Doodad Kind of Town

In Praise of "Stealth Performers"
June 13, 2010, 8:32 pm
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With “Please Give” and her previous effort, “Friends with Money,” Nicole Holofcener has become to affluent Americans what Mike Leigh is to working-class Brits. Like Leigh, Holofcenter is a generous director – more an observer than a storyteller – who gives her actors considerable room to live and explore their characters’ lives, and unfailingly elicits stunning performances in return.

Catherine Keener, Holfocener’s favorite leading lady, is back for “Please Give,” this time as a Manhattan furniture dealer who, along with her husband, (Oliver Platt) buys up the furniture of the recently deceased from their grieving relatives and sells it at a considerable markup in her chic downtown store. Keener and Platt have also recently purchased the apartment of their nonagenarian neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) with an eye to expand their own digs, a plan which doesn’t sit well with the neighbor’s granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall).

Racked with guilt about both her livelihood and her remodeling plans, Keener compulsively hands out cash to homeless people, rails at her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) for coveting $200 jeans, and trolls the internet late at night in search of worthy causes and unfortunate people to whom she might volunteer her time. (In one painful scene, she offers her doggie bag to an African-American man standing outside a restaurant; he coolly informs her that he is waiting for a table.) Peet – surly, sassy and perpetually fake-tanned – succumbs to an affair with Platt, while Hall, the meeker and nicer sister, struggles to appease their foul-tempered grandmother.

There are no grand epiphanies for these characters, only subtle shifts in perspective, and the film feels lighter and wiser for that. Keener and Platt are, as always, wonderful, but I come today to praise the work of two other actors.

Rebecca Hall is the kind of actress I’ve come to think of as a ‘stealth performer.’ In largely thankless, low-key roles, she has a groundedness and an unstudied grace that slowly sneak up on you. Penelope Cruz may have been the most celebrated cast member in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but Hall’s Vicky – unforced and unexpectedly luminous – was every bit the equal of Cruz’ mad, disheveled Maria Elena. Here again, Peet has the showier role between the two sisters; she’s the sexy, angry smart-ass to Hall’s subdued, slightly dowdy caretaker. But Hall transforms her role into something more complex than your standard sad martyr. In her first scenes, she’s not especially sympathetic. Shut down and intolerant of small talk, she has an angry aloofness that isn’t immediately explained. But in subsequent scenes as we watch her interact with her patients (she’s a mammogram technician) and suffer through awkward blind dates, her innate goodness and decency begin to quietly shine through, until you finally realize that hers is the true and steadfast heart of the story. It’s a performance that evolves in sweet, subtle baby-steps and is all the more remarkable for that.

Another welcome presence in “Please Give” is Sarah Steele, who hasn’t been onscreen much since playing Adam Sandler’s daughter in 2004’s “Spanglish” and I was thrilled to see her return. Out of a cast of experienced performers, Steele sort of leapt off the screen in that film, playing a bright, vulnerable 12 -year-old with a confidence and honesty that were wholly original and beyond her years, yet blessedly free of precociousness. In an age of manufactured and carefully managed teen performers (yeah, I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus), Steele is astonishingly genuine and vulnerable. And here, neither her smart mouth or her aching heart are played for easy laughs or tears respectively. Although she’s pushing 22 in real life, Steele comes off authentically as 15 years old.

On the other end of the spectrum –

Peter Medak’s biting 1972 satire “The Ruling Class” has been languishing in my DVR queue for some time now. When I finally got around to it on this gray, rainy Sunday afternoon, it turned out to be a lot less than I expected.

Parodies can ruin you for appreciating good films and actors. Thanks to Woody Allen’s “Love and Death,” for example, I’ve never been able to take “Persona” entirely seriously. Forbidden Broadway’s classic “Chita Rivera is not Rita/Rita Moreno is not Chita” number, has forever impeded my enjoyment of “America” from West Side Story, the tune to which it is set.

And, long ago, a two-minute SCTV sketch made me laugh till I cried – and effectively made it impossible for me to ever see Richard Burton, Richard Harris – or Peter O’Toole – in the same flattering light again.

In the mock trailer for “The Pope Who Would be King,” we’re told that these three stars are “better than any American actors could possibly be, because they know how to use their voices!” Joe Flaherty then skewered O’Toole’s mercurial declamatory style in about three seconds, screaming to the rafters, “I want to be pope, Pope, POPE!!!” then collapsing suddenly into forlorn tears and whimpering quietly “I want to be pope.”

