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Movie Reviews: Oscar Actresses Galore

The Help (2011)

Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) (wins in red)

So here’s where I stand on The Help. I didn’t read the book when it came out. I heard lots about it. I considered it, heard that the main character was called Skeeter, and passed. Later, I saw a woman reading it on the bus and read a few pages over her shoulder. What I read proved that it was not for me.

I liked The Help, the movie, more than I thought I would. It’s long, but it moves at a good pace. (Eventually it drags its ending out for twenty-five minutes, but I’ve forgiven that in other movies, so why not here?) The characters of Minny and Aibileen are charming and compelling. Jessica Chastain was excellent, too, and I like that the movie included her character to show that disenfranchisement exists across class divides as much (or almost as much) as across racial divides. I didn’t like Allison Janney as Stone’s mother—and I love Janney, but she has got such a singular, unusual quality about her, that she didn’t really work as this character who is all about trying to fit in and not make any social waves. Sissy Spacek, over in another house as Hilly’s mother, is the perfect actress for this kind of role, and I wish she’d been in the movie more.

Emma Stone as “Skeeter” (ugh) was fine. She’s been better, she’s been worse, but this movie doesn’t really care about her. See, as an example, her boyfriend. Maybe his existence means something in the book. Maybe he affects her in some way. He doesn’t here, because neither of them are over-burdened with character qualities. This movie is only using Skeeter as a deliverer of plot. She does not grow or evolve or really do anything except reap the benefits of being white and use it to black ladies’ advantages. And I figured the boyfriend would be dispatched of quickly because she needed to go to New York at the end (that was a given) and this didn’t seem like the kind of movie that would let a girl leave a good man behind. Who is the movie about? Aibileen and Minny, played by an Oscar-nominated Viola Davis and an Oscar-winning Octavia Jackson, respectively. A lot of words have been written about this movie’s (and the book’s) treatment of race. My favorite piece on the subject was by Matt Zoller Seitz over at Salon.

I won’t go too much into that, but I do have two major problems with the movie that are race-related, and this is my blog, so here they are:

First, the entire premise as illustrated by two pieces of dialogue. From the editor played by Mary Steenbergen: “No one has ever written anything from this perspective before.” And from Minny: “Why do we need you to tell our stories?” The editor is wrong. Minny is right. This movie seems to want to pretend that African American literature did not exist before The Help, by Skeeter Phelan, comes out.  And it’s true literature hadn’t been gifted with Toni Morrison yet in 1963. But there was the Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), five personal narratives authored by Booker T. Washington between 1900 and 1912, the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1940s), Zora Neale Hurston’s multiple anthropological novels published in the 1930s, Native Son (1940), A Raisin in the Sun (1959), oh, and the quintessential piece of pre-Civil Rights era Black fiction, Invisible Man, which was published in 1952 and on-the-radar enough to win the National Book Award in 1953.

So no. Black America didn’t need Skeeter Phelan to tell their stories. (Oh, but those are all black writers—the type of women in The Help aren’t going to read black writers! How about white women writing from a black perspective? Was Skeeter the first of those? Don’t tell that to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Or native Georgian Flannery O’Connor, who just a couple years before the events of The Help, put out A Good Man is Hard to Find, where she writes of the hypocrisy of whites in the Civil Rights South.) But The Help seems to want to exist in a society that has never heard of, much less experienced, any of those works. Which is fine, I guess, but Mary Steenburgen at the least should have known of them.

Second: the ideas that racism in Jackson is almost entirely the product of Hilly (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), and that telling her off will rob her of her power. Seitz’s article explains why concentrating a racist history on a few über-racists allows us to perpetuate the fiction that Good People never contributed to racism. Anyone with an ounce of education in history knows that’s not true. Remember being in high school/junior high and learning about Thomas Jefferson? Who not only impregnated one of his slaves, but didn’t bother to stipulate in his will that she could be freed upon his death? It was within his legal right to do so.

But beyond that. It seems pretty clear to me that Hilly has resources. Just outcasting her socially is not going to make a difference; she’s taken her power and moved it beyond the household sphere. She has taken her distaste for blacks and drafted it into legislation (her hygiene initiative). She is the only character in the movie who knows how to take her racism and make it policy. She has made the personal political. She has INSTITUTIONALIZED. And we’re supposed to think that everything’s pretty much OK now because they all gave her the big kiss-off. She has political connections! She is going to use them. She is going to use them to fuel her personal prejudices and vendettas. The sequel to this movie (/book) is going to be called Hilly’s Revenge: You Thought You Brought Me Down, But Guess What, It’s Still the 60s and I Know the Governor.

