Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Woody Allen is one of the big five -- one of the five directors who directed eight or more actresses at the edges toward Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations. Put another way, Allen -- along with Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan -- is one of the directors in the four way tie for 2nd behind the Patron Saint of Supporting Actressness, William Wyler. And, truly, throughout the later 1980s and 1990s, one of the few certainties about Allen's erratic work was the reliable presence of a pile great actresses working at the edges of his melancholic experiments in genre. To be sure, as Allen's work careened through the later 1990s, the scripted limits of his female characters also became ever more conspicuous. Somehow, though, such limits did not stop remarkable performers from spinning their own gold from Allen's brittle straw, as is the case with...

...Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
approximately 23 minutes and 14 seconds
22 scenes
roughly 24% of film's total running time
Samantha Morton plays Hattie, the "dumb" girl who captures the heart of the ostensible hero of Woody Allen's tenderly "faux" musical biopic, Emmet Ray (Sean Penn in a fun performance that's nearly giddy in its lightness).
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.


whip-smart said...

I look forward to seeing this - it's up the list somewhere on my queue... I've never been impressed by Samantha Morton - she's appeared to me like a *slightly* less manipulative Emily Watson half the time, and she was drop-dead awful in 'River Queen', which I saw at the premiere and hated.

JS said...

It felt like Silent Era acting to me, the way she used her eyes and mouth to convey easily her emotions to the audience.

Uma Thurman had a great first two scenes. All that useless intellectualizing to understand Emmet Ray's crudeness was amusing until apparently that was all she had to make her character interesting.

criticlasm said...

Do you mean the performance is ultimately negligible, or the character? You bring up an interesting question with that last line, namely, can performer do a great job in an underwritten (or unwritten, it seems) role, and still be negligible because of the construction of the character?

StinkyLulu said...

I think the performance is ultimately negligible, possibly because of the way Allen's writing so confined it. Morton's work well exceeds what the role actually needs but (even as good as she often is) there's something really limited about the performance.

criticlasm said...

That makes sense. And I LOVE that icon. Hee.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I agree with the comment here that her work is slightly less than impressive, but to me it's certainly worthy of the nomination. I'm a huge fan of Samantha Morton, I feel that she has a knack for understanding a character and she has an extremely emotive face, as vague and general as those comments are. She even managed to make her role in The Golden Age relatively juicy and worthwhile, at least to me.

For the most part; this is a great performance to me, even if it doesn't quite stand up to what we know Morton is capable of; or what Woody's direction of actressing-at-the-edges is capable of.

elise said...

My favourite female performance in a movie!