12.04.2006

Lee Grant in Shampoo (1975) - Supporting Actress Sundays (Snow Delay Edition)

In 1974's Smackdown, Canadian Ken suggested that Bergman's preposterous win that year might have resulted from Hollwood's residual guilt for previous bad-deeds. Ken wrote, "Once the moral climate thawed out a bit, Hollywood never seemed to stop apologizing to Ingrid Bergman for the Rossellini era tar and feather treatment." (Indeed, few other explanations seem as plausible.) It seems quite possible that 1975 might have also been a year in which Best Supporting Actress became the platform upon which Hollywood made another amends, but this time Hollywood's previous mis-deed was the blacklist, and this apology went to...


...Lee Grant in Shampoo (1975).
approximately 18 minutes and 35 seconds on-screen
10 scenes
roughly 17% of film's total screen time

Grant's nomination for Shampoo came nearly a quarter century after her first nomination in 1951 (for Detective Story), the same year in which her refusal to testify against her husband before HUAC landed Grant on the blacklist, effectively ending her film career for most of the next two decades. (Grant, however, continued to work during this period, most notably on stage and in a handful of New York based anthology tv-series; further, Grant's work as a member of The Actor's Studio sustained her enduring legend/reputation as one of the "survivors" of the blacklist.) Perhaps as a result Grant's 1975 Oscar for Shampoo seems to implicitly carry extra meaning for many -- as the moment when Hollywood finally "did right" by Miss Lee Grant.

In Shampoo, Lee Grant plays Felicia, the wife of a power-wielding politico named Lester (Jack Warden in a fascinating performance) who's slumming only a little by sleeping with the town's most sought after hairdresser, George (Warren Beatty). Grant's Felicia is but one of the women -- which includes Lester's wife, daughter, and mistress -- "squired" by George during the 24-hours or so depicted in the film's narrative. (Shampoo's basically a comedy of reciprocal cuckoldry; it plays like a Restoration-era stage comedy reset amidst Hollywood's glamorous life circa 1968, with Beatty playing the swinging, pseudo-countercultural rake. Mix in a smidge of wolf-in-fairy's-clothing/3'sCompany-style homophobic gags and stir...)

Grant's Felicia is the kind of woman who wears a mink as a housecoat as she makes a big show of wilting under the weight of all her responsibilities (fittings, hair appointments, etcetera, etcetera). At first, Grant's Felicia seems to be at the center of the elaborate web of infidelity that the film mines for social comedy and, for much of the first half of the film, Felicia labors under the assumption that she's the engineer of an ingenious (if passive-aggressive) public-humiliation revenge stunt against her adulterous husband. Grant plays Felicia's scheming with a giddy girlishness, adorning it with an almost shocking naïvete. In Grant's performance, Felicia's petulance is that of an innocent girl so caught up in her own grandiosity that she has no idea what's about to befall her. By thus playing Felicia as Scarlett-before-the-Ball, Grant deploys the character's shrewd, selfish, nervous, cloying, calculating self-absorbtion effectively -- and almost endearingly -- to convey Felicia's underlying vulnerability and desperation.

It's almost a neat hat-trick.

But Grant's performance -- which works so well when the narrative's first half allows Felicia to exist entirely within the bubble of her own fantasy -- nearly evaporates when that bubble bursts in the second half of the film. Grant's Felicia, so intricately self-involved, seems to dissolve when she must encounter and (gasp) interact spontaneously with another character other than Beatty's cipher. This becomes a real problem in the film's more farcical sequences. While Grant does her damnedest to bring some gravitas to Felicia's discovery that both the men in her life are smitten with the same "other" woman (Julie Christie, in an often deliciously clever performance), Grant's characterization misfires almost completely. Instead of sustaining Felicia's tics and pouts and fussinesses, Grant drops them altogether and resorts to a curious assemblage to steely glares and shrill ranting asides. And sadly, Grant's iron-squint of fury proves no match for Christie's languid melancholy. (Notably, these same sequences provide Goldie Hawn necessary room to redeem the pathetic nagginess of her character, which Hawn does and does very well.) But with Felicia -- a character that might have wrought comic gold from every, and especially the final, gesture -- Grant delivers a curiously and righteously grim performance. It's strangely sad work, surprisingly off-pitch and short-sighted for a trophy snagging performance in what is said to be one of the smartest comedies of the 1970s.