OK, one more quibble: I found myself questioning the structure of Skeeter’s book. After it comes out, all the women including Aibileen begin calling themselves writers, when that may or may not be the case. Not to rob any oppressed women of their voices or anything, but did Skeeter not do any editing of the interviews she did? Because when they were doing the interviews, many of them seemed very conversational, off-the-cuff. They would need editorial shaping to be readable. Also, it’s not like she recorded any of this stuff (unless maybe she was writing in shorthand?) so whether Skeeter was even preserving their exact words is up for discussion. I spent all of last December reading oral histories. I read Studs Terkel, who is basically the Lord and Savior of this narrative form. And regardless of how touching many of those personal testimonials are, the writer is the person who asks the right questions and constructs the responses in the way that creates the maximum impact. This is an art form.

But that all comes back to my original frustration with the atmosphere that surrounds these women, the servers, the workers, the help. No one ever suggests for a minute that someone like Aibileen, who as far as we can tell is fully literate and thus entirely capable of putting her own words down on her own paper, should just write her own memoir. She hands her life over to a white woman for other white women to read about. She gains some personal power through the telling, and that’s great. It just doesn’t make a shit-ton of sense.

Speaking of which: one final question about the shit pie. How much of it could there possibly have been in there? If Hilly had just taken a few bites, it would have been funny. But she doesn’t; she eats two full pieces (earning herself the nickname Two-Slice Hilly, and that’s a funny bit: granted). And the entire time she’s eating them she’s enthusing about it, “Mmmm mmm mmm, you make the best pie.” She can’t taste that it’s in there, how does she know that it’s in there? Why did Minny go to the unsavory, unsanitary trouble of making this pie (I don’t even want to picture a second of that, by the way) if Hilly would have to be told what was in it?

Ahead: reviews for The Iron Lady, My Week With Marilyn, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Iron Lady (2011)

Oscar nominations: Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Makeup

I saw this movie more or less on a whim. I had already written it off when it left my local Cleveland screens and dispersed to the suburbs. Then, it became necessary for me to drive out to Solon to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and, on my way out, I noticed that The Iron Lady started in twenty minutes. With some deliberation, I just decided to see it. (Don’t you all wish you had lives as free of responsibility as mine? Get off my back, it was a Sunday.)

I didn’t expect much, and I didn’t get much. The biopic is such a Hollywood standard that it seems like it would be really difficult to screw it up, and yet The Iron Lady manages to do so. Of course the standard narrative structure for the biopic looks like this:

  1. Movie opens on the character in middle age/late in life, after fame (or infamy) has already been established
  2. Movie flashes back to the character’s beginnings, which are generally humble
  3. Movie follows the character’s growth into Famous Person
  4. Movie returns to the era on which it opened, which is a moment of crisis and/or a turning point in the famous person’s life

The Iron Lady follows this structure like it’s supposed to, and yet it makes a major miscalculation: the era which bookends the movie. Instead of centering the story on one of Thatcher’s crises in office, it centers on doddering old retired Thatcher trying to convince herself that her dead husband is not, in fact, speaking to her, and culminating in an embarrassingly over-dramatic scene where he walks down a dark hall and she’s all “I’m not ready for you to go don’t go!” The narrative through-line is all wrong. It makes it seem as though all of her political rise to power was just a prelude to the real business of saying goodbye to her husband’s ghost. Maybe they were trying to humanize the character, but really they just seem to be limiting her. Not only is the political game-playing about ten times more interesting than the Follies of Widow Thatcher, but it’s also what we knew her for, and where she excelled. The movie goes out of its way to suggest that Thatcher always felt more at home in the Halls of Parliament than she did in her own house. Maybe the point is that, at the end of her life, dealing with basic human concerns is more of a challenge for her than negotiating peace treaties. But it doesn’t provide any insight into that, and it does it in a way that’s just sort of melodramatic and embarrassing.

Oh, and too much of the story is told through stock footage—the story is constantly being forwarded through vintage news coverage of the riots and the sanitation strikes etc. etc. etc. You’ve got a multi-million dollar production here, Phyllida Lloyd—RE-STAGE SOMETHING.

