2.03.2008

Ruby Dee in American Gangster (2007) - Supporting Actress Sundays

A couple of longtime friends and I have a game we play in which we cast the movies of our lives by slotting our favorite performers into the dramatis personae of our own autobiographies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, StinkyLulu's version is a nearly all-female cast, featuring such favorite actresss figures as Kathy Bates (as MamaStinky) and Christina Ricci (as StinkySis) and this week's supporting actress (as Gramma Stinky). Now, GrammaStinky isn't black -- though the two women do bear an at times uncanny resemblance -- but, ever since discovering her in the late 1980s, I've been amazed at how profoundly this week's supporting actress holds just the right mix of delicacy and fortitude, of beauty and plainness, of glamorous elegance and everyday normalcy. They're the same age, stand the same way, and seem to catch the bus to crazytown with similar frequency. Indeed, and in so many ways, this lady just is Gramma Stinky. All of which makes it ever more treatsy to witness, this year, the full display of the formidable gifts of...
approximately 5 minutes and 42 seconds
13 scenes

roughly 4% (3.6%) of film's total running time
Ruby Dee plays Mama Lucas, the loving and hardworking mother of the "American Gangster", Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington in an obtusely stentorian turn as the iconic druglord).
In this cynical riff on the "American Dream," director Ridley Scott uses Dee's Mama Lucas for one specific purpose: to show that Frank Lucas loved his mama. Dee's Mama Lucas is a simple woman, the hard-working mother of many sons. Her presence in the film works to underscore Frank Lucas's humble roots in Jim Crow North Carolina. Dee's Mama Lucas becomes the emotional key for the film's mapping of Lucas's meteoric rise to, briefly, an apex of American organized crime: Frank Lucas may have robbed, cheated, murdered and indirectly caused the ruination of untold thousands of lives but, through it all, he loved his mama, who almost certainly made a great apple pie.
As Frank's guiding star, Dee's Mama Lucas has two main beats in the film. First, Mama Lucas is the inspiration for Frank's striving ambition. He puts her in an enormous house, completely furnished. The furnishings include a bedroom set, the reproduction of the set removed from the Lucas home when Frank was but a child. In this scene, Dee offers the first of her only two speeches. She's breathless and stunned by the extent of Frank's thoughtfulness: "But you were only five when they took it away." In this moment, anchored by Dee, the film's vision of Frank Lucas finally becomes clear: in his striving, Frank Lucas seeks to right some deep historic wrongs, wrongs done to himself, his family and his people. Just as quickly, director Scott secures Dee's Mama Lucas symbolic status within the film, as the embodiment of both everything good Frank does and of the depth of his vengeful pride.
The second beat for Dee's Mama Lucas comes when the gorgeous house that Frank's built begins to tumble down. Mama Lucas and Frank's wife Eva (the curiously cast Lymari Nadal in a consistently effective performance of a gruesomely underscripted role) are humiliated when the family's opulent home is raided by Detective Trupo (a deliciously slimebag turn by Josh Brolin) and his goons. Here, the symbolism of Dee's character shifts in valence. No longer does she provide a reminder of everything her son is striving for; instead, Dee's Mama Lucas helps to underscore how far Frank Lucas has gone off track.
When Dee calls Frank out on how he has misused his privilege as head of the family, her speech -- and its memorably culminating gesture -- emerges as one of the greater arias of 2007. What begins as a fluttery, mildly apologetic "talking to" transforms into an elemental smackdown. In its brevity, Dee's scene is devastating, an expert distillation of parental devotion, disappointment and despair.
Dee's smackdown of Washington contributes one of the film's only emotionally honest moments. (Indeed, fold Dee's work in with the film's other best supporting actress work - that of Carla Gugino as Crowe's estranged wife - and you have the beginnings of an actually interesting film.) But on its own, Dee's work is both wispy and sturdy, offering what is at once an evanescent glimpse of the film's heart and creating the film's most enduring emotional impression. Plus, at barely five minutes and clearly less than 5% of the film's running time, Dee's work seems nearly negligible... Which is why StinkyLulu's choosing to view this nomination as Frank Lucas himself might - as a small token to right the casual cruelties of past wrongs. I've written about Dee's extraordinary work in an egregiously overlooked 1961 performance before and, were Dee's late-career acknowledgment for that role alone, it might be worthy in and of itself. (But it seems to me that Dee's nomination for Mama Lucas provides an ever more direct answer to the slight of not being nominated in 1991 for her comparably elemental performance as the devastated Lucinda Purify in Spike Lee's underrated Jungle Fever.)
Ruby Dee's work in American Gangster is solid, worthy and memorable. And even if -- in and of itself -- it might not always seem like actressing of the edges for the ages, it's definitely a tasty cherry on the top of a really great cake she spent nearly seven decades baking. All of which is to say, (a) I'm just fine with Supporting Actress nominations being used to honor a lifetime of great work; (b) moreover, in the case of Ruby Dee, it's a worthy performance at the culmination of a truly extraordinary and largely untrophied career; and (c) I think Dee's probably the frontrunner for trophysnagging come Oscar day.

