3.23.2008

Macy Gray in Shadowboxer (2005) - Supporting Actress Sundays

This week's Supporting Actress Sunday profile marks the first in what I anticipate to be a new series, "Born In...," in which I take on a performance by a Supporting Actress "born in" the year of that month's Smackdown. The hope is that this series might both broaden my screening spectrum while also allowing a bit more attention to more performances in contemporary, overlooked or just bad movies. Attentive readers among you might recall that, in my inaugural experiment for this series, I opened the voting among a list of ten actresses "Born in 1967," the year of the last Smackdown of 2007. The actresses o 1967 included such notable actresses at the edges as Laura Dern, Maria Bello, Carrie-Ann Moss, Lily Taylor and Brooke Smith, among others, but somehow the voting seemed always to tip the scales toward this week's featured performance...

...Macy Gray in Shadowboxer (2005).
approximately 6 minutes and 46 seconds
4 scenes

roughly 7% of film's total running time
Macy Gray plays Neisha, the best friend of Vicki (Vanessa Ferlito, entirely adequate here) who happens to be wife/girlfriend/babymama of an evil crime boss, Clayton (Stephen Dorff, doing his now-patented sleazy-sexy-crazy schtick with clarity and verve).
Ostensibly, Gray's Neisha marks the only connection Ferlita's Vicki has to the world outside Clayton's criminally decadent bubble. (The first shot we see of Clayton's mansion foregrounds a zebra grazing, it seems, on the grounds. Hmmm. A zebra. Perhaps a symbol of Clayton's awry opulence? Possibly a synecdoche of the film's ambivalent fascination with the psychological dimensions of interracial romance? Either way -- that's a zebra. On the lawn). Yet, while Neisha seems to be in the film to provide some emotional mooring for Ferlita's Vicki, neither the screenplay nor Gray do much with the character. She's brash; she's bold; she's sweet; she's trashy. Indeed, while her pregnant best friend's locked in a crimelord's giant house, Neisha's always a little bit drunk/high, mushmouthedly chattering about finding herself a man at Ladies' Night.
When Vicki disappears -- see, Dorff's Clayton took out a contract on his pregnant wife, which hired killer Rose (Helen Mirren in an utterly befuddled performance) is unable to execute because her late stage cancer has instigated a spiritual crisis of sorts -- Gray's Neisha arrives to the estate, demanding to see her friend.
After pounding, kicking and shrieking at the security system, Gray's Neisha confronts Dorff's Clayton directly about how badly he treats her friend. Meanwhile, Clayton's pretends to be the grieving husband, plying Neisha with promises of Pina Coladas if only she will come inside.
In a rare moment of clarity -- albeit filmed in closeup as a slapsticky sequence of double-takes -- Neisha realizes that Clayton only wants her inside so he can kill her, and with comic clumsiness (intentional, I think), Neisha hightails it away from Clayton's exotic estate.
Unfortunately, Neisha's lucidity doesn't last long and she's soon caught in Clayton's murderous web again. This time, however, another of Clayton's hired killers (Cuba Gooding Jr, as Mirren's stepson, lover, and partner in contract killing) seduces Gray's Neisha easily at the strangest nightclub I have seen onscreen in some time.
Gray's Neisha -- apparently perennially intoxicated -- thrills at the prospect of this handsome, glamorous, hunky black man plying her and her tranny friends (!) with booze. She sloppily agrees to take this "superstar" back to her place (another astonishing moment in art direction).
There, Gray's Neisha dies a simple, mildly ignominious death as Gooding's Mikey coaxes her gently through her convulsive passing.
Gray's performance is vivid and memorable, while also being only nominally coherent and virtually unintelligible. The singer's signature vocal slur reveals just how unhelpful the generally ponderous dialogue actually is. (Gray's slushy mumbling also inadvertently demonstrates how the performances by Dorff, Ferlita, Gooding and Mirren, as well as Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Mo'nique, might actually be fairly accomplished, as the words very nearly make sense when they say them.) But Gray's performance depends almost entirely on her formidable presence -- and utter believability -- as a clownish trainwreck. If Gray's Neisha is the only person looking out for Vicki, then Ferlita's character might just be lucky to have been adopted by these codependent, neo-incestuous contract killers after all. But perhaps the worst part about Gray's Neisha is that no one seems to care. About either the character -- Ferlita's Vicki never inquires about her best friend, nor does she ever discover Neisha's death or Mikey's role in it -- or about the novice actress's performance -- director Lee Daniels seems to have merely trained his camera on Gray to watch her flail in the role. As best as I can tell, the film seems content to busy itself concocting a lurid amalgamation of post-Freudian incest tropes and interracial depredations and, in so doing, utilizes Macy Gray's Neisha mostly as a memorable red herring (much like the zebra on the lawn). Indeed, the casual disregard for both the character and the actress evocatively demonstrates (though only in retrospect) that this film only looks like a noirish puzzler when it's actually a high-concept explication of strange domestic fantasies.
At least that's my best guess. I still have no real idea. Any help from y'all -- either in making sense of Gray's performance or the film as a whole -- will be gratefully appreciated...

4 comments:

Rural Juror said...

Hahahaha . . . I am so sad you had to see this.

JS said...

Apparently the director was willing to throw a Diva fit just to get the zebra for that shot in spite of the film's budget.

No offense to Helen but the movie would have been more watchable for me if they had gone with their original choice of Anjelica Houston and Ryan Philippe.

Haha, I thought this review would never go up. There's no shame in feeling weird to comment about it though. As for Macy's performance, er, uh, "moment of clarity" was one phrase I never expected you to use.

NATHANIEL R said...

hee. i admit i wanted you to see this so much because it is so unarguably strange.

i know a lot of people think it's terrible but it's utter weirdness makes me want to see the director's next movie just to see if there's something decipheral in his "vision"

Macy was my favorite part of the movie --possibly because she is so vivid as a presence and I've seen Dorff do that routine too many times, albeit without his penis involved prior to this one.

Joe said...

"Five drinks and somethin' strong, please."