No one ultimately cared about the movie itself, though; this was all about Streep and what she was going to do with this impersonation. And she’s great in the way Streep is always great; she slips in and out of roles the way other people change coats. She inhabits them, she wears them like skin. Her artistry is in the way that she conceals that she is an artist. Just for funsies, from the Onion: Court Rules Meryl Streep Unable to Be Tried By Jury As She Has No Peers.

Having said that: I don’t think this is her best role. I don’t even think this is the best role she’s had in the last few years. Streep’s magical transformation into Julia Child was just a handful of years ago, and I found myself constantly returning that. She Streep had a similar physical/vocal transformation for that. She was also brimming with life and energy there, which would, fairly, be misplaced here—it’s not what Margaret Thatcher was about—but it’s missed. (My favorite moments were the little details that revealed Margaret as a bit of an oddball. Stuff like the way she always wears clothes in deep shades of blue so that she sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the dark-suited men who surround her. The way her purse is always tucked by her feet even while she sits there in the front row at Parliament. Does she think it’s going to get pinched from her office? Or is it a symbol for her?  The best bit is when she’s a lower-level cabinet member and there’s a power outage during their meeting. The camera is on the Prime Minister when a beam of light slaps him in the face; one of the other men remarks that the Girl Scout came through for them, and when the lights come back on we see Margaret gleefully brandishing her flashlight and then dropping it back into the omnipresent purse. She comes prepared, y’all.)

But another role that started whispering in my ear and just wouldn’t go away was Miranda Priestley of The Devil Wears Prada.

Priestley, impeccably dressed, measured, patrician tone of voice, seemed so much more like a leader than Streep’s Thatcher. If you put those two impersonations in a room and asked me who was in charge, I wouldn’t think twice. She got an Oscar nomination for that, too, don’t forget.

You know who’s wonderful, though? Alexandra Roach as Margaret in her twenties. She’s lovely, spunky but vulnerable; she persists, she learns; she looks so much like Meryl Streep that I assumed the entire time that the role was being played by Meryl’s real-life daughter, actress Mamie Gummer. Nope; just some British actress who’s really not got a lot of other credits to her name. I wish we’d been able to spend more time with Young Margaret.

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Kenneth Branagh), Best Actress (Michelle Williams)

A film about a week on the set of a Marilyn Monroe movie being filmed in England in the early 50s, and the young assistant director who became her de facto companion during that time. This is a sweet, fun little picture for the most part, though it felt long even at 85 minutes, and I could really have done without the young man. The problem is, there really was a young man who really did work on this film with Olivier and Marilyn and really wrote a memoir about it. And you don’t buy the rights to a man’s memoirs and then say, “We’ve cut you out of the movie, hope that’s all right. Now it’s just Week With Marilyn.”

I am 30, the same age Marilyn professes to be here, while teasing the young man that he’s so young…and yeah, he is. His face is comedically young. I wonder if his freckles were real or if they painted them on. I guess we’re supposed to excuse his annoyingness on the basis of his youth, yet I couldn’t get over my disinterest in him through the whole thing. It became outright hostile at the end. “Don’t ask Marilyn that—that’s none of your damn business!” “Oh, who gives a shit about you anyway?” These were all in my head of course, not that they needed to be. I saw the movie on a Monday night, $5 night at the Cedar Lee which meant a full house. And it was one of those super-responsive crowds that I detest. The ones who are full of “Oh”s and “Ah”s and “uh oh!”s and “oh boy!”s. And anticipating punchlines. There is a special place in hell for people who deliver the punchline two seconds before the actor can do it. I DID NOT PAY TO HEAR YOU. $5.

Anyway, the rest of the cast is high-class. Kenneth Branagh is delightful as the bombastic Olivier. Even though the character is frequently a jerk, the movie doesn’t pretend that working with Marilyn isn’t a nightmare (and Olivier was both her co-star and her director for this film). And Julia Ormond, as Olivier’s wife, a glumly-retired Vivien Leigh, explains where he’s coming from: he hates Method. Really, really, really hates Method. Judi Dench pops up here, too, as a gregarious, friendly film legend (Sybil Thorndike, who I expect you would have to be British and over 50 to recognize on her own merits) who encourages everybody and smooths over conflict whenever she can. She is quite lovely; I’d like to learn more about her.

