Sunday, January 04, 2009

Ma Belle

[This one's for the Supporting Actress Blogathon at ol' Stinkylulu's place.]

Man. Every year it's like this. I adore the Supporting Actress Blogathon and all the wonderful entries I end up getting to read and all the great performances it points me towards. But without fail, it always occurs during an uncommonly busy week for me where I end up with zero time to think of anything worth writing about, and I end up bailing on it. It was going to happen this year too -- I figured the praises of my most favored performances this year (Viola Davis in Doubt; Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona; Rosemarie Dewitt in Rachel Getting Married) would be sung elsewhere, so no need for me to be redundant.

But there was one face that kept popping up in my mind, giving me pause. Man, I thought, I really hope somebody ends up talking about Michelle Williams. And then I realized -- I'm somebody! I can talk about Michelle Williams! And so I will.

It's not novel to be singing the praises of the women of Synecdoche, NY. Just in the last 24 hours, Manohla Dargis and My New Plaid Pants have done just that. But with so many women to love, Michelle ends up getting lost. She doesn't have the biggest role (like Samantha Morton) or the most gravitas (like Dianne Weist) or the funniest moment (like Emily Watson) or the weirdest moments (like Jennifer Jason Leigh) or the cameo-sized scene of sad brilliance (like Robin Weigert) or the role that most seems to resemble an actual human being and not a projection of one man's psyche (like Catherine Keener). But in the grand scheme of all things Synecdoche -- a fairly brilliant film that I don't think I liked very much -- Michelle Williams stands as the cream of the crop.

If you're a Morton- or Weist- or Keener-backer (all three are brilliant and worthy of your devotion) and you think I'm overvaluing Williams's performance, I admit I've been rooting for her for a long time. Back to the Dawson's Creek days when she was the only reason I ever tuned in to watch her play the increasingly marginalized Jen Lindley. I watched with interest as she picked up small roles in great movies (The Station Agent) or great roles in small movies (Me Without You), and by the time she finally got recognized, for her turn in Brokeback Mountain, I was all, "Where have you people been??" So there's a bit of "That's my girl!" in my cheerleading here, and I'll own that.

But the performance earns it, I think. In something of a psychic continuation of her magnetic cameo in I'm Not There (as the Edie Sedgwick analogue), she plays Synecdoche's Claire as the consummate actress. As opposed to Morton's character, who is always the realest thing in an unreal environment, Claire is always performing, and Williams plays her with varying degrees of artiface. She's passionate, she's enthusiastic, she's in possession of perhaps the clumsiest come-ons in history, she is absolutely preposterous in every respect. And just when you think she's turned the corner and become beaten-down and domesticated -- yet another bitter, unsatisfied wife left in Phillip Seymour Hoffman's wake -- you find it's just more acting. She might be Caden's nagging second wife, but more important to her is that she's playing Caden's nagging second wife.

This would all be a really interesting intellectual exercise if it weren't for the fact that Williams also connects to Kaufman's bizarre comedy so well. Every single line reading is on some kind of time-delayed fuse, waiting to go off after you process it in your head for a second. Kaufman's sense of humor (particularly in this movie) can be cruel, but Michelle's delivery softens the blow without undercutting the joke. Claire is preposterous, but Michelle plays her with the clear-eyed dignity of someone who is dedicated to her work. The empty-headed actress finally gone Method. For good.


Danny said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Wendy & Lucy, then. I've heard she's pretty amazing in that and it's one of this year's more under-the-radar supposedly Oscar-worthy films.

JA said...

Spot on in every respect Joe. So glad you picked this one to do; I loved her here.

Joe Reid said...

Actually saw Wendy & Lucy tonight, in fact. She's so fantastic in it -- it's unlike anything I've seen her do before. If the word "poignant" had any juice left in it at all, that's what I would call her performance. And the film itself actually. I'm sure I'll be talking about it in some fashion.

JA: thanks, pal. Loved the Morton write-up!