Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) - Supporting Actress Sunday

The 2008 nominees for Best Supporting Actress have been announced and so it begins: a month of Supporting Actress Sundays devoted to profiling the work singled out as some of this year's most accomplished actressing at the edges. And we begin with an actress who has been toiling at the edge of critical recognition for the last handful of years and, in so doing, has become one of the most valuable supporting players out there right now. We've yet to see whether this nomination breaks any "glass ceiling" for this formidably gifted actress but, for now at least, we can be pleased to know that more and more audience members will be pausing to note the distinctive name of...

...Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
approximately 16 minutes and 13 seconds
28 scenes
roughly 10% of film's total running time
Taraji P. Henson plays Queenie, the lead caregiver at a home for the aged whose giant heart makes special room for the mysterious infant left on the home's back stoop as the city of New Orleans celebrates The Armistice in 1918.
Henson's Queenie immediately chooses to adopt the apparently unwanted, apparently afflicted child.
Queenie does so -- the movie tells us -- because she's incapable having a child of her own. Queenie also does so -- the movie shows us -- because she has love enough even for this odd foundling.
Henson's Queenie names the child Benjamin and raises him alongside the old white people also in her charge.
During these early scenes of the film, Henson lends the -- shall we say -- "familiar" stock character of Queenie humanizing grace notes of empathy and wit. The actress's capacity for dramatic force lends an unobtrusive gravitas to her actions: Henson lets us know that Queenie's immediate bond with this child derives both from her lucid knowledge that she's the child's only hope for life and also that he's possibly her one chance to become a parent, if only for a little while. At the same time, the clarity of Henson's comic wit leavens the density of the narrative situation, as when -- fibbing about the infant's condition being the result of an infection her sister had during pregnancy -- Queenie notes: "The child took the worst of it...and came out white." Henson's got the timing to make this incongruous joke work but Henson also uses it to establish Queenie's intelligence and integrity within her subservient circumstance.
Henson's incredible warmth and charisma also elevate the character beyond its obviously stock contours. The character may be a retread "mammy" role, but Henson's Queenie embodies both the selflessness of idealized mother-love and also the earthly complications of womanly desire. (Indeed, the relationship between Henson's Queenie and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali's Tizzie is perhaps the single one in this film that I found genuinely interesting.)
Unfortunately, it isn't long before Henson's Queenie recedes into the background as the story of Benjamin Button begins to grow beyond the shelter of Queenie's love. And as Benjamin moves on, Henson's Queenie is left either to beam with motherly love and longing...
...or to glare with the heat of maternal disapproval.
Unfortunately, not even Henson's wit, warmth and dramatic clarity can complicate the narrative clichés that confine the character of Queenie. Indeed, as I rescreened the film (which, as you may recall, I sorta hated the first time through), I was struck by how much the film strikes me as a curious mix of Forrest Gump and the ouevre of John Irving, all filtered through the narrative style of Rod Serling. Even more, I was impressed at how much the character of Queenie reminds me of the magnanimous mother played by Glenn Close in her first Oscar-nominated performance. Like Close's Jenny Fields, Henson's Queenie emodies the ideals of love and acceptance that guide Benjamin in shaping his life as he does. Queenie's love permits Benjamin to embrace life as it comes and, concomitantly, Henson's performance provides the emotional mooring for this sprawling film.
Henson does have one scene in the second half of the film that gives her more to do than just look on with maternal dis/approval and, in it, Henson delivers an amplifying reminder of just how essential her characterization is to the emotional architecture of this film.
As Benjamin communicates to his mother, without words, the emotional complexity experienced in his time abroad, Henson's Queenie reacts with immediate empathy as she also reminds him that life is about loving acceptance of all that comes your way.
I'm not sure I'll ever buy "you never know what's comin' for ya" as an all-purpose moral philosophy. But, when it's Taraji P. Henson's Queenie preaching the word, I'm more likely to take the leap of faith.
In the profoundly limited role of Queenie, somehow Taraji P. Henson finds a way to convince me of the depth of her many gifts as a screen performer. And even though Benjamin Button's retread of "mammy" clichés confines this extraordinary actress so, the film does make me know one thing for sure: Henson remains one of the most captivating and surprising actresses of her generation. Let's hope that Henson's Queenie, like Close's Jenny, marks only the beginning of a fruitful era of critical recognition for this infinitely worthy performer.