But nobody cares about any of them; none of them had any shot at awards, including Branagh, who was actually nominated but had no shot against Christopher Plummer. The reason to see this movie is Michelle Williams. She is lovely in the role. She’s a fine, fine actress, doing a very different role here than she did in her Oscar-nominated performance from last year. That was a contemporary, brittle, regretful woman. Williams as Marilyn is a marshmallow—soft hair, soft curves, soft voice, soft manner. When she falls apart (which she does regularly) it isn’t messy or expansive. She just kind of crumples.

And yet, Williams still hints at a sharper edge to Marilyn. There are two very interesting moments that illustrated for me what she was really doing. Both take place when the young man, with whom Marilyn is playing hooky from work, takes her to see Windsor Palace. On their way out, all the servants, who’ve heard that Marilyn is in the house, have gathered at the bottom of the staircase to get a glimpse. Marilyn whispers to the young man, “Should I be her?” And then she proceeds to Marilyn the joint up, giggling, putting her finger to her lips, leaning seductively against the wall, posing for pictures no one is taking, giving the crowd a series of Marilyn tableaux that they could not be more excited to be receiving.

But just before that scene, the young man takes Marilyn to go see his godfather, who organizes the Windsor library. And Marilyn’s behavior here, without being as explicitly performative as the other scene, still totally is. She baldly flirts with this guy—an older guy, played by Derek Jacobi—and coos over how smart he is and even makes some reference that I unfortunately cannot remember now, about there being so many books or so many big books, or he knows so much more than she ever could, but whatever the statement is, it is a flirtacious lie. The Marilyn we see before us has already been shown to have a hard copy of Ulysses on her nightstand. She knows how much she knows about literature, and she is pretending here just as hard as she pretends anywhere else.

Almost everyone in the movie comments, at some point, about the way Marilyn comes alive on screen. The movie draws a careful distinction between infuriating, insecure Marilyn and onscreen presence Marilyn, and Marilyn draws that distinction herself by playing to the servants. But there’s at least one other layer to it that she reveals, purposely or not, in the library. So that’s Williams’s Marilyn. An actress playing an actress playing an actress playing an actress.

I read one review of this movie, by Linda Holmes at Monkey See, that suggests that we are meant to think the young man is naïve and ridiculous for thinking he really means anything to Marilyn; that even if the movie thinks so, Williams at least knows better. I agree wholeheartedly with that reading. He doesn’t mean anything to her; he is the shoulder she chooses to lean on during that experience. But she doesn’t choose him callously, she doesn’t use him, or at least not on purpose. She just can’t carry “Marilyn” on her back alone.

Yet the movie still asks us to care about whether the young man is doing a good job on the film set, whether he has a future in the industry, whether he will get over Marilyn, whether he has a second shot at that cute costume girl. No one cares, My Week With Marilyn.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Rooney Mara), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

I think everybody expected this movie to make a bigger splash than it did; frankly, I don’t know why it  didn’t. Just production-wise, it was a cool, polished success. I am a stone-cold Fincher fan (Zodiac lovers represent!) and he did not disappoint here. And that’s coming from someone who did not care for the book from which this movie was adapted. (I also have not seen the supposedly magnificent Swedish adaptation of the same book. So, do with that information what you will.)

I won’t write too much about the book; I’ve already done so here. But basically I found it to be a mediocre thriller. The characterization of the lead character, the Girl, Lisbeth Salander, was not convincing. I didn’t feel that Larsson was really qualified to write of or about a young girl trying to overcome a history of victimization.  People who love mysteries tend to love this book, though, and it is pleasantly hard-boiled, a quality they carried over into the movie. People expecting to find someone to “root for” might come away disappointed. Daniel Craig as the protagonist, Blomqvist is…witty and easy on the eyes. May I reiterate: the man can wear a pair of jeans. But he doesn’t court audience sympathy. He’s terse, he’s brusque, his first act in the book is to basically sell out the magazine he built and his girlfriend who is the editor, and he does so in a pretty cavalier manner. It works because I like Craig (he’s the Blond Bond!) and because the movie is so qualitatively cold: the buildings are all super-modern yet nondescript, and all the relationships appear to be built on mutual advantage rather than pleasure. Like I said, Fincher is perfect for this. He gets this criticism ever time he releases  movie: too cold, too reserved. Here it’s just right.