Of course it helps no one that Warren Beatty delivers a nearly incomprehensible performance in the central role of George. Beatty plays George as an utter dimwit, a man so befuddled by his own occasional thoughts that he's stymied by the simple obligations of daily existence. (Of course, Jonathan of Bravo's reality-tv show Blow Out -- thirty years later -- invests shocking fact in Beatty's unlikely fiction, but that's neither here nor there.) George's ostensible "genius" derives from his singular focus on pleasing women, through hair-dos or horndogging, but Beatty misses something -- the rank competence required of a hustler perhaps -- and overplays George's dimwitted distraction into a kind of angst-hole. It's an undeservedly self-congratulatory performance and it nearly derails the film.

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7 comments:

jbnyc said...

Hi. I just want to tell you that I discovered your blog last night through Nathaniel's (had looked at his once a long time ago). Well, I didn't sleep last night between the two of you. Really, I went to sleep at 10:30 am. Fascinating. Such great writing and criticism, it really floors me and makes me jealous that I can't write better (or dissect a film better, for that matter).

So, I have the honor of being the first to respond to your Lee Grant post. For some reason, she's always fascinated me. It has a lot to do with her hair. It's kind of never changed from 1971 til now. Also with the fact it didn't look like she aged from 1970 until 1980. But I guess that was before the successive (just guessing) face lifts started to look not so good. But I don't want to harp on that. She's such a better human being than Joan Rivers, I shudder to think I'm writing about them in the same paragraph.

I also love the quality of her voice, the fact she was an Actor's Studio and Sanford Meisner trained stage actress. I also think she was a most sophistacted beauty.

Of course going from the highs on stage (actually I don't know what her highs on stage were - perhaps Detective Story which she re-created on screen) and screen (The Landlord, Plaza Suite and Shampoo) to the mind boggling bad decisions/I'll do anything for a paycheck era of The Mafu Cage, Damien Omen II (a nice Jewish girl, no less), Visiting Hours and Airport '77 (actually considered by some to be the best of that franchise) is also something that fascinates me.

I remember seeing that Oscar broadcast in 1976 (little me, having just turned 12 and wishing I could gussy myself up in a Scassi and hang at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) and distinctly remember my dad saying her name, before the winner was announced . I guess that's what made me want to go see the movie. And the fact it was about hairdressers. And Julie Christie’s drop dead reverse-page boy (or whatever the fuck you call something that fucking fabulous and the even more drop-dead sequined backless gown). Stranger still is the fact my father, of all people, guessed correctly. Or even cared. Or was watching at all. When I first viewed Shampoo, I probably didn't understand the underlying themes. I was probably in high school at the time, after it had been released on video. Subsequent viewings however, make it one of my favorite films of the 70's. Absolutely heartbreaking and haunting. And, there at the very beginning scene, was the lovely Ms. Lee Grant croaking out “You’re very weird, George!” and “A pancreatic ulcer? That’s very serious.”. Love huh.

So, what interested me about your take on her performance here was the fact you weren't crazy about it. And then I really started to think about why I was so enamored with her, since this was esentially my first exposure to this actress. And then I started to second guess myself about why I like certain performances, and God, am I really that impressionable that I think an Academy Award automatically certifies a great performance. Well, I'm ashamed to say, yeah, in this case, I was.

But, taking your criticism of the performance into consideration, I think you're right. Her tone in the second half at The Bistro does take a turn from the way she played it in the first half. And that's something I never considered before, and I never would, because I'm not as smart as you.

But, if I can allow myself to think for myself, perhaps Felicia's knowledge of George (Warren) sleeping with her daughter (from what I can tell I think she realizes Lorna has just bopped George), combined with the slap in the face of Lester and George BOTH slippin’ it to Jackie (Julie) just might have been enough to send her into the state of shock as she plays it here. And she probably also figures out that Jill (Goldie) is in the mix too, just as a bird poop topping to a really shitty night.

