The following is my contribution to Emma's All About My Movies.: The Performance that Changed My Life blogathon.... See them all at:
After pausing only briefly to contemplate my candidates for "The Performance That Changed My Life," one performance kept stealing focus -- a fleetingly brilliant bit of work that provided some of my first cues that the actressing at the edges might be what StinkyLulu loved best about the movies. Which performance? Why, of course...
When I was a wee lil Stinky, I watched Fame over and over again, back to back to back, and then over and over again. 'Twas my movie. And possibly because I watched the film so many f'n times, Anne Meara's starkly human performance as Mrs. Sherwood -- the language arts teacher for students enrolled in NYC's High School of the Performing Arts -- burrowed deep into my consciousness.
The role of Sherwood is a quintessential "actressing at the edges" kind of part, for Sherwood is essential to Fame's dramatic arc only insofar as she amplifies the narrative thread of one of the principal characters, Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) -- the thug-cum-dancer who can dance better than anyone but who can't read. Indeed, the character of Sherwood operates almost exclusively as Leroy's obstacle. Leroy's got the talent, but will he have the discipline and maturity to play by society's rules?
Meara's task, then, for much of the role is merely to be a formidable, hard-ass bitch-on-wheels. Meara's Sherwood cuts Leroy no slack and backs down from few confrontations, requiring Leroy to make the bed in which he must lay. She snarks on Leroy -- humiliates him even -- in front of the class, refusing to buckle even when he explodes in a kinetic blaze of profanity and violence.
Until of course the kicker scene. When Leroy (suddenly terrified that his grade in English might actually be important now that his invitation to join a major dance company is contingent on his successful graduation from high school) seeks Meara's Sherwood out at the hospital where her husband is undergoing some unnamed "serious" procedure. Meara's Sherwood is at first firm but dismissive when faced with this self-involved student come, to the hospital, for a little friendly grade grubbing. Then when Leroy pushes on her, accusing her of having it in for him, Meara's Sherwood explodes with sheer, agonizing fury. Her rebuttal ("Don't you kids ever think of anyone but yourself!?) stops Leroy cold, allowing him to show Sherwood a quiet gesture of empathy and consideration (thus completing his character's final step in his overcoming her as obstacle).
In most ways, Meara's Sherwood is a thanklessly supporting performance. Everything she does is in support of Leroy's character arc. But Meara mines every moment for its depth, humanity and humor. The accent, the timing, the shrieking vocality -- Meara uses it all to convey the simple fact that this woman is really good at her job and Leroy is but one of her more difficult pupils. She's neither the saintly superteacher, nor the inhuman gorgon. She's just a teacher in the NY Public School system trying to get through another day.
But what changed StinkyLulu's life was noticing the silent, stealthy intricacies of Meara's performance as Sherwood. Meara textures Sherwood's screaming fits with wordless silent moments. The flash of fear rippling her stern facade when Leroy physically erupts. The heart buckling devastation when Leroy tears into her with the oblique epithet "You people..."
Meara's performance provided one of StinkyLulu's first real lessons in the "no small parts" maxim. Hers is a charged performance that knows the soul of this character, and her work at the edges allows Sherwood to become a vivid presence that infuses the film. Indeed, when lil Lulu fantasized about potential sequels, what happened next to the Famers... Meara's Sherwood almost always showed up. (So imagine Lu's shock and dismay when defanged Sherwood actually did show up, all pretty and magnanimous, in the televisions series. Feh!)
Meara's Sherwood prolly taught little Lulu lots more than she ever knocked into Leroy's noggin. And StinkyLulu will be ever grateful to Ben Stiller's mom for crafting the character of Sherwood so intelligently and so generously -- and, in so doing, redirecting Lulu's movie obsessed gaze to those other actresses at the edges of Fame, especially those actresses at the edges of fame itself.
Thanks, Ms. Meara.