So Blomqvist, leaving his magazine, gets offered an opportunity to write the memoir of a retired industrialist living on a remote island in the Way North. The industrialist—played with a matter-of-fact power by Mr. Big Year, Christopher Plummer—has got a secret motive. He wants Blomqvist to investigate the murder of his niece which happened forty years earlier on that same island. It’s a classic locked-room scenario—there’s only one bridge, which was blocked off by a large-scale car accident that whole day. Still, she disappeared. As Blomqvist delves deeper into the mystery, he decides to take on a research assistant—Lisbeth, whom he knows through various plot contrivances.

There is such potential for an interesting platonic relationship to develop between these two; for some reason the book (and the movie, following its lead) decided to pair them in a sexual relationship. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense for either one of them. At least the movie cut out Bomqvist’s quick fling with one of the Vanger daughters. She’s there in the movie, he just doesn’t fling with her. But the characters emerge none the worse for wear here in the movie, where even their more ridiculous choices are leant gravity by thoughtful performances.

I came out of the movie—aching all over, 3 hours is so long!—still trying to make sense of how I felt about Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth. Here’s where I am about two months later: she looks amazing. She looks exactly how I pictured: not just the piercings and the tats, but the clothes, the makeup, the attitude, the hair. Got to give props to the hair—in her first scene she’s got it combed up into a mohawk, but after that she generally doesn’t. We see it in kind of every state, including greasy, just-rolled-out-of-bed, asymmetrical mess. Mara doesn’t look like an actress who came to the set every day and put on a wig and was ready to go; the look is remarkably lived-in. (For the record, she really committed to the role: not only did she get that haircut, she got all the piercings—including, dear God, the nipples—for real.)

As much as we feel her character’s ferocity, there’s a strain of vulnerability that she really carries with her all the time, too. True story: I wore a hooded sweatshirt to see the movie and about halfway through I pulled the hood up over my head. I didn’t hide my eyes or anything, but I was folding into myself every time she was onscreen. Mara manages to take this quality Lisbeth has—which is a prickly defiance born out of an entrenched fear of anybody getting within an inch of her—the concentrated effort to create a force field of attitude around her body—and she makes this quality infectious. Like, I had it. If someone had sat down next to me in that theater, I might have driven my car keys into their knee.

I think they made a good choice in casting her just generally. Early on, there was some talk of bigger stars being considered for the role. Scarlett Johansson was supposedly “too sexy” which I think means “too buxom.” Mara has got a boyish body that she can basically fold away into nothing during moments when she is vulnerable or when she is attempting to hide in plain sight. I can’t see Scarlett doing that. Natalie Portman was also supposedly offered the role and supposedly turned it down, as she had just finished filming Black Swan and was exhausted (as well she should have been after that performance). It’s also possible that “exhaustion” was code for “pregnant but I don’t want to say so yet.” It’s also possible that she was never really offered the role. It does seem like Casting 101 that when you’re casting a character like Lisbeth that you go with a Nobody—someone who can disappear into the role better than someone like Portman, who headlined five movies in the last two years and won an Oscar and had a tabloid baby, and thus tends to be super identifiable as Natalie Portman.

There was some campaigning to get Noomi Raapace, the original Girl in the three Swedish films, to reprise her role. She politely declined. I heard an interview with Raapace on NPR awhile back; she described, quite vividly, the process of getting into this character’s head, and how it bled into her personal life, her marriage, how she enjoyed the fierceness of the role but how much of a toll it took on her. So she was like, do those exact three movies over again? No, thank you. Understandable. She went on to play the gypsy in the Sherlock Holmes sequel and that will likely put her in front of more eyes anyway.

So ultimately, the movie had three draws for me: Mara, Fincher, and the soundtrack, another Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross collaboration that contributes to the aggression and the iciness in exquisite ways. It’s a shame that none of those three got any real awards attention. It didn’t play huge at the box office either; it recouped its budget, but not in a way that will guarantee that any of the sequels will get made. (IMDB says “in development.”) I’d like to think if Mara gets another crack at this role that she’ll get another real shot at an Oscar. (Though if David Fincher steps out, I probably will too.)

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  1. Thomas Berton
    March 13, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Emma Stone needs to play Flannery O’conner in the biopic.

  2. Thomas Berton
    March 13, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I had her in mind before I saw The Help. Too perfect!

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