O’Toole’s performance in “The Ruling Class” felt, to me, very much like an extended riff on Flaherty’s impersonation. (Very extended, I might add – the film runs a stultifying 2 hours and 45 minutes). As the batshit-crazy Earl of Gurney, an aristocrat who believes himself to be Jesus Christ, O’Toole is in constant motion – alternately preaching, cajoling, raging, exulting, agonizing, singing and dancing, while his relatives look on aghast. It’s an exhausting, histrionic performance, and it’s no surprise to me that O’Toole got an Oscar nomination.

The first half of “The Ruling Class” plays like some weird bastard child of Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch and Dreyer’s “Ordet,” with a constantly labored wackiness that started to wear me out after about 20 minutes. This is the kind of movie where O’Toole segues inexplicably from quoting scripture to quoting lyrics from “Mairzy Doats,” arrives in the bedroom on his wedding night riding a tricycle, and drapes himself on a huge cross when he’s feeling stressed. Characters break into choruses of “The Varsity Drag” or “My Blue Heaven” for no reason at all. Emphasis on “no reason at all.” Yes, we all know that the British upper class is loaded with inbread nutters who are running the country to ruin. We figured that out by the time the opening credits were over. Why go on and on for another two and half hours?

Unlike my esteemed fellow blogger Greg at Cinema Styles, who loves the first half of “The Ruling Class” and hates the second, I found myself emitting a deep sigh of relief once O’Toole was “cured,” and his performance toned down into something cooler and more malevolent. For most of the film, however, I found myself longing to see more of Coral Browne. Nealry the only performer in the film who isn’t relentlessly twinkling at the audience or indulging in histrionic highs and lows, Browne commands her scenes with an cool, unflappable bemusement that is a welcome respite from the cranked-up hijinks around her. She’s the “stealth perfomer” in “The Ruling Class.”


9 Comments so far
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Patty…You gave me quite a scare when you discussed your recent hospitalization in the LETTERS TO JULIET thread. I know that there are a ton of people out there that adore you. Including me. Stay well and healthy, my darling girl. The world needs you. You've got to be here. Totally agree with you about Rebecca Hall. Though PLEASE GIVE has since disappeared from my fanciful emerald green paradise (without my viewing pleasure…), I have seen Rebecca in several other things. She barely made an impression on me in THE PRESTIGE. But I thought she had a lovely glamorous presence in FROST/NIXON. It's a throwaway part – the kind that they naturally hand to young good looking women – but she certainly made the most of it. But in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA she aptly proves your point. As I recall you weren't nearly as enthusiastic about that film as you were. But it genuinely spoke to me. Scarlett's Cristina could have been my twin. Ms. Johansson and I are the same physical type (blonde, green eyed, husky voiced, slender hourglass shape). Cristina's personality is also identical to mine: driven by her own sensuality, free spirited, impulsive, a die hard romantic. Cristina's a little more extreme than me. (I think you get my drift…) But the similarities on all counts were amazing. Plus Woody wrote dialogue for her THAT I HAVE ACTUALLY SAID. It was mindblowing. That's why I saw it seven times. Penelope Cruz was good. Deserved the nomination. Not the Oscar. But that's another story…But Rebecca Hall sneaks up on you. It wasn't until my fourth viewing that I began to appreciate her layered, multifaceted performance for exactly what it is. She's also a Brit that comes off as a completely authentic American. IMO she gives the best female performance in VCB. I think she's a terrific actor who will get her due very soon. Ah, SCTV. Watched a ton of it when I was growing up. It was all over the tube and readily available. At that age, you don't really understand the parodies or the subtext. But it was total comedic brilliance. I miss it. I'm so sorry that THE RULING CLASS didn't get to you. It used to be on TV up here in the middle of the night on and off over the decades. It's rare that you're able to catch it now. It's an incredibly obscure pleasure. But with that film and ROMEO IS BLEEDING, Peter Medak is my own personal hero. Admittedly, his sensibilities are exceedingly idiosyncratic. He's not going to appeal to a lot of people. You either admire his style or you scratch your head. Endlessly. When I first saw THE RULING CLASS as a teenager, my jaw just dropped. Love it or loathe it, it is definitely like nothing you've seen before. Or ever will again. I love Peter O'Toole to the depths of my soul. And as a fallen Catholic, when he climbed on that cross, well…I dig how it goes from wickedly inflammatory and hilarious to dark and dangerous. But if it isn't your thing, it would be one hard slog. Oh, well. There will be lots more. Some time soon we'll agree on something that we're both ecstatic about…

