supporting character, Billy Kwan, is the connection between the lead stars, Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. But this role for Hunt wasn’t limited to the dependable friend; Kwan, enraptured by Sukarno as puppet-master, tries to be the ultimate manipulator himself: he tries to arrange romances for everyone, and he longs for true romance of his own. Ultimately, he fails, but the beautiful journey is displayed with such passion by Hunt, with the backdrop of political revolt and tradition adding depth and reality to her performance. This quintessential character work aptly resulted in her winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of the best wins ever in the category. KL

Anjelica Huston Enemies: A Love Story (Paul Mazursky, 1989)

“You both knew me when I was alive,” wisecracks Huston’s Nazi death camp survivor to her husband and his new wife (who happens to be her former maid), upon her reemergence into the States after being missing for years. Her character hides under this armor of wit to mask the horror that she faced in the concentration camps, as many survivors have been documented as doing to cope. Mixing humor with the Holocaust, the actress has to walk a very fine line between being a comedienne and a tragedienne, but the always-skillful daughter of director John is in possession of such a fine-tuned instrument that she can, in the span of seconds, wryly crack you up and then turn around and bring you to tears. MM

Lisa Kudrow The Opposite of Sex (Don Roos, 1998)

Kudrow casts aside her airhead antics which brought her into fame on the series Friends and opts to play Lucia with an edge of severity that most spinster types sorely lack. Luckily, her innate talent as a comedienne makes this decision just as hilarious as when she expertly plays it dumb. Lucia is far from clueless; in fact, she is on to everyone and is a kind of busy-bodied snoop. She proclaims to want to help, but often times, she is just in the way. In many ways, she mirrors the lead character drawn by Christina Ricci except she turns her sharp criticisms mostly towards herself. We laugh at Lucia and anticipate what she will say or do next but also, remarkably, relate to her due to Kudrow’s decision to play it real. TD

Debbi Morgan Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, 1997)

Midway through the picture, Morgan, playing Aunt Mozelle Batiste Delacroix (a white magic voodoo priestess), reaches a sort of transcendence as an actress as she has a vision that we feel we can believe and trust in since she relays it to us in such a powerfully intoxicating way. She travels effortlessly between the world of the dead and the world of the living. As she passionately recounts her legend of being a “black widow” to her young niece, years of heartache play out on her face, and Morgan uses her vocal inflections in a magisterially sardonic way to punctuate this lesson to a young girl who is grappling with her own mysterious abilities. Tinged with the supernatural, this monologue brings to mind Tennessee Williams crossed with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and the scene plays well with our own preconceptions of what a psychic’s power can actually accomplish; it also shows the downside to being so gifted. Yet this scene is almost too beautiful to watch because it completely exposes emotional environment Mozelle tragically inhabits—she is a walking contradiction. Gifted, yes, but tortured. TD

Thandie Newton Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998)

The thing that makes Newton’s role in Demme’s so tough to play is that there really was no reference point for her from which to begin constructing her title character. This was a creation that was one hundred percent original, born of an alchemy between author Toni Morrison’s words, Demme’s atmospheric direction and Newton’s imagination. As a mystery woman who rises from a primordial swamp and wreaks havoc as she seeps into the lives of freed former slaves, Newton had to play a newborn baby’s ghost trapped in a fully-grown woman’s body, a toddler, a pregnant woman, and a demon. In a role that depends on full control of her physicality, the actress showed that she was one of few women working who could not only manipulate her limbs, face and body in an appropriately ghoulish manor, but one who could also manage to cast aside her own great beauty for the sake of being true to what the author first conceived. There is no vanity in Newton’s shocking, original portrayal. MM

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

Ingrid Thulin and more

Ingrid Thulin Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Bergman once said: “The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there.” The Swedish master proved his theory most emphatically with Märta, Ingrid Thulin’s dowdy schoolmarm from Winter Light. After spending much of the film wallowing in a prototypical concept of female abnegation, Thulin becomes the recipient of one of Bergman’s boldest stylistic decisions: in an almost unbroken eight-minute close-up, he directs his camera’s gaze unto her seemingly unremarkable face and leaves it there. But Thulin glares right back, and in shattering the fourth wall she escapes her character’s façade to confront the audience with the repressed soul of her subservient heroine. For those eight minutes, the vulnerabilities and insecurities of a wounded heart flicker palpably across the glint of her eyes and the contours of her face—and although Märta may be a “supporting” character, with Thulin’s tender exposition of her stifled femininity she simultaneously becomes the very “winter light” of the film’s title. SB

