10.19.2008

Jane Alexander in All the President's Men (1976) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Where some Supporting Actress performances offer ambient dimension, or complicating texture, or compelling counterpoint to the central narrative, others operate almost exclusively to make something happen within the narrative of the film. Most frequently, the actresses at the edges noted for such "device" performances are so acknowledged because they invest a memorable humanity within a character who, by most measures, exists solely to advance the plot. An example of this variety of supporting actressness can be seen in...

...Jane Alexander in All the President's Men (1976)
approximately 5 minutes and 40 seconds
2 scenes
roughly 4% of film's total running time
Jane Alexander plays Judy Hoback, the bookkeeper for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, whose struggle over whether or not to share what she knows with reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward marks a crucial turning point in the uncovering of what came to be known as the Watergate scandal.
We meet Alexander's Judy as one the many women working within the Washington political apparatus contacted by Woodward and Bernstein to share what they might know about the Nixon administration's possible corruption. In a carefully crafted sequence of scenes featuring different women, the film emphasizes the three main obstacles that Bernstein and Woodward must overcome as they seek information from their sources: fear, loyalty and accurate information. Where the first woman the duo approach (the reliably fascinating/weird Valerie Curtin) is overwhelmed by her fear of authority, the second (possibly Neva Patterson) is impelled by her loyalty to her employers. A third (the routinely under-utilized Allyn Ann McLerie) is unburdened by either fear or loyalty, but her enthusiastic readiness to talk cannot overcome the fact that she has little to offer the investigators in the way of relevant, specific information. By sequencing these encounters in close (if not quick) succession, director Pakula amplifies a kind of empathetic tension within the audience, each encounter a snarl of hopes quickly raised and readily dashed. Thus, this sequence of encounters also primes the audience for Bernstein's encounter with Alexander's Judy Hoback, the first "bombshell" interview of the story, one which delivers crucial fragments of information that will coordinate the remaining screen narrative.
We first encounter Alexander's Judy as an offstage voice, begging her sister not to let that reporter from The Washington Post in the house.
Our first real look at the character of Judy is through the staircase railing, a framing that unsubtly conveys the carceral (or prison-like) feeling created by the Nixon administration's climate of bureaucratic intimidation.
The pressures of propriety (Judy's sister seems intent, for what reason we don't know, on welcoming Hoffman's Bernstein with enthusiastic hospitality) impel Alexander's Judy to sit with the visiting reporter and parry his assertive litany of questions.
Alexander's Judy warily maneuvers (our) now-familiar terrain of fear, loyalty and information with intelligence and empathy. Alexander deftly demonstrates that Judy is not only terrified of the professional consequences should she share information with this reporter, but also that she is deeply torn by competing loyalties -- to her bosses, her co-workers, her country, herself. Moreover, Alexander quickly conveys that Judy understands the relevance and potential significance of information she possesses.
In this scene, Alexander demonstrates Judy's range of mostly intellectual and ethical conflicts with emotional precision, each evasive non-answer revealing as much as it conceals. In this single emotionally tense (though not intense) scene, the film utilizes the character of Judy (and Alexander's adept performance) to confirm that this interview has the potential to crack the story wide open (which it ultimately does) even as it also amplifies the emotional dimensions of concealing (and revealing) the mundane bits of information that would prove so politically explosive in the Watergate scandal.
Perhaps, then, it's little surprise that Jane Alexander's performance as Judy is widely misremembered as a one-scene wonder. This, despite the fact that Alexander's Judy does make a brief reappearance in a second scene during which both Woodward (Redford at the top of his 70s game as an ethical everyhunk) and Bernstein surprise Judy again, this time when she's sitting on her porch sipping lemonade while wearing a kicky caftan.
In this second brief scene, Alexander's Judy somewhat inadvertently confirms the full dimensions of her original bombshell non-testimony. However, the scene's casual tone -- as well as Alexander's much less fraught performance in it -- also provides the film's first real cue that the cat's out of the bag and that "the rest" will be an escalating cascade of incrementally damaging revelations (though Woodward and Bernstein don't know that quite yet).
Jane Alexander's performance as "Bookkeeper" Judy Hoback is, for most intents and purposes, an uncommonly vivid plot device, an admirable bit of actressing that uses emotion and empathy to mark an essential node in a plot overstuffed with intricate detail. It's a turning point in the story and Alexander's deft work in the scene helps to make the moment emotionally as well as intellectually significant. Adept, professional, and memorable work. Yet, if pressed, I would have to admit that, yes, that's pretty much all it is.

7 comments:

Alex in Movieland said...

I guess we can all agree there's nothing bad about this... performance. But the Oscar nomination is a joke.

Slayton said...

She's not bad - Jane Alexander never is - but I felt that she was only *slightly* scared when she needed to be *really* scared and only *slightly* paranoid when she needed to be *really* paranoid. I thought Valerie Curtin was so much more interesting in far less screen time. Still, this film is chock full of interesting bit players (excluding - ugh - Jason Robards. *retch*).

J.J. said...

A strange nomination, to be sure, but a deft treatment here by you. I think she's always been very well-liked amongst her peers. Hence a second curious supporting nomination for Kramer v. Kramer despite a lack of theatrics or knockout punches.

For me, her relentless subtlety is at its best in Testament. (Coincidentally: The director of Testament won an Oscar for doc short subject the same year Alexander was nommed for ATPM.)

And also: I'm always astounded to remember Robards won for his role in ATPM. Silly. But it was kind of a weak year. My vote would've gone to Ned Beatty, to complete Network's deserved acting sweep.

Criticlasm said...

Re: above, I loved that Beatty said he always told actors "never turn down a one day job; you never knoe what will happen."

I was kind of flummoxed by this nom. I loved watching the parade of names in the movie, but it's a singular piece in that the movie is the star of the movie. There were no perfs I would've thought nomination/award worthy, but rather for an ensemble.

I also think that Alexander was one of the go-to 70s prestige actresses, so it was almost foregone that she'd be nominated, like Streep in anything. It's usually an amazing job in a role that could've been played with much less depth and worked, but that's her particular gift. This entire role was done with eyes and slight movements of the head and mouth.

Alex in Movieland said...

Testament (1983) was great! I was very moved by it. Everyone should see it. Small subtle movie with big impact.

Stacia said...

Penny Fuller gave a great performance, too, as did Valerie Curtin. Both deserved nominations more than Alexander did.

RICHIE-RICH said...

excellent performance by alexander...her part was all about a woman's fear and paranoia being caught up in politcal circumstances beyond her control...i.e.-conspiracy, fraud, lies, cover-ups.etc.she did exactly what the part required...brilliantly...it didn't have 2 be showy or about a woman so scared that she over acted all over the place....she gave it just the right balance and nuance...