Mary Alice in Sparkle (1976) - Supporting Actress Sundays

It's the "Sunday After" here at StinkyLulu.

Jennifer Hudson has now entered the Supporting Actress pantheon. The return of Supporting Actress Sundays is still a whole month away. Might, then, be a good idea to use this meantime as a warm up of sorts. So, during March, StinkyLulu'll use each Sunday to profile some interesting but unnominated actressing found at the edges of a movie from each of the years under consideration for April. (Cast your vote for the roster of April's Supporting Actress Sundays in the poll toward the top of the right column.) And what better way to kick things off than reflecting on Miss Hudson's recent win by finally screening the legendary cult classic Sparkle, a film that's been near the top of StinkyLulu's "must see" list for more than 20 years.

In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker observed, "One of the best things to emerge from the film version of Dreamgirls is the release of an even better movie, 1976's Sparkle, now on DVD for the first time." As Tucker and virtually every recent commentator on Sparkle has observed, startling but superficial similarities do seem to link the two pieces: A group of inner city girl singers make a showing at a local talent show (where the MC misstates their name when introducing their debut performance). The group achieves some success but the personal problems of group's sexually confident lead singer seem to be holding the group back. After a shocking turn of events, the shy but pretty youngest member of the group takes over as the headliner and becomes a pop diva sensation. Toss in the ambience of the shadier side of the music business; a couple of charismatic men who may or may not be good for the girls; stage it with a nearly all-black cast? Like, I said superficial but startling similarities.

But this is Supporting Actress Sundays, not an excuse to lapse into some glib argument for/against the musical biopic as a "retread" genre OR to spiral into the deathly vortex of yet another authenticity debate. Rather, StinkyLulu'd rather appreciate Sparkle's endurance along a kind of continuum. (Click on each of the "red dress" pics above to catch a whiff of what I'm on about.) The folks developing Dreamgirls for the stage were obviously influenced by Sparkle. (And you too may have unknowingly caught some Sparkle, lovely reader, if you happened to notice the early 1990s pop group, En Vogue.) Curtis Mayfield's "Something He Can Feel" recurs as the most thematically complex song in the film, somewhat surprisingly emerging as Sparkle's pop anthem. Mayfield's tune is as catchy and as powerful as 1976 Best Song nominees "Evergreen" and "Gonna Fly Now," and it remains a disappointing testament to Oscar's short-sighted snobbery that this extraordinary track got dismissed as Oscar dug to the edge of eligibility to nominate an obscurity like "A World That Never Was" (from Half A House).

But having said all that, for StinkyLulu's purposes, there's an even more compelling point of continuity between Dreamgirls and Sparkle: a character named Effie, performed here with soulful, scene-stealing acuity by...

...Mary Alice in Sparkle (1976).
approximately 12 minutes and 46 seconds on-screen
15 scenes

roughly 13% of film's total screen time

Sparkle's Effie doesn't sing, shimmy or sparkle. As played by legendary stage actress Mary Alice, Sparkle's Effie is the mama. The strong, long-suffering single mother who's worked tirelessly as a domestic to support her three daughters and who now watches their arrival to womanhood (and the music business) with wary pride. Effie is a character loaded with "strong black woman" clich├ęs (the script is, after all, by that master of nuance, Joel Schumacher) and Effie's mostly scripted to, alternately, regard her children with quiet concern or get up in their face and tell them what's what. Mary Alice -- an actress who has made a career spinning such banalities of "badly written blackness" into fully inhabited characterizations -- builds something amazing with this thinly scripted character. And it's simply marvelous to watch her do it. Consider the scene in which Mary Alice's Effie assesses her eldest daughter's new beau, the neighborhood bigshot Satin, as she also finally sees her daughters perform on stage. (Click image below to be routed to video.)

Mary Alice's Effie benefits from the actress's ability to be simultaneously serene and formidable and it takes only a few quiet gestures for Mary Alice to convince StinkyLulu that her Effie could stop traffic with a sideways glance. But Mary Alice's Effie is no less substantial when speaking. The script obliges Effie to give each of her daughters "a talking to" and, in each, Mary Alice uses her raspy soprano whisper of a voice to reintroduce Effie with expertly unexpected line readings. In each of these three scenes, none of which last longer than a 90 seconds, Alice's Effie conveys her different relationship to each daughter, elegantly underscoring that Effie's not just "the mama" but also a complicated woman who's lived a complicated life. What's amazing here is how Mary Alice sidesteps the scripted stupidities without, somehow, judging the script itself. Not only does she make the lines work, but she does so brilliantly, investing each line with an honesty and clarity that defies their textual flatness. (Watch the dvd with the caption function turned on to see what I meen.) Moreover, Mary Alice takes what she needs from the "in-betweens" to build the parts of Effie's character that the script fails to provide, as when she silently rages during her eldest daughter's funeral. (Click image below to be routed to video.)

Mary Alice's performance as Effie provides a reminder of how good the actress could be on screen. (Over the years, she's developed a reputation for being somewhat prickly, even imperious, and has been accused of humorlessly "coasting" through certain projects.) But in Sparkle, it's shockingly clear how much Hollywood missed by disregarding not only Mayfield & Lonette McKee (the actress I anticipated profiling before Mary Alice stole all my attention) but also Mary Alice -- perhaps the most thrilling gem of the substantial bunch. Mary Alice's Effie is by turns strong, intense, dispassionate, strategic, loving, honest, kind and even astonishingly pretty. (The actress was in her mid30s when Sparkle was filmed; seeing her all fancied up in the film's final scenes proved a revelation.) Hers is a smart, humane performance -- excellent actressing at the edges that provides yet another reason to finally screen this deservedly beloved underground classic. Whether you loved or hated Dreamgirls, the experience of this year's Oscar cycle ain't complete without a visit to Sparkle. (Though StinkyLulu's not brave enough to undertake Glitter quite yet...)

Up next in StinkyLulu's warm-up "overlooked" series:
Julie Harris in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).


Keith said...

Sparkle just arrived from Netflix, and I adore Mary Alice to death, so this really whets my appetite!

StinkyLulu said...

It's a really interesting movie, not great by any means, but there's plenty to keep your attention...

I had planned to profile Lonette McKee as her character's really unusual, but, despite the legend that surrounds it, I found McKee's performance to be very uneven and much less engaging than Mary Alice's.

Oh, and Keith, if you figure out how Stix finagles out of the organized crime schtick at the end, let me know. I watched it a few times and I still don't undeerstand what actually happens in that concluding montage...

Alita said...

Do you have the script. I am trying to get the exchange between the middle sister and the Mom. When the daughter says she doesn't want to be a maid.