The year 1971 has been described, by one especially eloquent commentator
, as "the time when it was raining Glenda Jackson movies." True 'nuf. Good times. Ho ho. But, for actressexuals, 1971 seems also to be a crucial moment in a delicious era of American filmmaking: the onset of the Epoch of Ellen. Sure, the 1970s brought any number of more sparkly, more controversial, more phenomenally popular female stars to the US moviegoing imagination, but none delivered such steady clarity and quality. And, in an unusual, possibly prescient move that hinted at all that was about to happen to this woman's career as the new decade began, emerging director Peter Bogdanovich offered the actress her choice of roles in his upcoming picture, suggesting that one of the true stars of his movie would be...
approximately 10 minutes and 31 seconds
roughly 8% of film's total running time
Ellen Burstyn plays Lois Farrow, who has -- for a very long time -- been the prettiest girl in the tiny town of Anarene, Texas.
As the movie begins, Burstyn's Lois is pushing 40 ("It's an itchy age") and bored. With her husband, her lover, her life.
What's worse is that she's faced with the realization that she's no longer the prettiest girl in Anarene. That title has finally passed to Lois's daughter, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, in a startlingly effective debut performance). Lois is perhaps the only one to truly recognize the formidable gift of prettiness inherited by her daughter Jacy. She sees Jacy's casual cruelties and calculated whimsies as no one else. For Jacy, like her mother before her, crushing the hearts of boys is neither the sum of who she is, nor the result of some previous trauma. Rather, it's just a way to pass the time, a way to stay awake until something more entertaining comes along.
Lois's problem, however, is that -- in so witnessing her daughter -- Lois also recognizes the stark limitations inherent to the power of pretty. Plus, for Lois, crushing hearts isn't so entertaining anymore. It's not that Lois wants fulfillment; rather, she's just damn sure she doesn't want what she has.
Burstyn understands Lois with an empathetic alacrity that carves the character's inner life in nearly every gesture. Her performance is clearly the work of an actor arriving to mastery of her craft.
That said, there remains something a little "off" in Burstyn's casting. Yes, she's really good and totally vivid. Yes, Burstyn nails character details that most other actresses would miss entirely (eg. Burstyn shows us that Lois rides back to Oklahoma with Sonny mostly to avoid Jacy's inevitable attention-grabbing backseat performance as the misunderstood delinquent; likewise, Burstyn makes it clear that Lois weeps for Sam the Lion mostly because he was her guiding star, always reminding her that -- in his eyes -- Lois would always be the prettiest girl in Anarene).
Yet, Burstyn's astonishing clarity of characterization, her mastery of the moments, her vivid interiority does not adequately handle the necessity of Lois's formidable exterior. In a word, I don't buy -- for a second -- that Burstyn's Lois has been brash and sassy and the center of attention her whole life. Burstyn charts Lois's interior life with apparent effortlessness but
the character's exterior drapes awkwardly. For Lois's character arc to really work, there just needs
to be more air in her hair. (Basically, I ended up wanting Burstyn to coach/direct Diane Ladd in the role; between the two of them, they would have hit it.)
Burstyn really really understands Lois, staging incredible beats for Bogdanovich's enthralled camera. (The extended moment where she decides not to bed Sonny? That should be in The Actors' Studio "Hall of Fame" right next to Brando's legendary Waterfront
glove bit.) But, in the end, Burstyn's Lois reads more like an expert demonstration of how to construct a characterization, with few of the giddy thrills that come from watching an actress truly inhabit
such an artful creation.
Labels: 1971, supporting actress