9.30.2007

Mary McDonnell in Dances with Wolves (1990) - Supporting Actress Sunday

Thanks are in order, lovely reader. For, without you and your preponderance of votes for 1990, StinkyLulu may just have gone to the great beyond having successfully dodged Kevin Costner's epic elegy to the American frontier. (Lu's assiduously avoided this film for nigh on two decades.) But whatta concoction. Costner's film -- a fantasy picture in the guise of an historical epic -- braids all the traditions of mythmaking that developed around the American West: the captivity narrative's titillating thrill of white womanhood transformed; the Romantic's delight at the moral tutelage provided by the "Noble savage"; the teleological alibis of "The Vanishing Indian" and "Manifest Destiny"; the frontier landscape as visual allegory; a folk heroic outlaw whose moral compass operates as corrective to the missteps of "civilization." Costner crammed all that -- and a friendly wolf -- into this four hours of utterly sincere fantasy. (Lucky Lulu didn't realize until 'twas all over that Netflix had sent the extended version which -- at 3 hours and 56 minutes -- added a whole hour to the theatrical version. Lucky lucky Lulu.) So, thank you, lovely reader. Without you, I would have likely never in a gazillion bazillion mamillion years never ever screened this film. True, my gratitude should not be mistaken for pleasure. But I'm reminded that Supporting Actress Sundays is all about taking me cinematic places I wouldn't necessarily go on my own, depending on actresses at the edges to be my trusty guides. And, with Dances with Wolves, y'all forced me out of my comfort zone while also providing me a formidable, impressive guide in the performance of...

approximately 35 minutes and 45 seconds
40 scenes

roughly 15% of film's total running time

Mary McDonnell plays Stands With Fist, a white woman living among the band of Sioux that Costner's Lt. John Dunbar discovers as his neighbors in the Great Plains.

We first see Stands With Fist when she's wracked with grief at the death of her husband, a warrior killed in a confrontation with a rival band of Utes. Her keening despair is explosive, marking her immediately as somehow different among her more reserved tribesfolk. Only later, when we see her light eyes and burnished pink skin, do we (and Costner) realize that the Indian lady with the really big hair is actually a white woman.

As it turns out, McDonnell's Stands With Fist has lived among this band of Indians since childhood, when her family was killed in a vicious attack by the Pawnee. (Coster's narrative moralism exploits The Pawnee as "bad" Indians -- prone to arbitrary attacks on Indians and whites alike, easily corrupted by collaborations with the U.S. cavalry.)

Costner's Dunbar is immediately fascinated by Stands With Fist, whether through libido, loneliness or casual racism. When she becomes his translator, channeling her barely remembered childhood fluency in English, the two white folks bond as they "make white talk."

McDonnell's character exists in the narrative for this express purpose: to facilitate the entrance of Dunbar/Costner into Sioux life. As he "goes native" Costner's Dunbar has McDonnell's Stands With Fist as his appropriate helpmeet. Else Costner might have developed a really inappropriate relationship with Two Socks. Or -- perhaps worse -- an actual native woman.

McDonnell acquits herself nicely in this hollow device of a role. She animates the sketchy outlines with a human passion that makes Stands With Fist an entertaining foil for both Dunbar and Kicking Bird (Graham Greene, in a genuine effective performance). McDonnell also handles the language of the role with exceptional acuity, allowing the cadences and musicality of Sioux/Lakota to rhythmically filter her halting English. (McDonnell's attention to alien consonant configurations is especially adept.) Not saying it's accurate, mind you. I have no idea. But I admire McDonnell's evident care, respect and attentiveness in crafting a specific vocality for Stands With Fist.

While McDonnell's scenes with Costner and Greene highlight her strengths in the role, her scenes with her third main scene partner -- Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl -- reveal her limitations. Cardinal, an extraordinary screen actor who has long deserved a breakout role, conveys with a half smile, a tilted chin, a sideways glance a subtly nuanced humanity in every scene. Cardinal's role is even thinner than McDonnell's but her characterization is perhaps the most vivid in the film. Unfortunately, Cardinal's quiet efficiency reveals how fundamentally agitated and shallow McDonnell's performance truly is.

