Monday, August 2, 2010

Kick-Ass Supporting Actressing

Within a span of a couple days a couple weeks ago, I saw three great examples of supporting actressing that completely blew me away. Let's take a gander at these lovely ladies, shall we?

Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie
The strength of Ann-Margret's performance here doesn't so much rely on her ability as a great actress--which, although my scope of her filmography is severely limited, I doubt she ever was--as the fact that she has incredible amounts of screen presence. Director George Sidney saw something in little ole Ann-Margret and it shows that he is working incredibly hard to find out just what he can do to make her stand out a little bit more. But it's not as if Sidney is doing all this work while she remains oblivious; it's evident that Ann-Margret is trying just as hard to use her talents to her advantage. Whether she's singing in that now infamous rendition (thanks to Mad Men) of the title song or dancing her ass off during 'A Lot of Livin' to Do,' Ann-Margret has that certain "it" factor very few film actors have. The fact that she remains nothing less than helplessly watchable during a sequence where she simply struts around in front of a camera is a credit to whatever talents she possessed. Her acting is hardly Shakespeare worthy, but she embodies the youth of the time with a subtle intelligence that proves she knew what she was doing. When she (initially) stands up to her overly possessive performance who insists that she doesn't kiss Conrad Birdie, the famous rockstar she's won a contest to receive a kiss from on national TV, Ann-Margret is a shining example of a new breed of female teenager, one who won't let a man tell her what to do anymore. Any angle you look at her, Ann-Margret is a fascinating creature and her work here is something I can't shake weeks later.

Fay Bainter in The Children's Hour
Bainter's performance as the grandmother who gradually believes the lies her granddaughter is spreading about the two headmistresses of her school is one of the great, non-discussed supporting performances of the 1960s. While the film's headliners, which include Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner, are all generally miscast and emotionally aimless, Bainter is precise and on-the-nose everytime she appears on-screen. Her biggest and best scene comes very early in the movie in the famous moment where the granddaughter tells her grandmother what is "going on" at the school. She takes the scene in so many directions with a simple change of expression or intonation and she uses these wisely throughout the extended sequence. Bainter immediately disbelieves all of her granddaughter Mary's idle gossip but the wonderful thing about this early bit is that she's also completely bored and uninterested in what she's saying, as if she's heard all this before and doesn't have the energy to bother investing in it. Gradually, however, Mary's lies become more believable and Bainter has to struggle with whether or not she can actually believe the girl. She tries to cutoff the conversation, but something about the accusations draw her back in. And as she starts to believe Mary, Bainter backs off to the point where Mary appears to have all the power in the situation. She almost towers above her grandmother as the lies start to sink in and make sense. By the time Mary whispers in her ear about the relationship between the two headmistresses too indecent to be said aloud, Bainter is a goner and is believably sucked into Mary's web of deceit. Her work here in The Children's Hour may seem easy, but she is able to get a lot of emotion and intrigue out of a potentially tired "is she or isn't she lying?" plot without so much as breaking a sweat. Bainter is a true pro here in one of Oscar's finest Supporting Actress nominations.

Marion Cotillard in Inception
In a film (and genre) where acting is considered less important than impressive visual effects and action sequences, Marion Cotillard poo-poos that philosophy and decides to bring fire and passion to a project so sorely lacking any human emotion. Long after the "shoot 'em up" scenes are forgotten, I can still recall certain parts of Cotillard's performance that are just as potent and fascinating as the film's central mystery. My favorite scene is the one where Ellen Page has invaded Leonardo DiCaprio's dreams and has taken it upon herself to go down to the lowest level of his subconscious, ending up in a hotel room with broken vases and glasses strewn about the floor. Cotillard saunters over to Page in this strapless evening dress, towering over her with her hands on her hips. She proceeds to bitchily ask why the hell she's intruding, but the fascinating thing about this moment is the fact that she uses her sexuality as a way of intimidating Page's character. Cotillard is sexy as hell in this scene, but she's also on the verge of a violent outburst and the contrast is jarring to say the least. She walks a lot of fine lines in the movie, teetering on the edge of sanity as much as DiCaprio is, if not more. As what happened with the screening room scene in Nine, Cotillard's final scene in Inception provides the only emotional raison d'etre in the movie. Coming to terms with DiCaprio's explanation for what actually happened to her, she packs a real gutpunch in those few, terse minutes. This is, without a doubt, her most complete performance since La Vie en Rose a couple years ago and a sign that we haven't seen everything from Ms. Cotillard yet.


paco. said...

TOTALLY agree on Marion, she brings an emotional center to a movie that was missing one, just as she did in NINE. And I'm also in the "She deserved that Oscar" camp so I wait in anticipation for her next performance.

Also she totally scared me in Inception, that scene where she kills Ellen Page freaked me out.

Adam M. said...

I agree bigtime on Cotillard. I hadn't thought about how Mal was using her sexual power over Page's frumpy Ariadne. But she definitely was--along with all the rest of that crazed, animalistic energy.

I wouldn't credit any part of 'Bye, Bye Birdie' with supporting a feminist perspective though. I think Ann Margaret was precisely so effective because of her sensuality--as was portrayed by 'Mad Men.' (I also wouldn't credit 'Mad Men' with popularizing the Ann Margaret/'Bye, Bye Birdie' sequence; I think it secured its spot in the annals of pop culture when the film was first released.) I never dreamed of considering Ann Margaret's performance (or any part of 'Bye, Bye Birdie') as anything of value, but now that you mention it, she really did make quite the impression, didn't she? I have to laugh because I nearly despise the film (if you couldn't tell!), and yet I think you're right about Margaret giving it her all.

Dame James said...

By the end of Bye Bye Birdie, I wouldn't credit anyone with supporting feminism either. There was just that brief moment where Ann-Margret, realizing that the kiss with Conrad means nothing, basically tells her possessive boyfriend to fuck off. That totally impressed me. The film starts off strong but has an enormous amount of plotlines, none of which come together or are resolved in any logical way. It's not as horrible to sit through as something like The Music Man though, so I call that a (minor) win. Ann-Margret, though, is a large part of that watchability.