Dear Cultural Avengers:
You’ve rolled so many grenades at me in this round I hardly know which one to nudge with a toe first. Dana, I was prepared to take up your challenge to get haute-crotchety about The Revenant, but then Amy so thoroughly filleted the movie and its frosted-macho posturing about Leo-vs.-the-Elements into bison sashimi that my knife skills aren’t needed. So instead, I’ll grumble about another year-end prestige release. Thirty-odd years ago, Pauline Kael, a writer whose argumentative style I will always admire despite the fact that her field of vision was riddled with blind spots, once famously (and wrongly) sneered that Meryl Streep made “a career out of seeming to overcome being miscast.” That gripe occurred to me as I watched Jennifer Lawrence valiantly soldier through Joy, playing, for the third consecutive time in a David O. Russell movie, a character she’s too young for. She’s a wonderful actress (actually, given that she’s just 25, an astonishing actress) but the next time I want to see her play a 40-year-old is in 2030, and the next time I want to see her end a movie being Lady Bountiful behind a desk in a bad wig is never.
David, you asked me what performances I considered brave this year. That is a word from which I usually run when it’s spoken in the context of acting—can’t we talk about all the elements that make up talent without using the framework of courage?—and yet it’s completely fair, since this year several performances challenged me to think about that idea in new ways. Which means I’m going to talk about Carol, because what Cate Blanchett does is, in the context of cultural criticism circa 2015, brave.
It’s a risky thing to give a performance that you know some people will dismiss as mannered or arch or artificial or, worst of all, actorish. These days, when critics write something like “He barely seems to be acting at all” (except in reference to Adam Sandler or Kevin James) it’s meant as high praise, as if muted, uninflected naturalism is the only true calling of a serious screen actor. Which is why I think it took guts for Blanchett to be, at points, almost too much—especially since too-much-ness is something she also deployed, for both dramatic and comic effect, in this year’s Cinderella. As Blanchett gives Rooney Mara a long, lubricious once-over in Frankenberg’s department store, Blanchett (and Todd Haynes, and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy) play with period stereotypes of the predatory lesbian, lushly fur-enshrouded and rose-red of lip and claw, eyeing her prey.
But scenes like that, and Blanchett’s hypercultured diction and immaculate poise and women’s-college cadences, aren’t over the top; they’re the product of thoughtful calculation by one of our smartest actresses. Carol Aird is a wife, a mother, a center of polite early-’50s society, and also her own overconstructed version of all of those things; she doesn’t step out of bed in the morning without stepping into a role, and when she peers into her compact, she’s not just checking her makeup but her whole persona. For her, getting it right is a suit of armor, and even though she wears it perfectly, something’s a little off—and that something is that there’s no room for the unpracticed or casual. That can look like “bad acting.” And in a way, it is—but it’s the character’s. That’s brave.
And so is the movie. Amy, can I persuade you to give it another chance? I’d readily apply your stiletto of a phrase “chilly good taste” to The Danish Girl, in which the genteel framing, Elle Decor interiors, just-pressed costumes, and prestigey score (with 162 IMDB credits, Alexandre Desplat is, I guess, allowed an off day, and should maybe take a day off) all seem to have been conceived out of an aesthetic that has nothing to do with the psychologically roiling, tormented, sexually unsettling, unmistakably warm-blooded subject matter; to me, the movie’s style keeps damping down the story’s fire.
But not so with Carol! I love the fact that, like several people I know who don’t like the film, you described the film as chilly, because that’s such a strong literal motif. I recently saw Evan Cabnet’s excellent Broadway production of the play Thérèse Raquin, with Keira Knightley as a 19th-century Frenchwoman who doesn’t discover her own life, will, and mind until she feels lust for the first time. Knightley appears, for the first 25 minutes, still, silent, and almost ghostly; the minute she encounters the man she wants, color seems to flow into her, and she finds her voice. I thought of her watching Mara’s own Therese. It’s winter in New York, but no one in Carol is colder than Therese. We see her jumping out of bed, huddling in a blanket while trying to light the stove in her meager apartment; she works in a department store where the management makes everybody wear winter Santa hats indoors; and when her sweet dope of a boyfriend (the always-great Jake Lacy of Girls and Obvious Child) tries to make plans for the two of them, she brushes him off by saying, “It’s too cold, I can’t think straight.” She doesn’t begin to thaw until she’s in Carol’s house before a roaring fire, and suddenly, her own pilot light goes on. I bring this up because I don’t think Carol is about good taste in an Oscar-season way, but rather about the unitalicized good taste of a master director who understands that acting, composition, writing, framing, editing, design, costuming, and so on are all forms of storytelling.
So, back to brave performances: Christopher Abbott in James White (between him, Lacy, and Adam Driver, Girls is pretty much a talent factory for new leading men) felt brave to me, because the camera is so in the face of the sweaty, immature train wreck he plays, and he never lets James’ sloppy excessiveness become his own. Everything Kristen Wiig did this year in indies (Nasty Baby, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and especially her magnificent work in Welcome to Me) felt brave in its absolute lack of indebtedness to other performances, or to the goal of “likeability.” (I really enjoyed The Martian, but the fact that nobody could see more in Wiig than “nervous clipboard lady waiting for the men to talk” is everything that is wrong with studio thinking about gender.) And Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years felt brave, not in a “Boy, she really lets the years show” way but because the final scene of Andrew Haigh’s devastating movie depends, 100 percent, on what she can do with a close-up. That is a stunningly high degree of difficulty and, wow, does she ace it.
And David, you’re brave to bring up the multiple powder kegs of representation-versus-endorsement, of “problematizing” movies as a way of punishing them for discomforting us, and of labeling as a way of ending rather than starting a conversation. (I just had an argument with someone who didn’t like Brooklyn because he felt that the indecisiveness of Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis made her a bad role model. Sigh.) I no longer know how to reply when someone calls a movie racist or misogynistic or homophobic or transphobic (all labels I myself have used about various works of art). It’s not that I don’t think those qualities exist in movies, or that they shouldn’t be called out; it’s that often I don’t think those condemnations are deployed with any desire to spark a counterargument. They’re just a way to tell you that a particular movie has landed in the wrong house of Hogwarts, and if you disagree, you’ll be sorted there too. And that frustrates me since, in looking at these movies, conversation is the only currency all of us can possibly share, informed by whatever the differences in our individual backgrounds, experiences, and affinities are.
So I’m tempted to throw a question to the group: What movies offended you this year, on any grounds, and why? Alternately, what movies do you feel shakiest about defending even though you really liked them? And if you hate both of those minefields, then let me, as the husband of a sometime screenwriter, ask a question closer to home: What 2015 movie would most have benefited from someone other than its director writing it? I and my WGA health insurance will thank you for your replies.
Happy to have escaped this round without revealing that I haven’t seen American Ultra or We Are Your Friends, or that 12-hour Jacques Rivette movie—d’oh! I should’ve stopped sooner.
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