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
roughly 10% of film's total running time
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.