I should’ve posted this earlier but I had briefly convinced myself that no, I was definitely going to watch the other 1970 films I was looking at even if it was after the real Smackdown had been posted. Silly me. I’ll try to be on time for the next one. Anyway, here goes!
Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces – The avenues I see here are either full bore lower-class caricature or avoiding that entirely to “redeem” Rayette. Black goes an alternate route, earnestly playing the script’s occasionally mercurial emotional beats while giving Rayette a decent dose of intelligence. Her exuberant good nature, simmering anger and disappointment at his failures, polite out-of-placeness at the Dupea estate, with her open face and distinct physical mannerisms, add up to a singular characterization. (Five Hearts)
Lee Grant, The Landlord – Like everyone else in The Landlord’sgenius ensemblee, Grant capably layers what could have easily been a one-dimensional “type”. She wears the character gorgeously, nailing every line reading and connecting fully with her family, not to mention hitting it off surprisingly well with Pearl Bailey. Still, her physicality is occasionally stiff next to her co-stars’s ease, and as good as she is, her film offers richer alternatives for this category. (Four Hearts)
Helen Hayes, Airport – Certainly enjoyable on a moment-to-moment basis. Hayes finds a surprisingly relaxed physical carriage and reads her lines without belaboring how unreliable this woman is. She proves a talented mime during her escape from the airport’s Ken Doll, and playacts well trying to stop Guerrero. But even if I liked her featherweight take on a part any number of actresses would have amped past eleven, it’s still a pretty meager offering. (Two Hearts)
Sally Kellerman, MASH – It’s depressing that an Altman film is this relentlessly misogynistic, but Kellerman makes Margaret Houlihan into more of a putz than the script does. I don’t buy her as an army brat or a romancer of Burns and Duke. Her anger reads as impotent flailing instead of real rage. Her cheerleading at the finale is incomprehensible. A mess as written, but Kellerman’s discordant playing thoroughly bungles any potential in Houlihan. (One Heart)
Maureen Stapleton, Airport – Stapleton stands alone among Airport’s mostly misguided cast in rescuing her character from misogynist writing and in conveying an lucid reservoir of emotion that’s neither ham-fisted nor underworked. I appreciate the loving if worn out rapport she has with her husband in her first scene. Her building terror, culminating in that scarily sad plea towards the wounded passengers is the film’s only affecting arc. Small portion, but seasoned well. (Two Hearts)
Beatrice Arthur, Lovers and Other Strangers – Arthur does an even better job of rescuing a dilapidated role from a bog of a film than Stapleton and Hayes do. Her interplay with the actors playing her family is about the only consistent source of energy in this film, though a luminous if preposterously written sequence near the end with a charming Diane Keaton – also on point – reveals how much she’s actually been responsible for the chemistry in her scene with an unusually Oscar nominated Richard S. Castellano as her husband. She fully dodges ethnic mother stereotyping despite an atrocious beehive of a wig, dexterously swapping the Ray Romano and Holly Hunter roles in her marriage to try and convince her eldest son not to get a divorce. Maybe she’s a little too quiet in her scene with Keaton, but it’s a knockout that honors her sharp, economical, emotionally gratifying underplaying throughout that more than earned her the film’s big closing speech with Castellano after.
Pearl Bailey, The Landlord – Pearl Bailey’s Marge mostly exists in two big sequences: One, as the very first person to welcome Beau Bridges’s fantastically played and deliciously named Elgar Enders (a name right up there with Harge Aird in the annals of Nonsense Rich White People Names), doing so by waving a shotgun in his face and throwing all manor of physical and metaphysical reasons behind her threatening actions. Here, her voice is even-tempered and her eyes and posture full of conviction behind her words, but just as amazing is the process by which he convinces her that he’s really the landlord, and then she invites him back to her place for lunch and to reveal the grisly fate of the old landlord. In her other scene she gets deliriously drunk with Lee Grant, inviting her into Marge’s kitchen to talk about something before eating and drinking more together than Grant’s character has probably had in her entire life. Bailey plays every beat in the script without condescending to her character or turning Marge into the joke even as she finds plenty of laughter in her conviction that poor Elgar is somehow a threat, or her total intrigue in whatever nonsense Grant is talking about. Ten minutes in might be too late to say she’s setting the tone, but hers is still a complete characterization that more than thrives on a moment-to-moment basis, grounding Marge’s POV but still making her funny and serious with zero fuss.
Tina Chen, The Hawaiians – On the one hand, Chen is easily the greatest source of life throughout her seemingly endless film in basically a co-lead role. She has a solid grip on who Nyuk Tsin is, and I admire that she commits to her romance with Min Ku. Chen’s best scenes all come from hashing out conflicts with her husband and with herself over those defiances and revelations, accepting land ownership without his consent or tenderly examining his hand in a kitchen. Her decision to sail with him on his final voyage reads as plausible, their conflicts over the years reading just as resonantly as her devotions. Still, Chen rarely conjures up the kind of iron will a woman in her position might need to wind up carving the place in the world she amasses as the years go by, or the bitterness that may come from being so consistently degraded by the name “Wu Chow’s Auntie” even as she becomes a landowner to rival Charleton Heston’s titan. If the script and direction fail Chen as resolutely as they do Heston, Geraldine Chaplin, and Mako by skipping complicated decision-making scenes that might serve to better inform our view of these people, she manages to suggest a more consistent personality than anyone else without giving any indication to how Tsin has and hasn’t adapted to the hardships around her.