Best Supporting Actress Nominees 2008

Forest Whitaker has spoken. The Oscar gauntlet has fallen. And we're off...
A month of Supporting Actress profiles will commence this Sunday, each attending to the golden boy's favorite actresses at the edge in...

Supporting Actress Smackdown for 2008:
Sunday, February 22.
Featuring an excellent panel of Smackdowners, including:
Rants of a Diva, Jakey,
Low Resolution,
Victim of the Time, The Rural Juror, & Alex in Movieland...

Very quick analysis from StinkyLulu:
The big "shocker" this morning derives from Kate Winslet's absence from this category. It's a compelling surprise, really, as I think Winslet's presence in the Lead Category for The Reader provides the first real threat to Hathaway's likely win in that category.

But over here in the land of Supporting Actressness, Winslet's absence from the Supporting Actress roster reconfigures the playing field meaningfully. On the first hand, no longer does Penélope Cruz have to worry about Kate love threatening her privileged position at the top of this particular heap. On the second hand, while I do think Cruz remains the favorite to win in February, I now think her new main rival for the trophy is the nicest nun, Amy Adams. Since March, I've been calling this year for Amy Adams. I do think Adams bears the "Hollywood" advantage over Cruz. Alone among this year's nominees, Adams a money-making, American actress who's visibly been on the rise for the last handful of years and, this year, Adams has received several essential, middle-brow nods of approval (Vanity Fair cover; CBS Sunday Morning profile; huge dvd success of last year's Enchanted). In other words, the Hollywood machine seems to have really been priming the pump for an Amy Adams win for Supporting Actress this year. On the third hand, I don't think Adams is this year's coaster. (That distinction goes, I feel, to Taraji P. Henson, an extraordinary actress nominated for an unremarkable performance in this year's most nominated film). On the fourth hand, I don't think Amy Adams and Viola Davis will "split" Doubt votes in any significant way. (Rather, I suspect that there's not going to be much voting for any of the Doubt acting nominees, especially not for this brilliant newbie. As a result, Adams stands well to get the "I should vote for something from that film" benefit which occasionally accrues to Supporting Actress nominees and which, in combination with the pump being primed for Adams recognition, really helps Adams gather any extra or straggling votes.) And on the fifth hand, with regard to Tomei, this nomination establishes Marisa Tomei, along with Cate Blanchett, as one of two actresses of her generation to enter the elite pantheon of women who have 3 nominations for Best Supporting Actress. This morning, Tomei joins likes of Celeste Holm, Angela Lansbury, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Anne Revere, Shelley Winters, Claire Trevor, Gladys Cooper, Diane Ladd and Dianne Wiest. So, for Tomei, I suspect this year'll be "it's an honor just being nominated for the 3rd time!"

So, summarizing all those aforementioned hands, I still think this year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar is Penélope Cruz's trophy to lose. I also suspect that Amy Adams is stealthily poised to facilitate just such an upset.
What are you thoughts, lovely reader?
Spill, please, in comments.


The Interviewer Meme: MrPeenee asks StinkyLulu...