Anyway, seconds after Felicia realizes (I think - let me know your take on it) that Lorna (played so well by Carrie Fisher in her first role) has just bopped her lover, Felicia, in a libidinous, desperate frenzy mounts our hero while still in her headscarf, sunglasses and mink. Oh God, do I love that scene where she takes off her pantyhose while still wearing everything else and practically rapes him while all he wants to do is take a nap. For me that scene alone was Oscar worthy. And I don't care about how good Lily or Ronnee was in Nashville. And, sometimes, although an award for a role that most likely was given as an apology seems an affront to some, I say Lee, I think this was your shining moment. I love you! And StinkyLulu - I think you're a gem. You have a new number one fan. I can’t WAIT for the Smackdown!

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks, JBNYC, for your generous response. First I do think it's a great mystery whether Felicia "gets it" that Lorna did her stud. Based on my screening, I'm inclined to think she doesn't. One of the more interesting things about the movie is how most of the women characters are doing George to get back at someone, but the someone typically's oblivious to it or just doesn't care.

But that moment, where LG squinches her face, all "why is George in your bathroom, Lorna?" is perhaps my favorite in her performance. I'm inclined to think that Felicia, deep down in her shallowness, KNOWS but her elaborate denial-dependent schemes don't let the realization penetrate: so she MUST have George penetrate, right then, right there.

That moment/transition is indeed the apex of her performance and I'm sorry the subsequent scenes feel so disaggregated. It's not that her choices don't make sense; it's more that they're just not very interesting.

I'm so glad to hear your POV on this performance though. I've actually been craving some comments on my write-up -- so thanks so much. (And from what I can tell, you analyze and write about film very well.)

Hope to hear from you more soon...

newland said...

I wasn't really impressed by Lee Grant in Shampoo either, but 1975 is supposed to be a weak year and she was definitely owed for some reason.

I recently watched Shampoo and found that Grant's performance was good but not great. I found it effective enough but there wasn't anything that made a difference between this performance and many similar performances for similar characters.

What I really loved in Shampoo, nevertheless, was the priceless contribution of the two leading ladies, who gave Beatty a run for his money. I was specially taken by Goldie Hawn, playing quirky for the umpteenth time but in a sweet, delicate manner I had never seen in her before.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I recall Grant in Shampoo fondly, and I'm not sure how big a part the Blacklist issue was in her win, as she'd been up for The Landlord a few years before and lost. I also think Felica totally gets George took daughter Lorna up on her offer (it's the Grant Shampoo moment I remember the most vividly).

Newland, If you haven't seen Hawn in The Sugarland Express, watch it and prepare to be blown away. If the movie had been a bigger hit, I'd think she easily would have competed for Best Actress that year (1974). She completely forgoes her loveable dimbulb screen personna in Express, giving an amazingly perceptive and rich performance (I'd love to see her take on a challenging character role again, and hit it out of the park).

StinkyLulu said...

Grant's competition in 1970 was much tougher (Hayes, Kellerman, Stapleton & Black) but, given the reverence Grant gets from the Actor's Studio set and the hard line she always took against Kazan, I'm still firmly of the mind that there were many in Hollywood who felt (& still feel) Grant was denied the career acclaim she deserved.

Also, having rescreened the Lorna moment since my last comment here, I think it can go either way. Indeed, its strength as a moment is that it allows multiple interpretations. (Not unlike Anne Hathaway's Brokeback phone call...)

Vertigo's Psycho said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vertigo's Psycho said...

Speaking of the 1970 nominees, Stapleton, Kellerman and Black provided the "tough competition" (performance-wise) for Lee's excellent Landlord work, yet Grant lost to one of the worst performances ever to win (if Bergman received one star across the board for (I think) her entertaining Express work, how will the smackdown judge Hayes when 1970 rolls around? To give Hayes credit, in her autobiography she states she refused to watch the film, and feigned illness the one time friends tried to force her to view Airport).