7.22.2007

Frances McDormand in Mississippi Burning (1988) - Supporting Actress Sundays

In some ways, screening Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning upon its original release marked the last gasp of my moviegoing innocence. 'Twas a big Oscar baity picture, addressing a historical topic for which I had recently discovered a true passion (cultural history of race in U.S.), and directed by the director of my favorite movie ever. But boy howdy what a stinker. Walking out of that theatre, I still remember trying to reconcile my high hopes for Hollywood with my roiling disgust at how much the film had gotten so cruelly wrong. 'Twas a crisis of faith, actually. See, I was still in the habit of meticulously adjusting my opinions to match a picture's critical praise, obliging myself to live up to the Hollywood hype. With Mississippi Burning, though, I was forever done with such nonsense and ready to move off the Hollywood grid entirely. Still, though, I felt I had to retrieve something redemptive from the experience I had just suffered. And so 'tis little surprise that I gratefully claimed...

approximately 14 minutes and 3 seconds
15 scenes
roughly 11% of film's total running time

Frances McDormand plays Mrs. Pell, the wife of a sheriff's deputy in a hick Mississippi town. Mr. Pell (Brad Dourif, in one of the few effective male performances in the film) is a dimwit racist bully, who's too busy beating down black folk and setting fire to their shackalack homes to notice that (a) his wife is bored in their marriage and (b) that she loathes his every racist step.

McDormand's Mrs. Pell (we never learn her first name) is an extraordinary creation. Forget about spinning a hay into gold, sewing a silk purse from a sow's ear, turning water into wine...THIS performance is a supporting actress miracle.

The role is an idiotic Hollywood fantasy: the "simple Southern white woman" who knows well the racist logic of her community's ways, who's mindful of the violent predisposition of her male relations, and who does a teensy little thing that (in the logic of the film) becomes an extraordinary act (which also instigates the resolution of a lumbering plot). We've seen this character's flip side in Smackdowns before -- remember Cara Williams' "The Woman" in 1958? -- same character-slash-plotdevice, different moral register.

But somehow McDormand survives her miscasting (I say switch Park Overall into this part) in this lamely constructed role (she always just happens to be there), rising above the generally stupid dialogue (postcards from Des Moines?! wha?!) and the incomprensibly oblique romance between McDormand's Mrs. Pell and Hackman's freakishly implausible Rupert (they have about as much chemistry as two headless department store mannequins).

Amidst the crashing embers of Parker's film, McDormand's Mrs. Pell emerges a living, breathing characterization -- the closest thing there is to a "person" in the whole movie. What's more, McDormand seems to accomplish this almost independently, with little legible support from the surrounding apparatus of white machismo that animates this film.

McDormand's accomplishment is not so much that she's especially good in this part. Rather, McDormand's achievement is just how good she is when given so little to do. The movie's a simple-minded melodrama with stick puppet characters and a big fire budget (did Parker have to take the title so literally?). But somehow McDormand finds a strand of emotional reality and holds onto it for dear life. And, in so doing, McDormand's Mrs. Pell becomes as a life-preserver to which a desperate audience might cling while trying to survive this awful awful awful movie.

It's more an extraordinary accomplishment than a great performance, but hey -- Franny's actressing at the edges here definitely proved a beacon of just how formidable a screen performer McDormand would soon become.

3 comments:

MRWEAVER said...

THIS FILM IS I AGREE SOMETIMES BIAST ALL THE BLACKS ARE PORTRAYED AS GOO AND ALL THE REDNECKS BAD,I FELL HACKMANS CHARACTERISATION IS ONE OF HIS STRONGEST MUCH LIKE BILLY BOB IN MONSTER'S BALL,HE HAS VERY GOOD CHEMISTRY WITH MCDORMAND,SHE FOR ME IS A CYPHER SOMEONE WE WANT TO BE IN OUR CONCIOUSNESS,HER ONE GOOD SCENE "YOU GROP UP WITH IT YOU MARRRY IT" IS EXTREEMLY WELL PLAYED BUT WE NEVER SEE HER OTHER SIDE SHE IS SIMPLY GOOD AND LIKE THE OVERRATED VIRGINIA MADSEN IN SIDEWAYS SHE DOES NOT COME ACROSS AS BELIEVABLE THAT IS NOT A CRITIC OF FRANCES WHO IS GOOD IN THE PART BUT OF THE CHARACTER AS WRITTEN,IT IS TRITE WE KNOW FROM THE MOMENT SHE APPEARS WHAT HER CHARACTER ARC WILL BE AND WHEN WE FIND OUT WHO HER HUBBIE IS THE DEAL IS DONE,SO IN CLOSING FRANCES I AGREE MAKES THE MOST OF HER CHARACTER BUT DOES NOT MAKE AS MUCH OF AN IMPRESSSION AS SUCH OVERLOOKED EPOLE AS MERCEDES RUEHL IN MARRIED TO THE MOB,DIANE VENORA IN BIRD,LENA OLIN AND JUILETTE BINOCHE IN THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING.

Anna said...

Well, now - you've really got me thinking. I've only seen this movie once - when it first opened - and remember liking it. And I must confess - I didn't remember Frances M. was even in it - and she's a favorite of mine. Mmmmmm

StinkyLulu said...

The main issue I have always had with the film is the way in which all the black folk are either noble stoics or screaming hysterically -- the film imagines no agency for black people in the civil rights struggle. The racist rednecks, the naive FBI guys, and gene hackman between get all the play and all the "agency"...

It's just annoying. And all the exploitative gruesome violence just puts it over the top for me...