A new variation on the "5 Questions Meme" is beginning to buzz,
this round courtesy of the Immoral Matriarch. So, when one of my
favorites, mrpeenee, took on a set of questions from Café Muscato,
well, I took the bait...

mrpeenee asks:
1) Could we have a short bio about the mystery that is StinkyLulu? Are you really the reincarnation of Thelma Ritter?
In my mortal incarnation, I'm just another overeducated GenX-er whose early access to home video had a life-altering impact. As for StinkyLulu? Well. I can honestly say that I didn't choose StinkyLulu. StinkyLulu chose me. And I continue, every week, to discover the consequences of that choice. Finally, while I'd be thrilled to claim Thelma Ritter as my spirit guide, I suspect I'm more likely the reincarnation of Maria Ouspenskaya or Beulah Bondi, though I'll never be as skinny as either.
2) Is there any movie that you think is great, but that you couldn’t stand to watch again?
Wow. That's a toughie. Part of my moviesluttishness is that I'm real easy for rescreening movies, even those I couldn't stand on first pass, 'specially if they pop up on a tv station with commercial breaks. Hmmm....
I'd probably have to say any "quality" war epic -- like, say, Saving Private Ryan or the theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers -- that is both (a) without humor and (b) includes extended, intense and graphic battle scenes. I'm not squeamish, necessarily. I just find the lavishly produced spectacle of war really, really tiresome.
Oh, on a different front, I'd probably have to say that David Lynch is probably the only contemporary filmmaker whose work I (a) never miss and (b) will only rescreen when absolutely necessary (Blue Velvet being the exception that proves this particular rule).
3) Are there any things about your movie tastes or opinions that have changed as you’ve matured?
The best things about becoming a wizened old movie crone is that I never feel obliged to like anything. This year alone I've come out against Wall-E (whatever), The Dark Knight (that one got me in a bit of trouble), Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (talk about movies I hope never to see again...my basic dislike for that one seems to grow with each passing day).
In contrast, twenty or so years ago, when I was but a teenaged pre-Stinky possessed of grandiose cinephiliac airs, I remember feeling obliged to defend pedigreed tripe like Out of Africa or Agnes of God or (ack) Children of a Lesser God or even -- I'm ashamed to say -- Forrest Gump. It's not that the intervening years have made me less kind. To the contrary, I feel I enjoy a much more adventurous (if less arty) cinematic palate than I did as a college student. It's just that, as I'm edging toward the old crone privilege of not HAVING to like anything, oddly enough it seems to make it easier to like MORE. At least that's how it's working for me and I'm grateful for it.
4) What was the biggest fuck up the Academy ever made in picking an Oscar winner?
The mind reels. So. Many. Possibilities. Swank. Oliver! Benigni. Eighty days. Loretta Young. I could go on. But I suspect the notorious 2005 Oscars were so very difficult for me not simply for that Best Picture problem, but because that evening marked Dolly Parton's second snub for Best Song. Dolly's loss in 1980 (when she was nominated for "9 to 5") remains surprising only until you consider that year's competition, which included both Willie Nelson's annoying but enduring "On the Road Again" and that year's winner -- the title song for the movie Fame (which, my lovely readers will already know, holds a special place in my cinematic heart.) I'm not sure I thought Dolly's 2005 song ("Travelin' Thru" from the tranny weepie TransAmerica) was all that, but when Three 6 Mafia won for the uplifting ditty, "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp" (from the "why pimps are American heroes" movie, Hustle and Flow), it hurt my feelings. Plus, it made me mad all over again that Dolly was neither nominated as Best Supporting Actress in 1980 (when she sorta deserved it) or in 1989 (when there was plenty of room). So, yeah, it still pisses me off that Three 6 Mafia has an Oscar and Dolly doesn't. I doubt I'll let it go until the broadcast brings Debbie Allen back to stage a comprehensive production-number retrospective of Best Songs.
5) Your blogs (Film of the Month Club, StinkyLulu, and StinkyLulu’s Stinky Bits) each seem like a huge responsibility. The idea of maintaining all three makes me want to go lie down with a wet cloth on my forehead. What do you think about them? Compare and contrast.
Oh, mrpeenee, I have so many blogs. If you only knew...
Well, first off, Film of the Month Club isn't "my" blog. The very impressive Chris Cagle is the real hostess over there and I'm only an intermittent guest/contributor. (Next month, though, I get the privilege of choosing the month's film, so look for announcements regarding that in the next week or so.) I also have the privilege of being a contributor to several other blogs: the seasonal Idol Pool 3D blog run by the inimitable Joe Reid (though I rarely do anything there) as well as a couple "private" blogs organized around a couple of writing networks I participate in (those blogs are visible to "authors only" and don't appear to the nekkid eye). [I also use a blogging platform for my university teaching -- mostly because I hate powerpoint and the blog platform's way zippier for me at this point -- but we won't get into that here.] Really, though, I truly think of myself as having only two blogs. One is StinkyLulu, where we sit now. I consider StinkyLulu my main location for all my nefarious bloggish activities, with StinkyBits operating as something of an annex to StinkyLulu. I think of them sort of sorta like Filene's/Filene's Basement, or Gap/Old Navy. Things are a little shinier at the main store (StinkyLulu) but there are treasures to be found at the annex (StinkyBits) if you have the patience to rummage a bit. My REAL "second" blog is called BitsyBobs (who I think of as StinkyLulu's more prim and much shyer sister). That's where I write only for myself, mostly "prewriting" material that I plan to rework for other purposes. And that's it. So I blog a lot, I guess, in a lot of places. But it's mostly because, at this point, I'm writing or readying to write (as MrStinky says) "all the time" and using the blogger platform for most of it is very helpful. The only real downside, beyond writing all the time? I blame StinkyLulu for the fact that I don't see more trashy movies. And I blame StinkyBits for the curious "impending homework/deadline" pressure I now feel anytime I watch any movie. (Of course, the reason I started StinkyBits was to enforce some writings discipline on myself and, yes, I embarked on Supporting Actress Sundays to address some of the conspicuous "quality" gaps in my own screening history.) As you can see, I'm never satisfied and I'm very creative in finding things to complain &/or feel pressured about, so it's not really the fault of the blog at all...
Thanks, mrpeeneee, 'twas fascinating.

