8.24.2008

Jocelyne LaGarde in Hawaii (1966) - Supporting Actress Sunday

A couple weeks back, I posted a brief meditation on Oscar's fondness for little girls. The category of Supporting Actress, since its very first year, has on occasion made room for younger actresses, especially little white ones. Yet an implicit question always haunts such nominations? Is a kid really capable of "Acting"? (Note my capitalization of the letter "a".) Is a performance by a younger actor evidence of their actual skill or talent? Or is it a something more like a spectacular stunt, a combination of adept grooming and coaching and manipulation, all of which sully its integrity as a worthy performance? The kid actor conundrum ("but are they really acting?") goes round and round, with partisans of all stripes weighing in on what are the necessary circumstances for "good" acting. But, even though I've done my share of the volleying in such discussions (or dodging them altogether, depending on my mood), I don't think I've yet been as perplexed but fascinated by this conundrum as I was when parsing this week's performance by...

...Jocelyne LaGarde in Hawaii (1966)
approximately 23 minutes and 59 seconds
16 scenes
roughly 15% of film's total running time
Jocelyne LaGarde plays Malama, the reigning Queen of the Hawaiian islands, a woman whose imposing physical enormity is more than matched by the magnitude of her generous spirit. (And who happens to have one of the most bizarre entrances in all my experience of Supporting Actressness.)
LaGarde's Malama is also a devoted and intelligent leader of her people, wary of the haoli (white folks) landing with increasing frequency on her islands while also recognizing the imperative that she lead her people in adapting to the changing times.
Within her first scenes, it becomes clear that LaGarde's Malama rules by instinct, yet -- as also becomes quickly evident -- Malama's seeming impetuosity is girded by an unfailing wisdom. The film conveys this paradox when Malama meets the narrative's protoganonists.
LaGarde's Malama immediately adores the minister's wife (Julie Andrews doing a warmed over version of her Maria von Trapp -- you know, after she's married and gets all prim and boring) while loathing the minister upon first sight (Max Von Sydow in a nearly intolerable performance of one-note priggishness). The audience, I dare say, couldn't agree more with Malama on these quick assessments.
Malama effectively adopts Andrews' Jerusha as her teacher (Malama wants to learn to write English so she can pen a plea to the American president, James Monroe) and so the Hales settle on Maui, as missionaries to Malama and her people.
The character of Malama is, for me, one of only two genuinely interesting characters in this vast and overwrought epic of colonialism, evangelism and capitalist expansion. (The other interesting character would be Malama's son, Keoki, played here with generosity and strong potential by Manu Tupou.) The character of Malama is a formidable, charismatic presence whose apparent simplicity is belied by her strategic sophistication in maintaining the integrity of her people in the face of the haoli threat.
The character of Queen "Ruth" Malama provides a jolt of complexity into this deadly dull epic -- not quite enough to bring the film completely to life, mind you, but enough to make it mildly interesting for its middle hour or so.
Jocelyne LaGarde's performance as Malama brings its own jolt of complexity, but in an entirely different way. LaGarde's nomination is notorious for being the only nominated performance by an actor for their single film role. Biographical details on LaGarde are scant (note how I couldn't even find a headshot of her out of character), but, as the story goes, the French-speaking Tahitian was "discovered" for the role because of her great look and impressive screen presence; thus, in spite of the fact that she spoke neither English nor Hawaiian, LaGarde was hired for the role and learned her lines phonetically with the assistance of a voice coach. (I am not attesting to the veracity of any of these details. That's just the way the story goes.)
LaGarde's performance, then, emerges as an emblematically curious conundrum. Is it LaGarde's work merely that of an extraordinary physical specimen poked and prodded into enacting the tasks of the pivotal role of Malama? Or does LaGarde's performance represent an unlikely but formidable acting accomplishment?
I'm not sure. There are times in LaGarde's performance when I'm struck by the curiosity of it, when I'm mostly stunned by the spectacle as LaGarde appears to channel Hope Emerson, Yul Brynner and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson all at once.
But there are other times when I find LaGarde's performance to provide some of the only moments of genuine emotion in the entire picture. And it's striking that LaGarde's performance emerges (along with Gene Hackman's and Lou Antonio's, though they're in bit parts) as the only characterization to permits meaningful complexity. Indeed, I find that I'm adamantly disinclined to dismiss LaGarde's performance as a mere stunt.
LaGarde's line readings aren't always the most nuanced, but her characterization is vivid and consistent, bearing a subtlety that surpasses that presented in most of the principal roles.
LaGarde's is a perplexing but memorable and, at times, fascinating performance. Nomination worthy? I'm not so sure. But a valid, worthwhile performance contributing some of the most interesting actressing in the film? Absolutely.

