...Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
approximately 23 minutes and 14 seconds
roughly 24% of film's total running time
Morton's Hattie is definitely mute (possibly as a result of a childhood illness), allegedly a half-wit (but there's little actual evidence of that), and basically adorable (check out those hats). After a date of boating, driving and rat-shooting at the dump, Penn's Emmet invites Morton's Hattie to his room to "hear him play the guitar" (clearly the jazz guitarist's variation on the old saw "come up to see my etchings"). Once in the door, Emmet -- unsurprisingly -- begins to put the moves on Hattie, who -- more surprisingly -- responds by yanking first her own and then Emmet's clothes off with a delighted, even aggressive, abandon.
Emmet soon congratulates Hattie on her coital good fortune ("I'm told I'm a wonderful lover") as he demands that she dress and leave promptly. Hattie obliges, but not before presenting Emmet his guitar. He plays. She begins to dress. And in an instant, Morton's Hattie begins to fall in love.
As a flower seeks the sun, Emmet is drawn to to the warmth of Hattie's affection. And so begins the unlikely love story between Hattie and Emmet, a relationship that provides the central axis for Woody Allen's delicately macho romantic comedy, Sweet and Lowdown. Several other romances manifest in the telling of this stale, courtships in which Penn's Emmet captivates such formidable dames as Molly Price, Gretchen Mol, and -- most substantially -- Uma Thurman. But Morton's Hattie proves to be "the one" who forever challenges the dimensions of Emmet's big-talking, bullying heart.
Morton's performance draws upon Hattie's childlike simplicity by crafting Hattie as a startling compass for emotional truth. Where Emmet is a hustler who manipulates and cheats as effortlessly as he breathes, Morton's Hattie is utterly without guile (though not without appetite for both food and for sex).
Morton's Hattie is unswayed by Emmet's bluster and bravado. His "bullshit" bothers her none. But his actual lies? They hurt her to her core, the pain of each calculated untruth registering as if it were a physical blow.
Of course, even as Hattie's clarity and emotional integrity is precisely what attracts Emmet to her -- Hattie is ostensibly the "sweet" to Penn's "lowdown -- her tender directness is also what ultimately drives Emmet away.
For her part, Samantha Morton inhabits Hattie's silent clarity and wordless integrity with endearing wit. Indeed, while Thurman and especially Penn are adept and amusing with their more loquacious characterizations, Morton's plangent silence reverberates most memorably. Morton's shifts -- from astonishment to hunger to easy bliss -- in the "who's seducing who sequence" early in the film are masterful, and she ably calibrates Hattie's preternatural innocence in ways that illuminate the character's humanness.
Morton holds her own, to be sure, opposite the gale force of Penn's bluster, working at the edges to build a characterization that is active from a character scripted to be entirely reactive. But even Morton's savvy performance can't ameliorate the creepily misogynist tinge to Allen's construction of Hattie as idealized idealist. (In this world of Allen's and Emmet's, the perfect woman is to silently wear her transparent emotions on her adorable face...and, of course, it would help if she were incapable of talking back.) Finally, and through no fault of her own, Morton's performance, while adeptly adorable, remains somehow negligible.