Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (2007) - Supporting Actress Sundays

In the two years I've been doing Supporting Actress Sunday profiles, I've come to feel that there are several external features that go into making an "ideal" supporting actress performance. Now, I'm not talking about the especially baity stock character types who appear again and again among nominees in the category. No, I'm talking here about some key structural elements -- the features I would emphasize to any writer, director or actor seeking to construct a "perfect" nominate-able performance. It's all about appropriate proportions with maximum possibilities. First, the perfect Supporting Actress role must be both a legitimately supporting character and also absolutely essential to the narrative; ideally, she should instigate crucial developments in the main plot or central characters while also never edging too close to the spine of the story. Second, the character must have her own moments; she should possess a genuine autonomy, neither simply ancillary or ornamental nor so distracting as to overshadow the central performances. Finally, the character should be a part that almost any good actress could play well while also being a role textured with enough roomy contours to enable a better actress to be truly great. It's a simple -- but elusive -- set of features indeed. Yet I am pleased to offer as example of such a "perfect" Supporting Actress role the one portrayed this year by...
approximately 18 minutes and 36 seconds
14 scenes

roughly 16% of film's total running time

Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, a powerfully ambitious attorney who, having just taken her greatest leap up the corporate ladder, has also just stepped in a steaming pile of corruption.
Swinton has perhaps the most vivid first scenes of any of this year's nominees. After a crabby Sidney Pollack hollers "Where the **** is Karen Crowder?," we discover Swinton's Karen experiencing a pit-staining panic attack in a stall in the ladies room. In this brief, electrifying scene, Swinton wordlessly conveys the full depths of an as yet unknown despair (one that the audience will slowly, steadily, come to appreciate as the film's slow burn finds its boil).
And what does Swinton do as follow-up to her flopsweating bathroom break? Only the most exhilarating bit of screen acting StinkyLulu encountered in 2007. Swinton's Karen, in one moment, is rehearsing her answers to the set of questions she'll be answering at a press conference later that day while, in the next moment, she's offering more polished versions of the same answers to the cameras.
Karen's stuttering monologue both establishes the fact of Crowder's recent promotion to Chief Corporate Counsel while also providing necessary exposition about her company. But it's not simply the brilliant intercutting that anchors the tension of this sequence; it's also Swinton's adeptly crafted continuities between the rough and final drafts of Karen's self-obsessed performance of herself. Within this utterly banal corporate speak, Swinton gives us a fully textured portrait of Karen: a workaholic whose entire identity has become collapsed with her ability to do, and be praised for, her awful job.
In these two opening scenes -- at opposite ends of the narrative, thanks to Michael Clayton's savvily looping flashback structure -- Swinton provides a palpably emotional underpinning for all that is yet to befall Karen, a corporate automaton built to destroy.
In building a frighteningly unstable emotional foundation for Karen (we're always on the edge , wondering if her shell will just crack at any second), Swinton is able to make zippy work of the corporate intrigue required by the plot.
Whether misreading Clooney's Michael Clayton as a negligible hack...
Or contracting with a shady operation to do some dirty deeds...
Swinton maintains a simple clarity. For Karen, her job -- and everything related to it -- is more than a matter of life and death. It's not just that she has some daddy issues with her boss. It's not just that she has no life outside her own head. It's not even that she can barely dress herself. Rather, it's something simpler, something simply terrifying: without the carefully constructed illusion of her exceptional competence, Karen is nothing. For behind that mask, Swinton's Karen knows she has no self, no soul, no nothing. And it's from the threatened revelation of this fact that Swinton's Karen so desperately flees.
Almost any decent actress could have made Karen Crowder workable, even memorable. But where Swinton elevates the role is in distilling Karen's motivations to their essence. Instead of crafting some subtextual psychological alibi for Karen's workaholism (as most very good actresses might have done), Swinton smartly chooses to play the character's desperation as purely elemental, an animal need for survival. All of which makes the grim pleasure of Karen's actual devastation all the more thrilling.
In her final confrontation with Michael Clayton (George Clooney, better than he's ever been), Swinton's Karen Crowder does truly get hers. But rather than making Karen's downfall a simple act of spectacular humiliation (yank the dragonlady's wig and watch her squeal!), the film takes a smarter, scarier path: Karen's forced to understand how badly she's miscalculated her adversary.
And it's through Karen's abjection -- collapsing in a blur ("see if the she needs medical attention") -- that Swinton's Karen underscores the overarching/underlying principle of this post-modern passion play: the incalculable cost of selling one's soul for the promise of power. (In this excellent final scene, the morality play dimensions fall into focus: Clooney's Michael is Everyman; Wilkinson's Arthur is the ascending angel; and Swinton's Karen is hurtling into hellmouth.)
It's a really good part in a finely crafted film. But what Swinton brings is astonishing actressing at the edges. Indeed, Tilda Swinton's Karen Crowder might just be one of the greater nominated Supporting Actress performances. We'll just have to see whether Swinton's expert work brings Karen's redemption in the form of a little gold statue...


JS said...

And Tilda said in her BAFTA acceptance speech that this was "no sweat" to pull off.

Based on her SASS profile, she might be the first to hit all of the panelists' hearts (she's going after your record, Rita Moreno!). :)

newland said...

I'm with Tilda for the win, but I'm not so confident on her winning. People recognize her work as great, but she has been getting almost nothing from precursors (even if she has been nominated for almost everything).

I hope voters decided to award the a really memorable performance (her scenes at the stall are fantastic) in a truly memorable supporting role. Other than that, if they decided to award her because that was the only way to recognize Michael Clayton somewhere, I'm fine with that too

Michael Parsons said...

Have a wonderful Oscar night! I will be watching at 1am over here with friends! May all your favouites win (unless they differ from mine!)

Thanks for a great Oscar coverage year!!


what a great writeup.

CANNOT WAIT to read the smackdown!

CanadianKen said...

Wish I enjoyed the performance as much as I did reading your assessment of it. Beautifully done!
But I guess I just have Tilda Swinton issues. Even when cold logic tells me she's good, everything else inside me rings up a "No Sale" sign. I found MICHAEL CLAYTON good-ish. And it's true that Clooney commands the screen nicely here. I wasn't really onboard for the Tom Wilkinson show (check him out in PRIEST(1994) - he's fantastic in it). But I loved, loved, loved Sydney Pollack. That's where I would've considered a nomination. As for Swinton, I guess there's some kind of wall up between her and me. No matter how they're served up, no matter how many people tell me they're delicious, I just don't like mushrooms. And for me Tilda Swinton is mushrooms.