At least it was so for me; I doubt anyone else is much interested in my metablogging. If I'm wrong, holler in comments.

So, lovely reader, do YOU want to be part of the "Interviewer Meme"?
If yay, simply follow these bossy instructions:
1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions,
including the original link/s for the meme.

4. You will include this explanation and
an offer to interview someone else in the same post.

5. When others comment asking to be interviewed,
you will ask them five questions.


THE 2008 LULUs: StinkyLulu's Best Supporting Actresses of 2008

The acclaimed Supporting Actress performances of 2008 have posed a particular challenge for me, as one who especially values the actresses at the edges of my favorite movies. Indeed, this year's best Supporting Actresses have underscored the question that always tests the definition of "Supporting" actress. Now, StinkyLulu's no size queen but, this year has established the question of "what's too big" and "what's too small" with regard to supporting actressness as a question that may have no answer. So, in part to make sense of the conundrum myself, this year I have elected to award "The Lulus" -- my own accounting of the most impressive actressing at the edges of 2008. And I do so by offering three distinct categories (Long Form, Short Form, & Traditional Scale), each of which acknowledges the different work being done by the increasingly broad array of performances that find themselves gathered under the umbrella of "Supporting Actress."

Best Supporting Actress - Long Form
excellent performances from women at the center of their films,
in what might arguably be leading (or co-leading) roles

Amy Adams - Doubt
"absolutely perfect in the part"
Rosemarie DeWitt - Rachel Getting Married
"rock solid in the film's toughest role"
Samantha Morton - Synecdoche, New York
"consistently compelling and enigmatic"
Kate Winslet - The Reader
"a great Best Actress performance"
Elsa Zilberstein - I've Loved You So Long
"endearing and charismatic"

* * * * *

Best Supporting Actress - Short Form
memorable work by women in a mere handful of scenes*
*Kathy Bates in Revolutionary Road might yet sneak in here

