Meg Tilly in Agnes of God (1985) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Psycho-procedurals seemed to be all the rage in film and theatre in the 1970s and early 1980s. You know the genre: a delicate young person experiences some extraordinary devastation, withdraws into some interior world before committing some extraordinary mutilating act (self, horses, babies). The narrative begins as a psychiatrist arrives on the scene to "figure out" why this kid did what they did, an investigation which structures the ensuing hours of revelation, discovery and -- of course -- hypnotism. Of course, those amazing hypnotizing therapists have delivered stage/screen drama since at least the end of WWII, but by the late 1970s they seemed to be everywhere. Blending together even: Ordinary People in the Convent. Agnuus. Suddenly Last Summer in the Nunnery. Agnuts. Getting Out of the Habit. In 2007, Daniel Radcliffe's reanimating the genre across the pond, but, in 1985, 'twas...

...Meg Tilly in Agnes of God (1985)
approximately 38 minutes and 10 seconds
17 scenes
roughly 39% of film's total running time

For Easter Sunday, it seemed only appropriate to profile Agnes of God, a modern miracle/morality/mystery play. Most simply, Agnes of God explores the dilemmas of faith, truth, and sanity as it tells the story of a French-Canadian novice nun charged with killing her newborn baby and stuffing it in a wastepaper basket. Very loosely based on a true story, Agnes of God is the kind of story that would likely never make to the stage or cinema today, and would instead likely take a quick detour to Lifetime, premium cable or a branch of the Law & Order franchise. (Notably, writer John Pielmeier -- who adapted his own play for the screen -- has taken just such a route into television docudrama.) But as a piece of theatre, built as it is around three exceptionally rich female roles, Agnes of God remains a staple in community theatres, scene study classes and speech tournaments to this day.

@20:07 - "Except bad babies cry a lot. They make their fathers go away."

It's a tight 3-actress ensemble, awkwardly expanded by Pielmeier and director Norman Jewison for film. The character of Dr. Martha Livingston, the neurotic chain-smoking therapist (played here by a brittle and shrill Jane Fonda), is clearly the lead, with Mother Miriam Ruth as her co-lead (Anne Bancroft in a prickly bullying performance). But the star of the show will ever be the titular character, Agnes (Meg Tilly) -- a luminous novice in Mother Miriam's order.

Mother Miriam believes Agnes to be "an innocent" (and thus a vessel of God's grace) while Dr. Martha's inclined to think her merely insane (and thus an easy mark for predators and zealots alike). Both tend to agree that she's something of an idiot (in the clinical sense, of course), and Agnes inspires maternal tenacities in both women.

@1985 seconds - Mother Miriam: You've got to eat something, Agnes.

Meg Tilly's casting in the essential role of Agnes is one of those remarkable coincidences of timing, where an actor's abilities seem to perfectly converge with a role. Tilly was about the right age and fresh from a big hit, blessed with an extraordinary face and with a distinctive voice prone to fascinating, idiosyncratic cadences. On first blush, Meg Tilly seems to just exude Agnes's essential weirdness, and that naturally beatific pieface looks fabulous sticking out of a habit. But Tilly's Agnes is a half-great performance. In "real" scenes, where this weird little nun is talking to Dr. Martha or Mother Miriam about her life and her thoughts, Tilly fully inhabits Agnes's shy girlish weirdness, her vocality and mannerisms clipping together to make all kinds of spontaneous sense. (And to make Fonda look even more like a mislaid mannequin and Bancroft seem like a constipated warthog.)

But Agnes is more than just a person; she's also a showcase, requiring an actor to ricochet between drooling stupidity, childlike wonder, shrieking hysterics, and supernatural visions. When Tilly's Agnes edges near suppressed memories or lapses into a religious vision -- the unreal realities at the heart of both the character and the dramatic action -- Tilly's limits as an actress are conspicuous. When Agnes's mind transports her beyond "reality", Tilly's voice tipples in a high-throated breathiness. Her chin lifts inexorably upwards. Her narrow eyes bulge. And the rapid stream of dialog that follows is marvelously evacuated of any and all meaningfulness. It's really quite extraordinary -- every scene starts with a bang and then poops out just as quick to become almost completely uninteresting. And it's not that Tilly's not trying; you can see she's acting her balls off. Tilly's just way out of her depth. It's like watching a synchronized swimming routine performed by someone who just learned to dog paddle. And, because of the architecture of the dialog, there's little Bancroft or Fonda can do but watch and listen as Tilly flails.

Tilly's spectacular failure in the role is interesting, because StinkyLulu remains convinced that Meg Tilly absolutely "gets" Agnes. Further, Meg Tilly's ability to be charismatic, freakish and still all at the same time works perfectly for a screen Agnes. (Indeed, StinkyLulu's not at all sure that Amanda Plummer's legendary stage performance could have transferred to film with the necessary delicacy that Tilly brings.) Because, truly, Tilly's Agnes often fills the screen beautifully. But as perfect as Tilly sometimes appears in the role of Agnes, most of the character's missing from her actual performance. As such, with so many elements in place but never quite coalescing, Tilly's Agnes is a curiously poignant trainwreck -- probably as much director Jewison's fault as Tilly's own.


mistyh92104 said...

Hi Lulu!

I really appreciated your words on "Agnes of God". It's been 20 years since I've seen it, but I recall my disappointment, much of it resulting from the performances (though I'm certainly not letting Mr. Jewison off the hook).

Can you imagine what might have been with the original B'way cast of Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Ashley (!), and Amanda Plummer?

If only.....

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks Misty.
I recall a similar disappointment way back when...

I'm not a huge fan of Page, and am not sure of Ashley (!) -- her replacement (Lee Remick) seems perhaps perfect for the role & I would have just loved seeing her play the Dr. But the missed opportunity of Plummer seems just so very unfortunate. I was reminded of how powerful her cameo in Garp is...

Rebecca said...

Very interesting. I'm going to watch the film and know more about it.