Helena Kallianiotes, Five Easy Pieces – A short presence in the film, and here I’ll throw additional kudos to Toni Basil as her travel companion and probably her girlfriend (at least in my reading of the film). Still, I’m impressed that Kallianiotes can spend almost every scene she’s in completely pissed off at the world, at Bobby and Rayette, at pollution and politics, and not be utterly off-putting. She puts real conviction behind her tirades and looks as though she’s thinking about how to articulate her stances, modulating how she delivers her answers to Bobby and Rayette’s questions. Angry, intelligent, and contributes a spiky energy to this low-key film without disrupting the tone.
Diana Sands, The Landlord – Sands gets a similar kind of entrance as Bailey does, upbraiding Elgar before realizing who he is. Her anger is pitched higher, switching quickly to recalculating how to approach this guy without overplaying her shame or confusion, and then making a pretty quick switch to seduction without overplaying that either. It’s amazing to watch Sands’s Fanny move so loosely and confidently in her home, as her attraction to Elgar shifts from a disarming ploy to something sincere, even as she’s wholly dedicated to her husband. Even after consenting to a tryst with Elgar in her own bed, Fanny starts the sequence melancholic about her husband going off to prison, engages in some open hearted and totally charming flirtation with her landlord and still ends the scene actively contemplating the seriousness of her actions even as she tenderly pets Elgar’s sleeping head. Her regard takes a pretty sharp nosedive once the consequences of their actions rear their head, but her nervousness confessing what she’s done to her husband and her genuine regret hit strongly. Equally persuasive is her softness and disdain towards Elgar after her confession, aware that this was a decision both of them made but still peeved that on a pretty basic level, their affair damaged her life a lot more than it did his. Sands connects these scenes with less material than a smaller ensemble like Five Easy Pieces might’ve allowed for, but she’s miraculous threading some pretty substantial narrative swerves together, playing every beat for real without just courting a stereotype.
Lois Smith, Five Easy Pieces – I’d never peg Smith as someone who looked like she could be related to Jack Nicholson, so kudos to whatever casting director decided she did and cast her in this part. The two forge a credible sibling bond from the start of her first scene, clearly each other’s favorite people in their family but fraught by Bobby’s flightiness and taciturn behavior. She’s not blind to this, yet their conversations feel picked up from earlier that day. Smith is a light, energizing presence, capable of quick humor (laughing at her other brother’s neck brace in spite of herself) and grave seriousness (telling Bobby about their father’s strokes) in quick succession without straining herself or pulling faces. In a film full of characters trying to figure themselves out by running away from their lives or sticking to people they know they shouldn’t, Partita’s assuredness in who she is and what she wants and where she stands in her own family, plus the uncomplicated kindness towards Bobby without deluding herself about him, makes the character a welcome breath of fresh air, and one that Smith expertly realizes.
Tuesday Weld, I Walk The Line – Weld’s Alma is a bigger presence early in I Walk The Line, and perhaps I’m underestimating how much screen time she has, placing her in this category simply because her character becomes less central to the narrative as the film continues. Gregory Peck’s central turn as a decent man who betrays every last one of his principles on behalf of his love for Alma is the film’s greatest achievement, but Weld conjures a fascinating characterization of her own from more limited material. I like how Weld doesn’t use the scenes with her family to undermine her scenes with Peck, making her bond with them as strong as her new romance with the sheriff without delineating whose side she’s really on. In fact, she’s perfectly at home with her family, seeming totally unthreatened by her father as he interrogates her on her evolving relationship with the sheriff and delighting in her dinners with him and her brothers. Alma seems to truly enjoy spending time with the sheriff, as the relationship evolves from smitten conversation to a full-blown affair that must stand through her family’s criminal activities. I wish her scene of revealing whose side she’s on benefited her perspective as much as it did the sheriff’s, but Weld still creates a wholly consistent and romantic personality that plays into and artfully dodges Southern Belle/child bride without playing duplicity for a second.
Apologies to Estelle Parsons in Watermelon Man, Bibi Andersson in The Passion of Anna, Eva Marie Saint in Loving, and Holly Woodlawn in Trash for not having the time to get your films. As is, Black, Bailey, Smith, Sands, and Weld feel like a solid enough five. HERE is the Smackdown for all interested parties. Next month is 1994, and if anyone can find Tom & Viv I’d deeply appreciate a map to it. As is, I’m more than ready to enjoy another stroll through Pulp Fiction and Bullets Over Broadway.