Comment by Miranda Wilding

"There are no grand epiphanies for these characters, only subtle shifts in perspective, and the film feels lighter and wiser for that."Aye Pat, I quite agree there, and much appreciate your beautifully-written and perceptive review that showcases some major acting talent. As I stated as my own place,PLEASE GIVE "is a surprisingly trenchant examination of social mores and neurosis in an affluent NYC conclave of urbanites, who posess an all-consuming obsession with real estate. Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet deliver excellent performances in this insightful examination of relationships between some rather unpleasant people, that reveals an underpinning of morbidity with it’s gently humanist focus. It’s a well-written piece with some acute humor that straddles the line between greed and compassion." It is amazing as you note that Ms. Steele comes off as well as she does as a 15 year old, and I must say that's an excellent proposition there about Rebecca Hall's performance matching Penelope Cruz's in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA.I guess we can conclude that THE RULING CLASS is the grandaddy of dysfunctional movies, unless, we go further back to HAROLD AND MAUDE and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. O'Toole responds at one point "Yes?" when someone intones: "Jesus Christ!" Of course, everyone sees him as the fourteenth Earl of Gurney, the looney heir to the Gurney estate, and a Lord of the Realm. Craziness is understood in such a family. Acting like God, dressing in a ballet skirt is accepted, but the outright declaration that 'I am God' is heresy, similar to the request made by the fisherman's wife. But as you rightly observe, O'Toole makes the most of this feast of a role: "O'Toole believes himself to be Jesus Christ, O'Toole is in constant motion – alternately preaching, cajoling, raging, exulting, agonizing, singing and dancing, while his relatives look on aghast. It's an exhausting, histrionic performance, and it's no surprise to me that O'Toole got an Oscar nomination."It's a corrosive, anarchic satire that I've always loved, but I can't deny it's a bit too long (as you note) and the role may indeed have liberally borrowed from the sourse you point out in an excellent broach. I haven't seen the film in years, so it would make sense to take that Criterion off the shelf and give it another whirl.And was he cured? I'm thinking of Malcolm McDowell's Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE here. Love that suggestion of a blend of Monty Python and ORDET!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Pat, again I thank you for your wonderful wrap at the Monday Morning Diary and your enthusiastic anticipation of COCO CHANEL AND IGOR STRAVINSKY, which I felt was on balance a more interesting film than the other COCO film that released months back.I'd really love to hear your sentiments.

Comment by Sam Juliano

Oh, and hope you had a glass of champagne on the Black Hawks!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Miranda -I truly expected to love "The Ruling Class" as absurdist Briish humor and wicked satire are right up my alley.My biggest complaint is that it needs to be judiciously trimmed. 165 minutes is just way too long for what this film delivers – I suspect there'a brilliant 2-hour film hiding in there somewhere. I have to admit, the idea of watching this late at night as a teenager has a certain subversive appeal – had I encounted it at that age and in those circumstances, I might have responded entirely differently.

Comment by Pat

Sam -You capture "Please Give" very vividly and aptly. (Especially with this: "…reveals an underpinning of morbidity with it’s gently humanist focus." That nails it.)I'm becoming a huge admirer of Nicole Holofcener, and I do think she handles these kinds of priveleged, affluent characters with a non-judgmental lightness of touch that I greatly appreciate. I'd not seen any of her work prior to "Friends with Money," but I'm anxious to seek it out.As for "The Ruling Class," I don't beleive O'Toole was truly "cured," except in that his behavior evolved to meet conventional expectations(even as he morphed from a harmless nutjob into something truly frightening.) In all fairness, that final sequence -with the crosscutting between the House of Lords speech and the various relatives and family adjuncts who he had gotten out of the way – was chilling and effective. And though I carp about it in my review, I actually did like that big cross on the drawing room wall that he retreated when under duress. I can appreciate that this film must have been quite a sensation in its day.As I told Miranda, my primary problem with it is just the way it goes on and on and on. Less is more when it comes to wacky/zany/crazy. I don't think any of the Python's films ran more than 90 minutes, if that. Epic-length absurdity is just way too much of a good thing.

Comment by Pat

I've enjoyed quite a bit of Medak's work over the years (with highlights being The Krays and The Changeling), and The Ruling Class has long been one I've been at the very least quite curious about viewing, and for some reason or another have just put it off time and again. I must say though, despite the fact that you don't exactly praise the film, it's re-ignited my interest, as it surely seems like one of those 'loaded' movies, ripe for discussion and interpretation, that I love so much.Please Give has been off my radar, but I am likewise compelled to seek it out after your words on it.Thanks for highlighting these films, Pat. Great work over here!

Comment by Drew

Drew -Thanks, Drew and thanks for stopping by.I don't know that I've seen any of Medak's other films, but I'd be interested to check them out. I know I've heard good things about "The Krays."Definitely look for "Please Give," it is well worth your time.

Comment by Pat

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