14 comments:

Slayton said...

I'm afraid of watching this film for the length, but I'm interested in seeing her. Hopefully Netflix starts operating properly before the weekend so I can take part in the smackdown.

Also, if I'm not mistaken, Leslie Browne never starred in another film, either.

StinkyLulu said...

I think I liked Hawaii more than I liked A Man For All Seasons, which felt twice as long as Hawaii.

And IMDB confirms my vague thought that Leslie Browne did appear in the weird Nijinsky.

Raybee said...

This is a ridiculous nomination. La Garde only spoke French so she spoke her English lines phonetically. It's not a performance.

StinkyLulu said...

It may be a ridiculous nomination, but don't demean the performance (which was rich with reactions, presence, physicality, and humor) just because the performer is a non-actor.

It's not likes LaGarde is the only phoneticist in the Oscar annals. How did Mary McDonnell learn most of her lines in Dances with Wolves? What about Lila Kedrova in Zorba? Or Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo?

At least LaGarde learned her lines. Unlike a certain Supporting Actor nominee from 1989 who reportedly was fed his lines via earpiece...

Alex in Movieland said...

is that Marlon Brando? :P

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I agree with Lulu on the basis that A Man For All Seasons felt so incredibly long and dull that I would rather sit through Hawaii twice.

Or, in an ideal world, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? three times.

JS said...

If viewing A Man for All Seasons did indeed feel like it took a season, I'd say the Summer season because everybody was baking. I always wondered how they could all stand having long conversations in those costumes.

Ortzi said...

A man for all seasons didn't seem long to me. I really find it great, contrary to my prejudices.

Slayton said...

I thought A Man for All Seasons had some interesting moods and lovely costumes, but it certainly dragged. It didn't help that most of the performances weren't especially good. (Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller... WTF?)

And raybee, you might as well say that Patty Duke and Rinko Kikuchi didn't give "performances" because they didn't speak any lines at all.

Keith said...

Among the hallmarks of good acting are spontaneity, creativity, and the ability to discover something in a scene that you hadn't known was there (and even more important, to know what to do with it when you discover it).

If you're simply reciting strings of what are, to you, nonsense syllables, you can't provide any of those things. Further, because they have to work around your rigid, unchanging line readings, neither can your castmates. (Well, maybe they can a little bit, but only to a significantly limited degree.)

LaGarde comes through the stunt with more grace and dignity than I had expected, but what she does isn't acting.

Slayton said...

If she's using her physicality to express something, it is indeed acting. You aren't taking into account modern silent performances (Kikuchi, Duke, Wyman, Morton) and, of course, silent film performances. By your logic, to act is to speak - which it isn't.

StinkyLulu said...

Among the hallmarks of good acting are spontaneity, creativity, and the ability to discover something

On the above, I'd submit that most of the more acclaimed cast of Hawaii failed to meet such benchmarks. The style of the film as a whole seemed to me to be turgid, generally lacking in such human spontaneity.

If you're simply reciting strings of what are, to you, nonsense syllables, you can't provide any of those things.

But this is where I totally lose you, Keith. It's not like LaGarde was a non-verbal idiot. I'm sure someone along the way translated the dialogue to French for her. I don't buy that she had no idea what she was saying.

And I guess this is where my question about non-actors comes in. The story about Meryl Streep studying Polish for a few months before Sophie's Choice, or Mary McDonnell working with a dialect coach to learn Lakota (a language McDonnell never professed to be able to speak) while on the set of Dances with Wolves, were part of the studio's promotional materials affirming the actorly craft of the production. The promoters of Hawaii seemed to have emphasized different things, highlighting the "extraordinary lengths" the producers went to accomplish the film. Such "extraordinary lengths" included discovering, casting and grooming LaGarde. The recurring bit about LaGarde learning her lines "phonetically" smacks of such hypesterism. (Learning one's lines phonetically is a fairly standard mode in teaching dialects in 20th century acting training. The idea is that you're actively encouraged to stop thinking about what each word means as you learn to shape your mouth to how a word sounds om the dialect.) I don't speak Hawaiian, so I can't say anything about LaGarde in those scenes, but I really doesn't seem to me that's she's reciting gibberish in her English dialogue scenes.

I am not affirming that LaGarde's is a great performance, but I do consider it a performance.

CynRussell said...

You seem to assume she wouldn't have known what she was saying. She would have had a French translator to help her communicate with the director and translate those lines she spoke phonetically.

StinkyLulu said...

@CynRussell: That is not at all my assumption. I am simply recounting the press/publicity/gossip accounts of the time, all of which I find suspect.