Marisa Tomei The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

Tomei won the Oscar in 1993 for My Cousin Vinny, a charming, comedic performance if there ever was one. Then everybody had their knives sharpened for her afterwards. Many cried ‘foul!’, but she has since gone on to do some of the most solid, interesting supporting work of any actress of her generation: Unhook the Stars, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and her Academy Award-nominated dramatic turn in In the Bedroom all highlight her versatility. All of these roles considered, it is her part as single mom/stripper Cassidy in this season’s The Wrestler (directed by Darren Aronofsky) that (finally!) fully utilizes all of her acting talents properly and has brought her a third nomination, and, potentially, a second win—there are moments of sly comedy, yes, but her working class Jersey girl with a big dream of having a condo and providing stability for her son is rife with pathos. She proves here, body and soul (heavy on the “body”—Tomei has also been, lately, at the deliriously sexy age of 44, doffing her clothes onscreen), that she is not a fluke Oscar winner, nor an actress who can be pigeonholed into different types, though her strength when playing scrappy working class dames is becoming a signature. Cassidy is a risqué part that could have been a throw-a-way in the hands of a lesser talented performer, but Tomei lends her charm, her gravitas, and her naked ambition (as well as her body) to the cause, making for one of this year’s finest, most exciting female performances, and cementing her as a consummate supporting actress, once and for all. MM

Lily Tomlin Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

When I think of Tomlin, I tend to think of the comedic genius she has come to be known for, as most cinema enthusiasts likely do. It was the straight-woman role of Linnea, in maverick director Altman’s Nashville, that brought the versatile performer her lone Oscar nomination. Alternately mysterious, warm, and filled with vim and vigor, Linnea is a gospel singer who is busy taking care of business (and her family) at the flashpoint of the titular city’s impending nervous breakdown, making her own money, fielding a whole heap of lies from her philandering hubby, and being a perfect mother to her two hearing-impaired children (complete with scenes of sign language -– which the actress learned for the part). It is the kind of singular, quirky supporting character that can only happen, without mockery, in an Altman film. The real shading comes when a visiting folk singer becomes sexually obsessed with her and Linnea’s adventures in Nashville really begin. MM

Sigourney Weaver The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)

Janey Carver is a would-be normal housewife frozen in a fantasy of herself as the neighborhood femme fatale. While we see her pose in revealing outfits fit for the actresses of a great noir, one can’t help but notice her grave disappointment in knowing its just dress up. How sad it must be to not only be bored by your marriage but also irritated by your equally lackluster affair. What she actually feels, Weaver keeps it to herself. Not because she has to, but because she wants to. And it’s this level of empowerment over her situation that keeps the men coming back for more. A scene that may be ordinarily catty reads in such a different way at the level Weaver plays it. She grabs a set of keys in a fishbowl. Her not-so-secret lover wants her to grab his. She intentionally selects another pair but the flick in her wrist and the way she curls the keys up to her hand speaks a thousand words. She is completely aware that she is perpetually trapped in a limbo of cheap, unnecessary thrills and she’s as equally aware that they will never notice. TD

Shelley Winters The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

“It’s love that won,” coos the starry-eyed Willa Harper in reference to her new beau Harry Powell (the menacing Robert Mitchum), and from there and then, she was doomed. After losing her criminal husband, and left with two children to raise during the Depression, Harper felt societal pressured to marry again right away, but also desperately wanted to—marriage wasn’t just a necessity in the ‘30s, but a desire for women of the time. Enter Harry—a psychopathic preacher who is only interested in money and will got to whatever lengths to get it: such as marrying the desperate mother of two whose husband hid a small fortune that Harry believes her young son is privy to. Oh, and he hates women, to boot. One unforgettable scene is Willa’s wedding night with Harry. He is lying in bed, motionless and distant. She looks out the window, looks over to her new husband and desires connection and love but there will be none of that. She is made to stand in front of the mirror and learn what her place is in the world—she is powerless. Winters in that one scene, gives us the lot—she is lost, naive and desires to be protected and loved again, but is made to tragically understand what a woman’s place is, as far as Harry’s concerned—at the bottom of a river. KL

Published at: