Sunday, January 6, 2008
Supporting Actress Sunday: The Women of Hairspray and Death Proof
I was sitting here, as I am wont to do, contemplating what to write about for yet another blogathon, this time it's StinkyLulu's annual supporting actress blogathon. I was scanning through my film notes from the year and the list of films I had seen and no names were jumping out at me.
Maia Thomas was an impressive newcomer as an innocent bystander caught up in the after effects of a bloody massacre in the Aussie thriller Noise. Samantha Morton was Oscar-calibre as the "long suffering wife" of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtin in Control. Sioarse Ronan (whose name I swear I spell differently each time I type it) and Vanessa Redgrave were superb in Atonement. Nicole Kidman and Imelda Staunton were delicious icy villains in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix respectively. Tilda Swinton classed up the joint in Michael Clayton. Saskia Burmeister, Lisa Flanigan, Rosamund Hanson and Kristen Thomson gave incredibly fine unheralded performances in The Jammed, Septemper, This is Endland and Away from Her each, but still nothing screamed out at me. No performance demanded that I write about it like it did last year.
And then I had a brilliant realisation. Two of my very favourites 2007 films were filled to the brim with talented special women. First there is Hairspray, the John Waters cult film turned Broadway Tony winner turned big splashy silver screen movie musical. A film that features the finest ensemble work of the year. Then there is Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. A white-hot jugganaut of adrenaline, which throws eight ladies into the centre of a twisted story involving car chases, booze and sex.
Hairspray, the film directed by Adam Shankman based on the Broadway musical, is one of the most entertaining times I've had in the cinema all 2007 and beyond the toe-tapping music, the delerious eye-catching costumes and sets, the bubbly lead performance of newcomer Nikki Blonsky and the performances of men like James Marsden, Elijah Kelley and, yes, even John Travolta - I could throw a wrench in and claim Travolta as part of the "supporting actress" part of the discussion, huh? - is the abundance of ladies up for a song and dance.
Michelle Pfieffer is the first obvious choice of discussion. One of the greatest actresses of all time finally decided to let audiences bask in her greatness once again. This time she continued on her evil streak from five years back with White Oleander and gave us the racist television producer Velma Von Tussle. Portrayed by Blondie star Deborah Harry in the 1988 film, Velma doesn't even get the redemptive "No we can't! Yes you can! No we can't! Yes you can! YES WE CAN!" ending that the Broadway Velma (played by Linda Hart) does during "You Can't Stop the Beat". That is how evil Pfeiffer's Velma is. That Michelle is absolutely delicious in the role helps her get away with it. And, boy, is it nice to hear her singing again on "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs" and "Big Blonde and Beautiful (Reprise)". The Pfeif is digging into her "bag of tricks" and pulls out a doozy of a performance.
Amanda Bynes and Alison Janney provide hilarious support as Penny and Prudy Pingleton respectively. While Janney doesn't sing and Bynes only performs on "Without Love" - sounding very Britney circa "Lucky" - the joy in their performances is in the humour they provide. Byrnes, as Tracy Turnblad's pigtailed lollipop-sucking best friend, is surprisingly riotous. Committing herself to the part entirely and showing a side to her craft that was previously unseen. I'm not saying Bynes has some great untapped well of talent, but there's certainly more there than being able to somehow get away with the worst female-to-male transformation I've ever seen. Janney gets the laughs too as Penny's religious rosary-bead-swinging mother. "Having nothing builds character!"
Queen Latifah doesn't exactly have much to do in the role as Motormouth Maybell, but her singing is amazing (as always) and stops songs like "I Know Where I've Been" from being boring placeholders.
Perhaps my very favourite is actually by relative newcomer Taylor Parks in the role of Little Inez, the jive swingin' daughter of Maybell, whose dream is to follow in Tracy's footsteps and break down the TV dance barrier. Her talent is best exemplified in the film's best musical number "Run and Tell That". Her voice shocks - that out of that tiny girl? - and her dance moves impress. She has spunk and attitude and she's a star in the waiting. That she was left off of the Screen Actors Guild ensemble list is an outrage!
And to not say anything of the last major female castmember would be mean, so here we go: Brittany Snow. There. Poor girl.
The women and the "girlpower" found within Quentin Tarantino's half of Grindhouse known as Death Proof are not realistic. Let's just get that clear. People actually complained that Quentin Tarantino's dialogue was "not realistic" and that "women don't really talk like that" and that he merely fetishises these strong women into violent psychopaths instead of showing them as merely strong independent women. Well, strap me down and call me Charlie, because last time I checked Death Proof is not meant to be "realistic", nor was it ever going to be. The women of Death Proof don's speak like real women (or, none that I know). No, they talk like the women in movies Quentin Tarantino would have been making if he had been able to back in 1970. I imagine that, much like how Death Proof showed as a double feature with Robert Rodriguez' almost-as-female-centric Planet Terror, Tarantino would wholeheartedly approve of Death Proof playing alongside something like, oh say, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Last time I checked Russ Meyer's cult B-movie classic was neither realistic or the sort of movie that feminists could praise as an important piece of cinema. So call me biased, but if you were looking to Death Proof for insightful intelligent dialogue then I think you're kind of kidding yourself.
The dialogue that is given (and there's a lot of it) though is given even more spicey punch by the ladies who speak it. An assorted crew of sexy ladies from various stages of their career. People like Rosario Dawson and Rose McGowen have established careers of varying success. Others like Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have been around for a while but are only now making a name for themselves. And there there those like Zoë Bell who are entirely brand-spankin' new to these whole "acting" shenanigans.
The first half of Death Proof features Poitier, Jordan Ladd (the only one that didn't make any impression) and Vanessa Ferlito as three pot-smokin' booze-drinkin' gals out for a good time on a Friday night. McGowen plays an old school acquantance. Of these four I really got a kick out of Poitier with her snappy vocal delivery. In particular her "kinda cute, kinda hot, kinda sexy, hysterically funny, but not funny-looking guy who you could fuck" line is kinda one of the best of the year.
In the film's second half Dawson, Thoms, Bell and Winstead are four friends who have ditched Hollywood for the weekend to go joyriding through the countryside. Thoms does her usual "sassy black chick" routine that I have not been a fan of in the past, but here I actually enjoyed it. The character of Kim is a cliche. She'd be a cliche if this were made in 1970 so, in keeping with the film's central idea, she's a cliche now. Tarantino instantly gave the entire heterosexual viewing public a new crush in the form of Winstead who, with the help of a trust yellow cheerleader outfit, shows she has the style to go with that comic timing of hers.
However it's Dawson and former stuntgirl Bell who impress the most out of the all the Death Proof ladies. As Nat from the Film Experience once said about Dawson's perf here "I love it when you can see the joy in performing. I'm usually a goner if that's visible" and that's so true of Dawson. I've always been a fan of hers in movies like 25th Hour and Sidewalks of New York, but this feels like a new Dawson performance, and one that she altogether relishes the opportunity to give. It's not very often you get to perform in a movie like this in todays day and age. In the '60s and '70s roles like this would be filled with no-name hopeless actors, but not this time.
Zoe Bell is someone we've never seen act before, but she comes away with success. She just an unforced way with QT's dialogue, it's like she's just coming up with this stuff on the spot, and while it's normally hard to see the acting in action sequences - especially due to the abundance of CGI these days, some actors just can't create emotion out of thin air and green screens - the performance can be see right through Bell's face as the car she's riding (yes, riding) starts barelling outta control. What's even better is the way she goes from terrified to vengeful bunny in the blink of an eye. There is a savageness in her eyes as she attacks Kurt Russell's "Stuntman Mike" that is impossible to take your eyes off of her.
Can I just say how amusing I found it that about 90% of images from Death Proof are long horizontal pictures, as if to try and fit more of the actresses into each one.
Head on over to Supporting Actress HQ to read everybody else's fascinating pieces of the supporting ladies of '07.