5.04.2008

Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted (1999) - Supporting Actress Sundays

As attentive readers will easily recall, one of my least favorite journalistic boilerplates is what is sometimes called the "Supporting Actress Curse" -- the spurious notion that a Supporting Actress nomination (or, heavens forbid, win) for an unknown or emerging actress threatens to doom a career. I won't dispute Oscar's notoriously mixed blessings (so stop sending those hate emails, Cuba!), but I do think tacking any "Oscar curse" onto supporting actressness smacks of a (possibly misogynist) disregard for the realities of the relative lack of decent roles for formidable women on screen. As such I remain stalwart in my resistance any attempts to "marry" my beloved Supporting Actresses with this specious claim, and I am pleased to enlist as support for my counterargument this week's "Best Supporting Actress" winner...

...Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted (1999)
approximately 36 minutes and 18 seconds
35 scenes
roughly 29% of film's total running time
Angelina Jolie plays Lisa Rowe, the most popular sociopath at Claymoore Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in the suburbs of Boston in the later 1960s.
Jolie's Lisa first makes her formidable presence felt when she returns to Claymoore after a couple weeks "out." (We come to learn that such forays are not uncommon for Lisa, who has been hospitalized at Claymoore for much of the previous decade.) Everyone at the facility - staff and residents like - turns out to welcome Lisa "home," everyone except Susanna (Winona Ryder in what is certainly one of her most effective performances) who's both new to Claymoore and occupying the bed previously occupied by Lisa's best friend.
So begins the courtship of Lisa and Susanna, a mildly eroticized friendship that provides the core emotional dynamic for the film.
Jolie's Lisa serves as the "alpha psycho" for a motley crew of young woman who share little beyond "girlhoods interrupted" (by childhood trauma, sexual abuse, eating disorders, compulsive behavior, pathologized queerness and the like). Performed with intelligence, humor and humanity by an excellent female ensemble, most of the young female characters are their diagnosis: the lesbian (Jillian Armenante), the anorexic (the f'n amazing Angela Bettis), the compulsive fabulist (Clea Duvall), the childlike burn victim (Elisabeth Moss). In the aggregate, these young women pose what is perhaps the film's most direct -- and not at all original -- challenge: in a society gone mad, is being crazy the only "sane" response? In contradistinction to the rest of their cohort, however, Jolie's Lisa and Ryder's Susanna are not "legibly" ill. Sure, Lisa's a little wild, and Susanna's a touch depressed but...are they really sick? This is the mystery that Girl, Interrupted undertakes to ostensibly resolve, with Jolie's Lisa as the prime specimen put up for dissection.
Is Lisa a righteous rebel?
An irreverent truth-teller?
A thrillseeking rabblerouser?
Or is she an unrepentant sociopath, as she has been diagnosed?
Ryder's Susanna is utterly captivated by the mystery of Jolie's Lisa, falling a little bit in love with this seemingly fearless young woman apparently capable of anything.
The two hit the road, late one night, on their way to become living Disney princesses at the newly constructed theme park in Florida, when they pause for a pitstop at a recently "recovered" friend from Claymoore who now has her own apartment. Once outside the relative security of Claymoore, Ryder's Susanna begins to doubt the trustworthiness of her friend, especially when Jolie's Lisa taunts and torments the pathetically vulnerable Daisy (Brittany Murphy in a decent but unsubtle performance), long one of Lisa's favorite targets.
Lisa's torment bears disastrous consequences and the episode abruptly ends both the anticipated roadtrip as well as, possibly, the friendship between Lisa and Susanna.
For her part, Angelina Jolie crafts a characterization of Lisa that is appropriately entrancing and terrifying. Jolie is smart, here, to not worry too much about why Lisa does what she does but to instead emphasize the intensity of feelings that she instigates for herself an in others.
In a numbed out psych ward, Jolie's Lisa provides a vivid breath of energy and life and the film and actress are both adept at capturing how everything that's so exciting about Lisa inside the institutional haven of Claymoore transforms into something toxic and scary outside of it. Likewise, the role and the film require Jolie's Lisa to hit a particular range of captivating attitudes. As such, it can be difficult to not see in every one of them the makings of what have, in the near decade since this film's original release, become a repertoire of Angelina Jolie clichés. She's never bad, but she's not always subtle or deep -- and, with familiarity, some of these affects bear the impression of affectation.
That said, Jolie's characteristically palpable emotional clarity provides propels this film in memorable ways and it's to her credit that Ryder -- an actress who's lapsed from favor as quickly as Jolie has gained it -- is able to steer the film so ably with her lucid, solid performance as Susanna.
Angelina Jolie's trophy snagging turn as Lisa probably does not represent 1999's best actressing at the edges. Nor is this performance on a par with Jolie's more excellent recent work. But Jolie's work in Girl, Interrupted remains fascinating, elemental and adept -- and stands as an exemplary exception to any supposed "rule" that attention from Oscar early in one's career is simply a curse.

7 comments:

Nick Davis said...

