Saturday, January 16, 2010

Supporting Actress Blog-a-thon, Class of 2009: Olivia Williams in An Education

For the past two editions of StinkyLulu's annual Supporting Actress Blog-a-thon, I've written about a lovely young actress named Ashley Tisdale and her exemplary work in the High School Musical trilogy. Not only have those posts made me the sort of unofficial go-to guy on anything La Tisdale related, but, and perhaps more importantly, she has introduced me into a wonderful, largely unexplored section of celebrity and media I've affectionately come to call the "tween subculture." I'm largely thankful for La Tisdale and all the joys she brought into my life, so much so that I briefly considered watching and writing about her only 2009 film, Aliens in the Attic, for this year's Blog-a-thon. Then I thought about it for a couple of seconds and realized that there was no way I was going to subject myself to that surefire piece of horse shit just for, what I'm sure is, a fabulous performance from La Tisdale. Anyways, to make a long story short, I had to come up with another performance to talk about and, for the longest time, I was stuck. Finally, about a week ago I saw this film and all of sudden the clouds cleared, a choir of angels sang a lovely chord and I just knew I had to talk about...


Olivia Williams as Miss Stubbs in An Education

With only a handful of scenes and barely five minutes of screentime, Williams, as the Literature teacher to gifted but headstrong student Jenny (Carey Mulligan), gives perhaps 2009's best example of what StinkyLulu likes to call "actressing at the edges." She doesn't have a typical "Oscar scene" to lean on or what you would call a fully-explored character arc, yet she still gives probably the most realized and complete performance in the entire film.

Williams' Miss Stubbs, with her hair pulled straight back into a too-tight ponytail and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, is presented as the traditional, straight-laced British teacher we have seen in films for decades. She's not supposed to care about her students, their feelings or their personal lives outside of class; her job is to teach and that's that. At first, Miss Stubbs seems to follow that archetype quite well, but as the film progresses, we see her shed that image layer by layer. Miss Stubbs constantly struggles with the idea of seeing her students as actual people and has to resist interjecting herself in their situations. The second we see her, she is seen interrupting Jenny and her girlfriends discussing her blossoming relationship with the older David (Peter Sarsgaard). Desperately, Miss Stubbs changes the subject, but, through Williams and the quiet, subtle and suggestive looks she gives, we see how much it is affecting her to see one of her brightest pupils slowly slip into a frivolous life of uninhibited fun and pleasure.


After Jenny tries to "bribe" Miss Stubbs with a bottle of perfume after her much ballyhooed trip to Paris, Miss Stubbs decides to finally take a stand and confront her about the choices she is making. She tells Jenny that she is one of her most gifted students and what a shame it would be if she throws it all away at such a young age. Miss Stubbs honestly cares for Jenny's well-being; this becomes much more than the clichéd lecture she's supposed to give to students considering leaving school. What makes this scene so special is the way Williams says so much about her character while not doing much. Her face stays stoic throughout the entire scene, yet her eyes betray a deeply resonant sense of sorrow and pity when Jenny shoots her and her profession down in an angry response to Miss Stubbs's plea. But she isn't sad that Jenny has insulted her, or at least not completely. What really upsets her is that she hasn't gotten through to Jenny, her desperate pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Like I stated before, Olivia Williams may not have had the most stand-out, attention-grabbing performance this year, but nothing else I have seen has effected me quite like her work here. It would be easy to dismiss her because of her limited screentime and superficially minor impact on the narrative--Lord knows I've done it, unfairly perhaps, to many a supporting actress. However, An Education, for me, would have suffered greatly if Williams' Miss Stubbs wasn't in the film. She becomes the only character to stand up to Jenny's bullheadedness who doesn't come off as a hypocritical joke; the fact that Jenny blatantly ignores her advice doesn't elicit an "You go girl!" but, rather, heartbreak that she is turning away from the one adult who truly cares for her and her future. In less capable hands, Miss Stubbs might have gotten lost in the shuffle, but with Olivia Williams we are given an education in actressing at the edges to be eternally grateful for.

For more Supporting Actress goodness, head on over to the Blog-a-thon Headquarters for countless other profiles on this year's batch of ladies.

6 comments:

Monsieur Cinema said...

She really did wonderfully with a role that didn't have a lot on paper. Specially her hurt during Jenny's diatribe against female roles of the time.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I guess you weren't too hot on An Education. Ah well. All your points are valid here though. Olivia was good, though I did do Rosamund for my writeup :)

Ryan T. said...

That bribing scene was so intense and uncomfortable and just handled brilliantly by both Olivia Williams and Carey Mulligan. Great choice!

Monsieur Cinema said...

BTW, James, when are you doing the Diva Cup Awards this year?

Dame James said...

Thank you all for the comments! Olivia Williams is totally boss here and that's that.

Mr. Cinema: My Diva Cup Awards probably won't get started for another month or so. I still have so much to see and with school, work, friends, other movies (etc) I can't really rush everything like I would like to.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Excellent post. We definitely are in synch regarding our takes on Ms. Williams in this role.