Supporting Actress Smackdown — 1994

A reader since 2006, I considered the Supporting Actress Smackdown begun by film blogger Stinkylulu an unalloyed pleasure. To banter alongside Nick Davis (Film Comment, Nick’s Flick Picks), Tony Award winner Itamar Moses (The Band’s Visit), and Eric Anderson (AwardsWatch) was no less a delight (we lost Sheila O’Malley thanks to a sudden emergency). 1994 marked the zenith of my Oscar obsession; it would wane steadily, despite my treasuring bits of trivia like a squirrel does an acorn (didja know that Dianne Wiest remains the only actor to win two Oscars in the same category for the same director???). 

Certainly my low opinion of Jennifer Tilly’s work in Bullets Over Broadway marked the biggest point of dissent. While not terrible, Tilly gave my second least favorite of the nominated performances. I would have swapped her for Julie Delpy (Three Colors: White), Kirsten Dunst (Interview with a Vampire), or, my favorite of 2004, Brooke Adams in the marvelous Vanya on 42nd Street.  I would have kept Wiest and Thurman in my dream category.

Thanks, Nathaniel Rogers, for the invitation and the moderating.

Link to podcast here.

More reading:

Below are my Smackdown blurbs. Ratings are out of five stars.

Rosemary Harris in Tom & Viv

“You are discreet. I can sense that,” Rose Haigh-Wood confides to her daughter Vivienne’s suitor, as if she needed ESP. The suitor is Thomas Stearns Eliot, a man so buttoned-up that, according to Virginia Woolf, he wore a four-piece suit to dinner and was likely born in one. But Eliot, to use Willem Dafoe’s bizarre approximation of the accent affected by the St. Louis-born expatriate, also wants “to write POH-EH-TREE.” Rosemary Harris builds her performance out of half glances and voice modulations that let everyone in the room know that she understands her unstable daughter better than anyone. In a film that’s at least twenty minutes too long and paced as if director Brian Gilbert was teaching a line-by-line analysis of The Waste Land, Harris and the original play’s conception of a mother of impeccable propriety who isn’t a virago mesh without strain. I don’t doubt casting directors had Tom & Viv in mind when casting Harris as Aunt May in Sam Raimi’s Spider Man (2002).


Helen Mirren in The Madness of King George

Rehearsing for the regal parts she’d accept a decade later, the British actress known primarily to American audiences in 1994 for Prime Suspect brings tartness to an otherwise frustrating role that’s too cute by half on paper, starting with the way Queen Charlotte and George III call each other “Mrs. King” and “Mr. King,” respectively. Even those familiar with Mirren’s career to date will feel disappointment that the actress who was an addled wonder in Excalibur has disappeared.


Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction

“Don’t you hate that? Long uncomfortable silences,” Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) asks Vincent Vega (John Travolta) sitting opposite each other at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Thurman’s Mia relies on those silences: a woman who has willed herself into being sure of herself. She plays an impression of vividness, an assemblage of attitudes, not a character, assembled by Thurman from a miscellany of props in the British acting tradition: cigarettes, Lulu wig, black nail polish, white blouse. During Mia and Vince’s famous dance number, she shimmies as if it were a solo performance; despite Vince’s bathroom monologue in which he tells himself to keep his hands off her, they have no sexual chemistry at all, which might be the point. Thurman’s loose-limbed gaiety also works when a hypodermic needle protrudes from her chest. She’s fun.


Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway

For audiences unfamiliar with Jean Hagen’s immortal work in Singin’ in the Rain or Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Jennifer Tilly’s ‘90s variant on the voice-like-a-drill-press routine to signify she’s playing a bad/non-actress may prove delightful. Enjoying Tilly rests to a large degree on whether you think Woody Allen thinks these characters are lousy people but hardworking artists or lousy people and lousy artists whom he’s mildly rebuking. Like Bullets Over Broadway, a little of her goes a long away; she’s too pleased with herself, too insistent on telegraphing her distance from the Dumb Broad she imitates.


Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway

The performance wasn’t working—it looked like a disaster. Then director Woody Allen realized the trouble: Dianne Wiest was using her natural, thin pressed-flower of a voice. Lower it a couple octaves, he suggested. Thus did Wiest unlock the secret to playing the overripe Helen Sinclair, doyenne of the American stage. Thanks to the drag-queen-playing-Tallulah Bankhead rumble, Wiest wrings all manner of camp variants on her semi-classic “Don’t speak!” line. She’s even better when playing fake-coy for the sake of John Cusack’s hack playwright. But is Helen a hack too? Bullets Over Broadway hedges.

*** 1/2

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