Once Stands With Fist and Costner's Dunbar/Dances With Wolves marry, though, everything really starts to get lame. And, no, it's not simply the result of the unfortunate convergence of the late 1980s with this film's production (which resulted in the curious proposition that "going native" makes a white woman's hair really really big and causes a white man to grow a monstrous mullet.)

What's worst is that McDonnell's Stands With Fist becomes, disappointingly, vacuous and beatific in her later scenes. Her feralness perhaps tamed by marriage, McDonnell's Stands With Fist stands by her man in the film's final moments, oddly undercutting her earlier performance. It's an eerie evisceration, indicating the film's paralyzed, conservative nostalgia.

McDonnell's nomination is a perfectly traditional one. As Stands With Fist, McDonnell's plays "the girl" -- acquitting herself nicely as she does -- in a technically accomplished, macho (or should I say "sensitive New Age guy") epic. The role also announces McDonnell as a formidably competent performer. So. Duly noted, lovely reader. Now, I'll thank you to never never never require me to watch Dances With Wolves ever ever ever again.

12 comments:

JS said...

Well I'm surprised that you did this first before Annette's.

McDonnell TRIED doing some interesting things in the translation scenes but for the rest,UGH. The last straw for me was when she killed that guy with the blunderbust. Talk about subtle.

By the end of the movie, I was the one standing with a fist.

Also, Kevin Costner = worst narrator ever!

CanadianKen said...

Over the years my memories of this movie have been dim and kind of negative. So I was in no hurry to revisit it. But a smackdown addict's gotta do what a smackdown addict's gotta do. Anyway, going in with low expectations, I found the movie to be a (fairly) pleasant surprise.It didn't even seem THAT long. Yes,Costner's a total snooze as a narrator. But at the time, I think, he was just perceived as another young hunk actor. Who knew he had the directorial chops to take on such a sweeping project? It does look good - and there are no real trainwrecks along the way. (Well, I could've done without Maury Chakin). But sincerity and technical skill count for a lot. I agree with you about Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene. Terrific! As for McDonnell,well she was still years away from her magnificent work in "Donnie Darko" - but already in 1990 a committed pro. She's always totally there - and obviously did plenty homework with the Sioux dialect and accent. Even in Costner's panoramic landscape McDonnell never gets lost.

Cinebeats said...

You are much too kind to this awful film and McDonnell's rancid performance in it. You're also a better person than me for being able to sit through it all.

I saw it when it was first released only because my sick mother who was dying of cancer asked me to watch it with her and I couldn't understand then why people liked this film.

I tried watching it again and just couldn't get all the way through it. It was that bad in my opinion and I kept getting distracted by McDonnell's hair and forgetting what was going on in the movie.

criticlasm said...

Which came first--McDonnell's hair and outfit in the wedding scene, or the late 80's "Santa Fe Style" that she looks like a proponent/victim of. Coyote earrings would not have been out of place. And Stands with Fist (which made me laugh for some reason the more you used it), acronyms to SWF. Coincidence? This movie seems full of it, uh, I mean them.

Bob said...

I thought it was an excellent movie. And I think that you are a complete tosser to say the least. Do something worthwhile, you boring boring man.

StinkyLulu said...

Thanks, Bob, for sharing -- your generosity of spirit is astonishing.

Frequently Asked Questions said...