11 comments:

James Henry said...

While I don't think Dee was bad or anything in "American Gangster," I just can't find anything to get excited about in it (except for that bitch slap...that was a winner). I wouldn't mind if she won, for nostalgia's sake, but it would certainly be an inconsequential one.

And yippe to you for mentioning Dee's amazing work in "A Raisin in the Sun." That is one of the most embarrassing snubs in Oscar history- that performance is legendary.

whip-smart said...

The SAG win really did solidify it: she's gonna win the Oscar.

Nick Davis said...

I really don't think she is. I'm wrong all the time, but I don't think the Academy is nearly as tempted to reward the veterans as they used to be (if Alan Arkin's competition had been as rich as this field is, he wouldn't have won), and frankly, I don't think Hollywood is nearly as attuned to the Dee/Davis legend as they would need to be to make this gesture. I'd happily eat my words, but she seems more SAG's style than Oscar's.

StinkyLulu said...

I'm not sure she'll take the trophy but I think she's a stronger contender (in that McCain way) than anyone might have expected. I have no idea, really, but, for some reason, I keep thinking that Dee's emerging as that peculiar kind of 2nd choice candidate who sometimes sneaks through to take it. The Blanchett-lash seems to have gained mainstream steam in the last weeks... We'll see. But I see Dee snatching it from Cate before Tilda or Amy, with Saoirse the outside spoiler now...

Cal said...

Dee and her character definitely deserve to be utilised better. She has an impact, no doubt, but I really don't think she does much more than anyone else would have.

As for the win... she's looking strong, but I'm not sure people have forgotten about Amy Ryan. Cate was the obvious celebrity victor for the Globes. Dee was the obvious elder career prize for the SAG's. I can't help thinking AMPAS might just return to the real bait with Ryan.

NATHANIEL R said...

people hate on me for my part in the Blanchett-lash but the way i see it that Best Actress nod for Elizabeth killed her chances at her second win.

even people who weren't sick of her were suddenly "ugh. she's been rewarded enough!" and it's that best actress nod that did it.

StinkyLulu said...

CAL: But I have a strong feeling that people have very different views on which performance is "the real bait" in the 2007 field. For some it's Amy; for others it's Tilda; for others it's still Saoirse; and for still others it's Cate's award. I'm just not sure, but it definitely doesn't feel as sewn up as it did a month ago.

NAT: You may have been at the vanguard of the Blanchett-lash but it does seem to have gone mainstream with this pair of nominations. My first reaction to the double nom was "it's over, she's got the trophy," but seeing the wave of Blanchett-lash swell since, I'm back to wondering. I keep thinking about Sigourney Weaver who was supposed to be a lock for Working Girl (the same year as Gorillas in the Mist). Cate really is her generation's Meryl, who experienced her own backlash of sorts a couple decades back.

Alfred Soto said...

have you guys forgotten what happened to Gloria Stuart's "career recognition"?

StinkyLulu said...

Not to mention Bacall's...

BUT Dee's never been a Hollywood icon (Bacall), or a particularly lost treasure (Stuart). Dee, like Holbrook, has been trouping along the whole time, so it's a different lifetime of achievement, a different sort of career to recognize (hence, the SAG win). Plus, Dee has a strong cohort of support from the indie generation that "discovered" her through Spike Lee's reanimation of both her and Ossie Davis's career in the later 1980s.

whip-smart said...

I wish I was older and smarter.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

Dee gives, what I think is the second best performance in this category; which is very strong this year. (Aside from Ronan, in my opinion).

I don't think she's going to win, statistically speaking. Blanchett has double nominations, and she's going to win one of them. I think the only people to lose both of them were Weaver, Thompson and Moore. So I think she has a very good shot at winning.