One of the more thrilling aspects of doing Supporting Actress Sundays is revisiting treasured films and rediscovering everything I loved about this or that wondrous performance. Ironically, this same kind of reencounter can also deliver the opposite result, as when I return to a film or a performance about which I only have fond memories, only to rediscover it as a profound disappointment. It's a particular kind of heartbreak, really. A heartbreak to which performances from the later 1980s and early 1990s -- the era in which I commenced early maturity as a cinemaniac -- are especially vulnerable. Indeed, as at least one example from this era has already demonstrated, my experience with treasured but unexamined performances from this era can bear the brunt of a peculiarly personal disappointment. You know, that kinda sadness that happens when you visit that totally inspirational teacher a few years later only to realize they're spouting half-baked platitudes? It hits almost like a betrayal, really. All of which has made it all the more difficult for me to really dig in and discuss...
approximately 34 minutes and 46 seconds
roughly 26% of film's total running time
roughly 26% of film's total running time
Annette Bening plays Myra, a short con hustler in shiny hotpants, who's fallen in with small-time con Roy (the coy John Cusack in an underrated, accomplished performance). Myra's looking for a partner with whom she can get back in the big money game and she's not interested in wasting time.
Stephen Frears' film is mostly appreciated as a neo-noir comedy and it is precisely that, at least stylistically. As a narrative, though, The Grifters seems to me to be more a curious cross between greek tragedy and a game of Three Card Monte, wherein each of the three principal characters are playing a deadly game with fate.
Frears introduces Bening's Myra as she runs what we learn is the character's basic solo con. Myra's dumb bimbo act deftly permits some schlub to think he's the smart one while actually allowing Myra to pocket the cash. Whether for a couple thousand, a cool million, or rent -- this is Myra's game. She's good at it and she knows it. Yet, she also knows she needs a partner to take the con to the next level, and that's where Cusack's Roy comes in.
Bening's Myra has seduced Roy as reconnaissance. She's sniffing him to see if he's half the grifter she thinks he is, and boy does she want him to be. Thus, the core narrative conflict of the piece. The most interesting thing about Bening's Myra is the most substantial part of The Grifters. Each of these cons know better than to let their emotions in on a scam they're running but, here at least, they just can't help it.
Bening's performance is efficient and calculated, much like the character she plays. Bening conveys with clarity and economy both that Myra's knows way more than she's letting on and also that Myra's more than a little desperate.
Bening plays Myra as a post-feminist moll, a smart woman who's built an effective bimbo persona as part of her scam, toying with men's testeronic stupidity as she rakes the cash. In crafting this characterization, however, Bening makes a couple basic choices that really limit the character's clarity and depth.
Vocally, Bening opts for the tinny chirp of her higher register, reserving her duskier alto for those moments when Myra's bimbo mask is down (like that quick beat at dinner, a tiny bit in the taxicab or the final confrontation with Roy). It's a sensible choice: bimbos sound ditzier when their voices are pitched high. The only problem is that Bening has little nuance and range in that higher register, and the choice confines most of the pattery dialogue to a glib handful of notes delivered at breakneck speed.
Additionally, when Bening's playing Myra The Dumb, she relies a dully inquisitive stare, augmented at times by a giddy twinkle of flirtatious excitement. A sensible choice too, but one which again forces a distance between what Bening's trying to do with the character and what the script obliges her to do onscreen.
This tension between Bening's approach to the character and the character as written, unfortunately, becomes a disconnect in Bening's performance. By making sure that her Myra is no dummy, Bening sets us on an anticipatory edge, greedily waiting for Myra deliver on those smarts. But, as written, Myra's just not as smart as she thinks she is, not by half. She's just another two-bit con hustling for a big score and, as fate would have it, she comes out on the bum end of her biggest con. All of Bening's seemingly apt choices become an ill-fitting ensemble for this character, a disconnect that divests Bening's Myra of actual personhood, real menace, and genuine thrill.
This disconnect transforms Bening's most haunting moment -- when Myra spies herself in the motel mirror -- into one of her most vacuous. It's an unfortunate constellation of features, making StinkyLulu's reencounter with Bening in The Grifters perhaps the most disappointing return visit yet.