Viola Davis - Doubt
"the true gem in this film"
Lena Olin - The Reader
"a simple, throttling performance"
Dianne Wiest - Synecdoche, New York
"quite simply, luminous"
Debra Winger - Rachel Getting Married
"masterful work, haunting and complex"
Evan Rachel Wood - The Wrestler
"tectonic shifts in emotion"

* * * * *

Best Supporting Actress - Traditional Scale

a pivotal character, essential to more than a handful of scenes,
though in less than 30% of film's total screen time

Penélope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
"hilarious, inspiring and heartbreaking"
Mila Kunis - Forgetting Sarah Marshall
"a revelation"
Sophie Okenedo - The Secret Life of Bees
"electrifying and adorable"
Hanna Schygulla - The Edge of Heaven
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler
"vivid, precise and real"

* * * * *

StinkyLulu's Best Supporting Actresses
my favorites, in roughly descending order*
*Kate Winslet in The Reader is a leader on my imagined Best Actress ballot

1. Hannah Schygulla - The Edge of Heaven
2. Debra Winger - Rachel Getting Married
3. Lena Olin - The Reader
4. Viola Davis - Doubt
5. (tie) Penélope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
5. (tie) Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler

BUT, lovely reader, what do YOU think?
Please share your thoughts in comments.


Supporting Actress Smackdown - 1945

The Year is...

And the Smackdowners for the 18th Annual Academy Awards are...

BRAD of Criticlasm & Oh, Well, Just This Once...
KEN of Canadian Ken
of She Blogged by Night
yours truly, STINKYLULU.

1945's Supporting Actresses are...
(Each Smackdowner's comments are arranged according to ascending levels of love. Click on the nominee's name/film to see StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Sunday review.)

MATT Nobody can deliver a zinger like Eve Arden can, but even this High Priestess of Wisecrack can’t do much with the (mostly) dim quips that come her way, and she’s too brittle (and inconsequential) here to garner much audience empathy.
The role isn't much and the nomination might be an overreach but Arden's empathy in the role of Ida goes far to amplify the humanity of the actress’s signature persona. A “hints of greatness” performance that’s also an essential part of this nearly perfect film.
That most endearing of side-line cynics does her thing here – drolly taking the wind out of other people’s sails. But she’s been worthier of Academy acknowledgment elsewhere i.e. the delightful "My Dream is Yours", where – for once – her dialogue’s almost as good as she is.
Not a showy role, but I'm giving her three hearts just because I love her so much. At her wise-cracking best, you want to see more of her, and she's a welcome break from the seriousness of the proceedings. Don't get the nom, but why question a classic?
An actress as solid and reliable as the characters she plays, no one else could have been Ida. More than just the person the audience identifies with, her performance reveals a multi-layered character that adds depth to the entire film.
TOTAL: 15s

Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce
BRAD What it lacks in subtlety it makes up in obviousness, which is challenging in a manipulative character who relies on people liking her and doing things for her. Not awful by any means, but she transmits bad girl so blatantly that it almost makes you lose sympathy for Crawford's Mildred because she's so blind.
Blyth is a hoot to watch, an elaborately ornamented bauble of a performance with no depth to its shallowness. But the performance lacks reasoning, an internal integrity or motive for the character’s essential awfulness. A captivating but negligible concoction.
Someone I knew once described Ann Blyth’s prettiness as screwed on a little too tight. Edging into scariness. Which makes her a good physical choice for Veda. The performance – mostly just okay. But she brings a bristling rattle-snake energy to a couple of her confrontation scenes. And I like her coolly sociopathic delivery of "Sorry for the trouble mother … but you know how I am."
Ann Blyth’s monstrously spoiled Veda is a formidable foil for Joan Crawford’s sacrificial Mildred, and her villainy satisfies the movie’s noir-ish requirements. Convincingly, deliciously mean, yet emotionally varied, Blyth gives a very good performance of a very bad seed.
Absolute perfection as the pouty, spoiled daughter. Playing the dangerous dame, she delivers Veda's vicious barbs with pinpoint accuracy, unintentionally revealing herself as being more low-class than the so-called common people she scorns.
TOTAL: 17s

