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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Hey Oscar, Don’t Forget the Subtle Gals!

Last year when I wrote this column, it was to praise two young men for terrific lead performances that I thought wouldn’t get the recognition from the Academy because Oscar doesn’t often reward subtlety. It turns out I was right and Emile Hirsch(Into the Wild) and Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) did not get nominated for those respective performances – although Affleck did indeed get a nod in the supporting category for The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford.

This year, I want to talk about two female performances that shook me to the core with their vulnerability and, of course, their subtlety. I hope that I am proven wrong this year and that space will be made for these two extraordinary performances, but this is an unusually crowded year in the Best Actress race and for differing reasons, these performances have an uphill battle.

It’s been an awful long time since the release of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the only heat in the Oscar race seems to be around the deserving Penelope Cruz in the supporting category, but it was her co-star Rebecca Hall who really grounded the film and gave it a heart and a center that helped make it one of Woody Allen’s best efforts in years. It’s no easy task to be the central character – and make an impression – when you’re part of a cast that includes the beautiful and talented Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Patricia Clarkson. Yet, Hall does more than make an impression, she makes the character of Vicky an honest-to-goodness real person who reacts the way a normal person might react in the various predicaments she finds herself in.

There is nothing showy at all about Hall’s work in the film, yet she is the character who was most identifiable to me, the one to whom who I could relate the most. Witness the scene where Bardem’s Juan Antonio character saunters over to Vicky and Cristina’s table at dinner and starts to flirt with them, telling them to come with him on a weekend trip. While Johansson’s Cristina is clearly game to go with Juan Antonio from the second he approaches them, Hall simultaneously conveys both a stern outward appearance in denying Juan Antonio, and a soupcon of interest in accompanying him. If there is no trace of her wanting to actually go on that trip, then her going would seem to betray her character, but instead it seems perfectly fitting.

What makes her work especially impressive is the fact that she is acting around several other strong female actors and her work is not only fascinating on its own, but in the way she assists the other actors like a point guard. Hall’s reactions and facial expressions when she’s not speaking are some of the best work she does, and it is precisely that kind of acting that is never recognized by the Academy. Sure, it’s important to make sure that the intonations and accents are spot-on when the actor is speaking a line, but it’s equally important to see what they are doing when they don’t have a line to read. And not only does Hall handle a perfect East Coast American accent, she never lets down her fellow actors when her job is to react.

But the really important distinction for Hall, as compared to the other actors in the film, is that her character actually has an arc – one that involves her character changing over the course of the picture and it is up to Hall to make those twists and turns in her character seem genuine. And she delivers. Vicky is a rather conventional person, someone who sees her whole life mapped out in front of her and seems content in that; then along comes Juan Antonio, who represents the possibility of veering off-course, and she realizes that there is an appeal there as well. There is a well of differing emotions roiling underneath the surface for Vicky, and Hall is able to convey that wealth of feelings without uttering a word. When Vicky goes to see Juan Antonio, we know why without having to be told why and when she leaves, again we know why.

The bottom line is that while Hall didn’t have the showiest role in the film, she delivered a steady, stable performance that holds the entire movie together. If you replaced Hall with a scenery-chewing actress, the entire film would fall apart; because Hall is willing to make choices that stay true to the person she is playing, she winds up knocking one out of the park – at least for me, as someone who appreciate it when actors and actresses don’t resort to yelling and histrionics when subtler shifts in voice and movement can convey the same result.

The other performance this year that is absolutely devastating whilst also being incredibly quiet is Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy. And when I say that Williams – as the titular Wendy – is quiet in this film, I’m saying she barely speaks at all and when she does speak, it’s in hushed tones like she’s embarrassed by the sound of her own voice. In a film that is ostensibly about what it means to scrape by on a few bucks in this land of opportunity, Williams’ portrayal is one that mixes both hope and despair.

Wendy is trying to get to Alaska to find some work, driving in a beat-up old car that she sleeps in, and all she has is a few hundred bucks and her dog Lucy. After her car breaks down and a series of events leads to her dog going missing, it seems that everything in Wendy’s tiny world has collapsed around her and she just doesn’t have the money to fix her problems. But when she talks to people, it is usually only for a purpose – she needs information or they need information from her – because she spends the majority of the time with her head down, trying to stay out of everyone’s way. There are a few instances when people try to strike up a casual conversation with her, but she scampers away before that ever happens. The only person she really talks to is the older security guard who doesn’t have a lot, but tries to give her everything he can.

In scene after scene, Williams is stunning in her ability to hold back, able to show us the thousands of emotions in her head by the way her eyes dart around or the way she keeps her face tilted downwards or the way she recovers from a startling incident by pacing around a gas station bathroom. When she shares scenes with the adorable dog that plays Lucy, the old adage about actors not wanting to share the screen with a child or a dog for fear of being upstaged turns out to be false in this case; there is no stealing a scene in the entire film from Williams. What’s remarkable about it is that she doesn’t do a whole lot, but it is exactly that type of restraint and inaction that speaks volumes about this particular character that seems awkward in conversation and uneasy around people. Watch the scenes in which Wendy is forced to interact with people to see how Williams pulls off those moments, where it looks like she wants to jump out of her skin.

Kelly Reichardt’s film is uber-indie, in that it has a languid pace and not a whole lot happens in the way of conventional plotting. To call it an understated film would be an understatement. But Williams’ performance really elevates the entire film, making us care for this person without even knowing a whole lot of concrete information about her. We see a phone call to a relative and not a whole lot of importance is said in the exchange, but a lifetime worth of hurt is conveyed in Williams’ trembling voice and slightly shaky hand.

The choices Williams makes consistently throughout the film – and indeed, her career – are fascinating and definitely unexpected. When Wendy and Lucy reaches it denouement, as an audience we are really ready for absolutely anything to happen because the character of Wendy is both known and unknown to us; she is like that stranger that we meet and feel like we know them based on their manner, only to realize that we don’t know them at all. By the time the film has ended, I felt like the security guard in the film, wanting desperately to help this passerby with more than a few bucks and a handshake but also feeling like she doesn’t really want anything more. And if we piece together those things a little bit more, we notice a fiercely independent streak in her and from there we can continue until an entire back story has unfolded in our minds.

But that back story is ultimately unimportant; what matters is what Wendy goes through in the eighty minutes of screen time, and Williams makes us feel empathy for this character without making us pity her. The notes that she hits – and doesn’t hit – enable us to see both everything and nothing when watching her. It is truly, undeniably, one of the most remarkable bit of acting I’ve seen this year.

So maybe the Academy will not recognize these two fantastic actresses in remarkable performances, but I’ll give it one last try in the language the voters understand:


Michelle Williams, Best Actress, Wendy and Lucy

Rebecca Hall, Best Actress, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

– Noah Forrest
December 3, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon