Thursday, September 26, 2013

Supporting Actress 1980: The Performances

This month's Supporting Actress Smackdown went with the year 1980.  And the nominees are....

Eileen Brennan in Private Benjamin

Eva Le Gallienne in Resurrection

Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull

Diana Scarwid in Inside Moves

Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard

The Rankings:

In 5th Place:  Cathy Moriarty, Raging Bull
Moriarty tries to spin gold from this underwritten part, but aside from a few moments early on, she cannot overcome the movie's focus on Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro in a freaking phenomenal performance) and, to a lesser degree Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci, showing what he can do when given a role with meat to it).  I felt like something special was on the way early on when Moriarty slowly showed the audience Vickie's growing infatuation with Jake.  However, once the relationship turns sour due to Jake's jealousy, Moriarty isn't given anything by the script (or, if she was, it went on the cutting room floor) to explain why Vickie stayed with Jake - especially after Jake punches her in the face after assaulting Joey for an imagined affair between the two.  If anything, Moriarty nicely shows the tension and frustration Vickie is trying to hide from Jake, which helps make her finally leaving him less sudden.  A thankless part, Moriarty does add some extra layers to the performance, but the movie itself isn't interested in the character - and Moriarty doesn't do enough to get the audience interested in Vickie either.

In 4th Place:  Eileen Brennan, Private Benjamin
Brennan has a quirky screen presence that often lends itself to outside-the-box character choices that ultimately add richness to the people she plays.  That said, I don't think she did enough with this character.  As Capt. Doreen Lewis, Brennan plays a rather stock character (Boot Camp Instructor from Hell), and Brennan does have some rather nice moments (I especially love her early scene where she is picked up by the rival squadron's leader) and ably plays the part, but she seems to have softened the quirkiness to play more of the 'straight woman' to Goldie Hawn's Private Benjamin (and if I ever decide to rewatch this movie, it will be for Hawn's performance, which I loved).  While this choice works in the movie as a whole, I missed that essential Brennan-ness that made her stand out as a performer.  When Capt. Lewis appears later on in the movie, you don't get quite the thrill that you should, and I find that terribly disappointing.

In 3rd Place:  Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard
It kills me to place this performance at number 3.  Steenburgen is fantastic as Lynda Dummar, Melvin Dummar's first wife.  She delivers a subtly funny turn as a frustrated woman who just wishes her husband would get his act together.  Some might mistake Lynda as a flake, but Steenburgen knows better and gives a woman who is smart, but not beholden to what society expects from her (at one point Lynda tears off her uniform - with nothing underneath, I might add - and calmly quits her job, calling goodbyes to the strippers onstage).  Every choice Steenburgen makes works, and she is sorely missed when Melvin (Paul Le Mat in a solid, if standard, performance) buys the car/boat that causes Lynda to divorce him a second time.  Her late scenes, once she learns about Melvin's good fortune, could easily have been played in an unflattering light, but Steenburgen maintains Lynda's dignity, and her final scene sending the children to spend the summer with Melvin is beautiful in its bittersweet happiness.  It fell just slightly short compared to the two ahead of it.

In 2nd Place:  Diana Scarwid, Inside Moves
This performance is a sneak attack:  Louise appears to be a background character, more 'one of the guys' than an immediate love interest for Roary (John Savage in a weird, but ultimately enjoyable, performance).  Using this to her advantage, Scarwid slowly builds Louise's growing affection and love for Roary while still staying somewhat distant from him.  The nuances of the performance pay dividends when Roary finally makes his move on Louise - Scarwid is heartbreaking as she admits that she loves him, but is unable to be with him because of her own fear.  In this brief scene (which, if this had been the last we had seen of Louise, would still be enough to give Scarwid this slot)  Scarwid manages to convey the love Louise feels for Roary, her fear of how she would be judged if she was dating a crippled man, her frustration with herself for having that fear, and her guilt at turning him down almost entirely through her eyes.  It's rich work in a role that could just be a standard girlfriend part, and she makes the movie worth seeing almost entirely on her own.

In 1st Place:  Eva Le Galliene, Resurrection
It's funny, I could discuss what I loved about the prior two performances over and over again, but what I loved most about this performance doesn't really lend itself to long discussion:  it's heartfelt simplicity.  Le Gallienne plays Grandma Pearl (grandmother to Ellen Burstyn's Edna), the matriarch of the family that Edna goes to live with after the accident that kills her husband and nearly kills herself.  Le Gallienne isn't given that many flashy moments, but instead crafts a fully-realized character from the smaller moments:  holding Edna as she starts crying while looking at photo albums, telling Edna to use her newfound powers to help others.  It is, in essence, a truly supporting performance - adding little bits of character to her scenes without showboating or pulling focus.  When called upon for her big moment towards the end of the film as Edna moves away, Le Gallienne uses every small bit of character established in her earlier scenes to deliver one of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking goodbyes I have ever watched.  Truly a phenomenal performance.

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