STACIA How can a terrific actress like Lansbury turn in such a bland, lifeless performance? She is pure, mannequin faced, unblinking boredom personified, a beautiful cardboard cutout who looks good in period dress and nothing more. A sadly disappointing outing for her.
Though she’s almost the only competent performer of Dorian’s lackluster cast, the usually brilliant Lansbury seems wrong for her role. Her resources seem limited when she conveys sweet naïveté; she comes across as monotonous and a trifle sluggish. Not bad, but disappointing.
Lansbury’s sensitivity and talent can’t quite burst the cocoon of slumbrously stylized formality imposed by micro-managing director Lewin. To suggest period? Portentousness? Artistic weight? Sybil’s transfixed state? Whatever. As for the picture, lots of MGM window-dressing, expensively overlit and genteel. Only Greer Garson is missing.
Lansbury is memorably effective, if not great, as the tragically doomed Sibyl Vane; the kindness and warmth of her presence infuses the entire film with a necessary humanity it might otherwise lack.
A striking performance in a character that haunts the movie. It's a hard role to avoid milquetoast, and she does. The singing scenes are beautiful and affecting, which makes the love Dorian has for her believable, even more challenging given his post-like qualities.
TOTAL: 13s

STINKYLULU Although Lorring provides an occasionally diverting goose of energy to this generally turgid tale, her garbled accent and musical comedy character stylings muddy the potential fun of this beastly little character.
With her pedestrian and corny performance, Lorring made this already tedious movie look like a Midwestern high school play. I'm simply stumped as to why the Academy would even give Lorring a nod for this embarrassing display.
Lorring pulls out a couple of nice effects during the seduction scene. And the singing voice is lovely – though I doubt it's hers. But mainly the performance is just serviceable in a nuance-free kind of way. Too bad Lansbury couldn’t have played this part. She’d have aced it – and then some.
Not subtle by any means, but the whole piece is quite broad. She definitely sparks up the screen when she's on, if only in sheer annoyance. I would've loved some nuance, which could've made the role great--that waited until the very last moment, sadly.
As the lazy, spiteful teenager, Joan Lorring telegraphs her slyness, but does specific work by executing character shifts skillfully, and contributes a fascinating, almost grotesque, presence in her final scene. A surprising, smart performance.
TOTAL: 10s

STACIA Suitable as the wish-fulfillment mother whose only purpose is to make the impossible happen, but unable to satisfactorily flesh out the character. Revere has but one facial expression and two tones of voice, limiting her range and her impact.
This role could’ve been a yawner—the all-knowing matriarch, brimming with wisdom. But with remarkable simplicity, honesty, conviction, and magnetism, Anne Revere side-steps the clichés and potential dullness inherent in the role and makes us respond to the character’s goodness. This superlative performance is my pick for the winner.
Can she be my mother? I loved this performance. A lot. She avoids so many pitfalls it's like an Olympic sport, say, channel swimming. Instead of being supercilious, cold, self-righteous, and priggish, she comes across as warm, affectionate, wise, sensible and real. I know she doesn't exist, but you really want her to
If there were a Mt. Rushmore for character actresses, Anne Revere’s face would be an essential component. Somehow projecting the impassivity of an Easter Island statue while plumbing depths of wisdom, endurance, feeling. Copland could’ve written a symphony for her. Luckily "National Velvet" preserves a generous sampling of her unique art.
With three foundational choices – to neither express nor withhold; to maintain a subtle humor throughout; and to deliver each line in basically the same registerRevere transformed an impossible cliché into a marvel of quiet transcendence. What actressing at the edges is all about.

Oscar chose...
Anne Revere
in National Velvet
And the SMACKDOWN must agree...
Best Supporting Actress of 1945!

BUT, lovely reader, what do YOU think?
Please share your thoughts in comments.