I'm a little surprised by some of the negative comments. As an Oglala Lakota, I don't have a problem with the film itself, and more with the director Kevin Costner. The language was preserved and used properly. Doris Leader Charge, who coached Graham Green, Kevin, and Mary and many others on how to speak fluent Lakota, did a very thorough job. Doris, long passed now, was also a friend of my family.
This film had many Native consultants and a few historians, and most scenes were authenticated by historical values, and some were not. The ones that weren't, were scenes that Kevin insisted on. Nathan Chasing Horse, another friend of my family who played "Smiles a lot" has told many of us about his experience with this film, which is mainly positive.
If you read the book "Dances With Wolves" by William Blake, you will find that the story is actually about the Comanche, not the Lakota. Kevin switched tribes because the Lakota, are more "popular", which does bother me. In the book, Stands DOES have wild hair. They costumed and groomed Stands as she is described in the book, as a woman with wild and naturally wavy hair that is uncontrolled. Kevin's mullet however, I agree is silly. But that reflects the time period of the early 90's where this hair style was popular. Not a good choice. In reality John Dunbar would have really long hair or cut very short up the nape of the neck.
I cannot account for much racism in the film, except for where Kevin is the white hero, come to save the day with his guns and his military "expertise". When we talk about the Lakota and war, the Lakota did not need any white man's coaching on how to fight. That part of the film was ridiculous because the Lakota was the first tribe in history to strategically win a battle at Little Big Horn. Unfortunately, Kevin should have read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and he would have read of this battle and the intelligence of the Lakota in battle. I digress.
I do feel that Mary Mc Donnell did her performance of Stands very well. Once I read of her character I could see this, and her effort into speaking Lakota as well as she did. Lakota is one of the hardest languages to learn and speak next to Tsalgi. Tantoo, in my opinion is such a brilliant actress, it is too bad that Black Shaw did not have enough speaking parts.
Now on to the main issue I have with Kevin Costner, and his brother: Kevin was adopted by one of the families of the Looking Horse clan of the Lakota after this film was completed and viewed by hundreds of Natives. Many Natives loved, and still love many aspects of this film and support it. However, Kevin has made some serious errors in his behavior and judgement by buying plots of land in the Black Hills area (A land that belongs to the Lakota, and a land that is held captive by the Govt still, as we will not take money for this land, it is HOLY, very holy to us) The Costner brothers have bought up land and either hoarded it or have built casinos on it. This is painful to the people to see, and we feel he has turned his back on us in a way by supporting the continuation of the loss of our Black Hills. We were shocked when he did this and we hope that he will only become a supporter again.

I_Fortuna said...

Wow, too bad you did not see this when it came out. I loved it and at the time it was very appreciated as I recall. Costner, mind you, in this role was good but has since been a big disappointment to me. It just shows that you don't have to know how to act to become rich you just have to look good and fake it.
Back to Mary. I love her and I think she is a terrific actress. She gets my vote for President and it is always a pleasure to see her work.

Vibroverb said...

So true! Great job of casting. She had an 80s haircut with highlights, layers and bangs. To make look messy, they teased it with a comb. Ruined the movie for me.

Diana Trimble said...

Brava Stinky Lulu! Brilliant and well-written review! I managed to go even longer than you did without seeing this film. (23 years!) I have always found Kevin Costner just the most unbelievably unconvincing actor and avoid his films unreservedly plus I was sure the film would fall into all the cliche narrative revisionist fantasies with a stirring Hollywood cinematic score and OTT love story so it has remained at the top of my "must miss" list since first release. But after 4 days at home in bed sick having watched pretty much everything on the BBC iPlayer and having rejected Dances with Wolves numerous times, I eventually decided, with pretty much the same reasoning as Stinky Lulu: there will never, never, never be another moment in life that I will even consider watching this film, so it's now or never. I went on to reason that it would also allow me to share a little bit more common ground with another sector of the human population: people who have seen the movie Dances with Wolves. And oh my goodness, I too am strangely satisfied by this outrageously implausible near-spoof of a flick. Wow! I am in awe of how Costner became such a huge movie star and managed to have ego-stroking vanity pics like this one built entirely around a series of increasingly ridiculous acts of selfless heroism starring himself and his unmoving, slightly pissed-off looking face. Jayzus! He must have sucked Satan off for a week. What is it that gets him the parts? The lack of charisma, the bland looks, the nerdy voice, or the whiter-than-white arse? As noted by many, his narration has to be one of the most unexpressive in film history and sounds exactly like a stoned surfer kid with learning difficulties reading aloud from someone's diary they found at summer camp. Unlike McDonnell who did at least try to put something into her vocal identity as a character (and I really liked the way Lulu phrased that observation, well said m'dear), Costner made no attempt to even emulate a period-specific accent or mode of speech whatsoever. I kept half expecting him to ask the Indians how to say "chill out" in Sioux. It was as anachronistic as McDonnell's pouffy Jennifer-Anniston-in-a-Hurricane hairdo! What on earth!? Whilst I appreciate the erudite views of Frequently Asked Questions, above, on the book's character having been created as with wild hair, that hairstyle was not naturally wild but obviously teased into shape and expertly cut and layered. I used to live in LA and I know an expensive tousle of hair when I see one. The Sioux had precision barber scissors? As a woman with naturally curly hair, I know how unkempt things can get in the great outdoors, but that hairstyle was simply not the result of anything in nature. More like 8 gallons of Aquanet Superhold! Oh I could go on and on but I'll leave it at that. The oddest thing about the absurd spectacle that is Dances With Wolves is that although I was conscious of the fact I was watching a really terrible movie the entire time, I absolutely could not stop myself. Perhaps if I'd been lumbered with the super-length version Lulu had to watch (Costner's ego is a thing of impressive immensity) I might not have gone on, but I found that I was able to make it to the end of the 2:48 length version, no problem at all. I even rewound a few bits for extra laughs. Interestingly, it was exactly at the moment Lulu pointed out as when things go seriously downhill (the wedding, 2:08 in my version) that I paused to go online and see what other people were saying about Mary McDonnell's unusual performance and character in this film. Glad I found your blog and will read you again!

