The Movie Club

In Praise of “Gimme an Oscah” Performances

Still from The Fighter. Click image to expand.
Melissa Leo in The Fighter

Dear All,

Stephanie, your hilarious takedown of Melissa Leo’s “Gimme an Oscah, yah fuckin’ retahd” performance in The Fighter brings me back to last year’s Movie Club; while Roger Ebert and I were rhapsodizing about Tilda Swinton as an alcoholic kidnapper in Julia, you busted in (with your Raising Arizona leitmotif blasting full force) to, in your words, “rain on the Tilda Swinton love parade.” You described your sense that, with Swinton, you could always see her showing her work, displaying her actorly passion and dedication and effort rather than disappearing into the character.

You’re right that this is often true of Swinton, and of Leo in The Fighter. These are big, grand, divalike performances, light-years from the self-effacing, miniaturist work Michelle Williams does in Blue Valentine. And while Williams gave my favorite female performance of this year, I can see the value in, and derive great pleasure from, the Maria Callas school of acting as well. What was fun about Leo’s turn in The Fighter came, in part, from how unexpected the casting was; we’re used to Leo as a big-hearted, unglamorous earth mother (a role she played in the excellent 2008 film Frozen River and on television this year in Treme). To see her trailing cigarette ash on her tight white jeans as the domineering matriarch of a brawling Boston family was to witness the transformative power of acting on display. It’s always glorious to see an actor humbly disappear into a role (the way John Hawkes did in Winter’s Bone or Jesse Eisenberg did in The Social Network, probably my two favorite male performances of the year). But it’s also great to watch someone disappear into a dress-up closet and sashay out, beehive-wigged and bigger than life.

Karina’s category of the “birthday cake movie”—a film that’s proudly artificial, that deliberately disguises its component parts and focuses on its effect on the audience—is a really useful way to think about movies like Dogtooth—wait, are there any other movies like Dogtooth? This Greek film about a father’s mind-control experiment on his children also acted as a kind of mind-control experiment on the audience, alternating between icily bleak comedy and shocking violence. It won the “Un Certain Regard” prize at Cannes, and that phrase describes the film’s strongest attribute precisely: It has nothing if not “a certain gaze,” a weird, sui generis way of looking at the world. I wouldn’t say I fell into the camp of unreconstructed Dogtooth lovers—it strained too hard to be a sociopolitical allegory, and the last half fell apart. But that movie felt like essential viewing, both as a promise of future things from the filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos and as some kind of glimpse into a new possibility for cinema. On a less ambitious scale, Fatih Akin’s shaggy comedy Soul Kitchen and Lena Dunham’s coming-of-age sketch Tiny Furniture also worked as mini-genre reinventions that left me keen to see what their creators would do next.

And the circle of good movies keeps widening. Since this club started on Monday, I’ve watched two 2010 films—the explosive Italian melodrama/Mussolini biopic Vincere and John Cameron Mitchell’s delicate bereavement drama Rabbit Hole—that, had I seen them a few weeks earlier, might have edged their way onto my list for best of the year. (Karina, what you say about Stone—that DeNiro “finally got off his ass and acted, and nobody noticed”—goes for Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole as well. She’s a gifted actress who in recent years has risked being destroyed by her own vanity.)

Thank you all so much for coming together to have this conversation. Matt, you say that the multiplatform playfulness of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World convinced you for the first time that it was OK to call people you’ve met only online “friends.” This Movie Club has definitely elevated all four of you (only two of whom I’ve met in person) to that status for me. I hope 2011 is your best year ever, both in the movies and out.