Maureen Stapleton in Interiors (1978) - Supporting Actress Sundays

The following (tardy) Supporting Actress Sunday profile revises and slightly expands on a previous treatment of Maureen Stapleton's nominated performance (viewable here).

Interiors -- Woody Allen’s singular tragedy -- is often alleged to be the filmmaker's barely oblique homage to Ingmar Bergman. To be sure, Allen's assemblage of contrasting female protagonists, his conspicuous use of mirrors and window panes, and the preciously posed profiles (not to mention the sparse decorative palette) might as well be screaming in Swedish. Plus, the movie's just ponderous...unremittently lugubrious...nearly unbearable really. (As Criticlasm is fond of wagging when the subject of Interiors comes up: "Will someone please tell a joke!") To StinkyLulu's mind, though, Interiors is one of Allen's most important films, a collection of character sketches and tone poems that cleared the auteur's stylistic forest for the genius of structure that would sprout eight years later with Hannah And Her Sisters (1986). But where Hannah manifests a palpably Chekhovian dramatic sensibility (an architecturally configured universe of characters, all impassioned mediocrities, staggering about and occasionally bumping into each other), Interiors is savagely Strindbergian (a dramatic world in which even the arbitrary intimacies of life bear jagged edges). Indeed, in Strindberg (as in Interiors), the mere fact of human connection threatens emotional violence. But unlike Strindberg, Interiors boasts a character who radiates life at its most exuberant, a character who proffers the threat of hope...

approximately 11 minutes and 33 seconds
12 scenes
roughly 12% of film's total running time

Maureen Stapleton plays Pearl, the twice-widowed woman who arrives more than half-way through the narrative and whose sweaty warmth blasts the film like a tropical storm.
The new "squeeze" of the recently divorced Arthur (E.G. Marshall), Stapleton's Pearl is an affront to everything Arthur's daughters expected of their father and a repudiation of everything represented by their mother. (Geraldine Page, in a Best Actress nominated, mannered shriek of a performance is Interiors's voracious Medea-mother, sacrificing her children, devouring them for the lost love of of their father.) Stapleton's Pearl is something else entirely...

...a stark contrast that Sarah Vowell describes as:

“Geraldine Page is all beige this and bland that so her husband divorces her and hooks up with noisy, klutzy Maureen Stapleton, who laughs too loud and smashes pottery and wears a blood red dress to symbolize that she is Alive, Capital A." (Assassination Vacation, 5)

As Pearl, Stapleton demonstates her uncommon capacity to be palpable on screen; Stapleton's Pearl creates a sense of immediacy, of presentness, that slices through the internalized, emotional caul that so stultifies everyone in Interiors. Indeed, Tropical Storm Pearl blows into this family of the walking wounded -- each of her adult stepdaughters tenderly nurse their emotional scars as evidence of their lifetime of slights and disappointments -- and becomes a cleansing, healing breath of life.

Into this family of intellectuals who argue over plays and architecture, Maureen Stapleton’s Pearl blazes with comedic contrast like the proverbial bull in a china shop (even destroying some heirloom crockery along the way). Throughout, Stapleton's self-deprecating but confident Pearl becomes an astonishing creature, as rare and exotic as a unicorn in this family, as a woman much less concerned with being "right" than she is with embracing her choices with enthusiasm and verve. Stapleton's Pearl heralds the potency of a life fully-lived, proof-positive of the possibility of healing -- and, as such, her arrival tosses the whole family into a fresh disequilibrium.

Stapleton's performance as the loose, sloppy Pearl emerges as a marvel of precision. Stapleton shows that Pearl's zest for living isn't so much an act of bravado or denial but the best choice available to this woman. Consider the moment when Mary Beth Hurt's Joey shrieks and calls Pearl an animal. Stapleton's stricken expression communicates (in an electric instant) not only that Pearl's capable of being hurt, but also that she's been hurt before, that -- like her namesake gem -- Pearl's lively luster is the product of grinding life experience.

But, in this same moment, Stapleton's expression communicates that Pearl's perhaps the only one to recognize the depth of Joey's hurt, how Pearl's the only one able to hear Joey cry out in deathly pain.
And just as Pearl breathes life into the nearly drowned Joey, so too does Stapleton's performance infuse this odd Woody Allen marvel with a profound and powerful force...

...investing Interiors with a powerful, strange subtext of humility and gratitude. Indeed, Maureen Stapleton's performance as Pearl in Interiors stands as perhaps StinkyLulu's favorite performance by one of the best actresses ever to thrive while actressing at the edges...

1 comment:

criticlasm said...

Stapleton is such a powerful presence. I recently saw the re-release of Reds, and remembered her being in the film much more than she actually was. I've heard many others say the same of that performance, and of this one. 11 minutes surprises me, since she leaves such an impression.