I don't believe the "curse" either (you're clearly right that the real culprit here is the paucity of decent roles for almost any actress, especially an artistically ambitious one), but I guess I don't disbelieve it as strongly as you do? Or, at least, I'm not sure Jolie is a slam-dunk as counter-evidence. She went from winning three Golden Globes and two SAG awards and an NBR breakthrough award and a pair of Emmy nominations, all in three years, to being in a long line of pretty bad movies, few of which would have been offered her without the Oscar. She's sorta had the Sharon Stone career, stretched out for a longer time: famous for being famous, and for her pretty profound philanthropy, but until A Mighty Heart (her Casino, but with almost a decade since Girl, Interrupted), she simply hasn't had a role that's measured up to her breakouts. Look at all those Taking Liveses and Beyond Borderses and Lara Crofts and Bone Collectors and Life or Something Like Its on Jolie's resumé. Could this possibly be what voters were expecting/hoping when she was packing all that awards heat in '97 through '99? Again, the ranking villain is the general scarcity of meaty of roles... but I do think that when many actresses win Oscars, lead or supporting, Hollywood is suddenly startled into how little they have to furnish these women, and they cast them willy-nilly, in the heat of the awards-buzzy moment, in a slew of sh*t for which they are especially ill-suited, and which no one would have thought of them for before the Oscar (Helen Hunt in What Women Want? Mira Sorvino in The Replacement Killers?) and which effectively kills any momentum in their careers, or in the public's willingness to take them seriously (which is not a benchmark these performers had to worry about quite so much before they had Oscars).

CanadianKen said...

As chance would have it,I watched this movie for the very first time last night. So I was happy to find your fresh from the oven assessment - all ready to be savoured. I'm sort of on board with your upbeat remarks re Winona Ryder's work here. I can honestly say I've never been less unimpressed with her.That's about as far as I'd go though. As for Jolie, well the role absolutely required charisma and intensity, both of which she supplied in barrels. Oscar curse? No way. I mean what are the expectations for a supporting actress Oscar winner? That she become a big star, appear in a string of critically admired box-office hits and win lots more Oscars? That doesn't happen to many people. Besides which, lots of supporting actress winners are older, character players. And I'd say only an attractive young woman who wins really has much chance of sustaining full-fledged leading lady stardom. I don't think "Girl, Interrupted" was much of a box-office hit. If I recall, critical reaction was generally cordial, but hardly ecstatic. Jolie was singled out for praise. And when she won her Oscar, nobody asked for a recount. After which she graduated to leads, becoming and remaining a top-tier movie star. I think it's safe to say at least part of that fame comes from what she's done onscreen. Some of her films have made less money than "Girl, Interrupted". Several have made a lot more. And even in the relative duds, she's usually attracted nice personal notices.
(I love her in the first Lara Croft). And I suspect Angelina Jolie and Oscar probably haven't seen the last of each other.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I'm a fan of Jolie, no mistakes; and I think this film is one of her weakest critically acclaimed works. (Which probably doesn't make much sense, but alas.) I liked her a lot better in Gia and George Wallace than in this, and her best performance by far is in A Mighty Heart.

Despite that, I still think this is the best supporting actress of 1999. I could proudly claim that this was the only time that Oscar got it right. Until Tilda. (Yay!)

However, for me, Angelina Jolie has a rare presence that I haven't found often in films. She elevates a film simply by being in it, or, at the very least; makes it more watchable. Tomb Raider is probably the best example of this, a film which I actually enjoy rather guiltily but is made so much better because Jolie is in it. (The affection I have for the one scene she and Voight share together is particularly embarassing.) I think it's amazing that she uses this presence to help craft performances that are insanely watchable.

All that rambling said and done, I love this performance, even if I don't think this is Jolie at her best.

criticlasm said...

On the whole SA curse thing, I think you hit the nail on the head with the observation that there are simply not roles for women once people realize how strong they are. Generally, as you pointed in Jolie's perf, it's a performer whose particular quirks/mannerisms are particularly suited to a role (Angelina's "look at me I'm crazy!" thing); a respected performer who does something truly extraordinary to a commonplace role (my faves--including Tilda this year); or a real newcomer who is surprising but hasn't shown what she is really capable/not capable of (or what someone I know would call the young tomato--Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino). So now that they've won an Oscar there is a lot of expectation, and either it's a disappointment (Tomei, Sorvino), or just a loss as to what to do with them. As you point out, there is a dearth of interesting roles for women, and though it's heartening to see that the main female leads in two summer blockbusters have gone to a couple of interesting actors (Paltrow in Iron Man and Gylenhall in Dark Knight) that you would not normally associate with actresses of their caliber, it's interesting to note that we will look forward to their performances as addding a little cache and hopefully an interesting spin on a stock role. You could actually argue the same for Robert Downey, Jr. and Christian Bale.
But instead of a curse, I would lay the blame in the same place as you--a lack of interesting/challenging roles. The same happens on B'way-there with the leading ladies: Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Donna Murphy, Julie White, Idina Menzel--the list goes on. These womena are anointed stars, and then there's nothing for them to do. They're now "headliners" with no show to headline. I think perhaps that would be Oscar curse if any--lack of roles coupled with lack of consideration. Marcia Gay Harden said it took her a few years to bounce back since scripts just stopped coming. That, to me, is interesting. Does winning an Oscar make you untouchable/unapproachable, and for supporting actresses, does it make them too big a name for the roles they work so well in? Intersting questions for me in today's (more) personality driven film business.....

criticlasm said...

PS And actually, I don't think Marisa Tomei is a disappointment--I take that back. I like her as a performer, but I don't think she's really had that much come her way it seems like.

Anna said...

Thank you - oh thank you! for pointing out that - duh! - perhaps the lack of decent roles for women MIGHT have something to do with the so-called CURSE!

sorry - you struck A NERVE . . .

Michael Parsons said...

I will say this now. It was Toni Colletts's Oscar. (Jolie was co-lead)