Unknown said...

I don't think people, before the turn of the last century, actually realized how wrapped up they had been, and still were, in shaking off the overwhelmingly insane influence of hair stylists of the 70's. While anything is possible, the likelihood of this captured white woman being so So-Cal upper-middle class and looking as if she had just stepped out of a Beverly Hills salon & spa, is absurdly low. One has only to spend 15 minutes reviewing period photos of women of the time to see there's no comparison (which seems glaringly contrary to the authenticity of the tribe people's attire). Even having spent 19 years or so with the Sioux, she would have at the VERY least have done her hair and accessories in a similar fashion as the other women of the tribe!

Other problems include:

The size of the tribe was WAY TOO small!! It would need to be at least 10 times that size to be of any consequence at all.

What if the film had chosen the Pawnee to be the "good guy" loving tribe instead? Would the Sioux be the heartless savages? Just the luck of the draw or maybe that the Lakota Sioux is still a very large existing group as where the Pawnee are not? I guess the more politically viable Sioux have a more recognizable status that's often elevated to "noble" status in Hollywood.

At certain points I started to wonder if there were only 6 or 7 warriors in the entire tribe? The battles must have been barely noticed by anyone.

And why does the same actor have to play all the "evil" Indians in every movie ever made after 1980?! He was evil in the The Last of the Ms and here he is again!

Unknown said...

I don't think people, before the turn of the last century, actually realized how wrapped up they had been, and still were, in shaking off the overwhelmingly insane influence of hair stylists of the 70's. While anything is possible, the likelihood of this captured white woman being so So-Cal upper-middle class and looking as if she had just stepped out of a Beverly Hills salon & spa, is absurdly low. One has only to spend 15 minutes reviewing period photos of women of the time to see there's no comparison (which seems glaringly contrary to the authenticity of the tribe people's attire). Even having spent 19 years or so with the Sioux, she would have at the VERY least have done her hair and accessories in a similar fashion as the other women of the tribe!

Other problems include:

The size of the tribe was WAY TOO small!! It would need to be at least 10 times that size to be of any consequence at all.

What if the film had chosen the Pawnee to be the "good guy" loving tribe instead? Would the Sioux be the heartless savages? Just the luck of the draw or maybe that the Lakota Sioux is still a very large existing group as where the Pawnee are not? I guess the more politically viable Sioux have a more recognizable status that's often elevated to "noble" status in Hollywood.

At certain points I started to wonder if there were only 6 or 7 warriors in the entire tribe? The battles must have been barely noticed by anyone.

And why does the same actor have to play all the "evil" Indians in every movie ever made after 1980?! He was evil in the The Last of the Ms and here he is again!