As I noted in my post for The LAMB Devours the Oscars series, this week's featured Supporting Actress nominee has, over the last handful of years, experienced something of a transformation -- from being the category's biggest punchline to standing as one of its most stalwart contenders. And with this year's nomination, this performer enters the elite sorority of actresses at the edges who have earned three or more nominations as Best Supporting Actress. Also, I'm thinking she also has the possibly unique distinction of having earned her first nomination while in her 20s, her second while in her 30s, and her third while in her 40s. (Most of her sisters in the 3+ sorority earned their noms in fairly quick succession, or with greater gaps between.) Best of all, this woman shows no sign of slowing down. Of course, I'm talking about...
...Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler (2008)
approximately 23 minutes and 31 seconds
roughly 21% of film's total running time
When we first meet Tomei's Cassidy, she's having a tough time wrangling the snark of a callow bachelor party. Rourke's Randy blasts in, without being summoned, ostensibly to defend her honor and in so doing drives away Cassidy's customers and thus claiming her lapdance time for himself.
As she dances for Randy, Tomei displays Cassidy's skill as a performer. As she toplessly bumps and grinds away, Tomei's Cassidy listens to Rourke's Randy spin his war stories, asking questions and offering sympathies at precisely the correct moments. By the end, when Cassidy collects her $60, we see that she has done her job very well: using the alibi of sexual display, Tomei's Cassidy deftly does what's necessary to make her clients feel better about themselves. And it's clear that Cassidy takes some measure of professional pride in a job well done.
And like any personal service provider, Tomei's Cassidy also maintains a measure of concern about the well-being of her clients. When he arrives to the stripjoint not long after suffering a near-fatal heart incident, Rourke's Randy savvily exploits Cassidy's professional empathy to get some attention outside the perameters of the client-customer relationship.
On instinct, depending on her human rather than professional judgment, Tomei's Cassidy agrees to briefly meet Rourke's Randy outside the club (albeit only for the length of a cigarette and only in the parking lot). In this moment, Tomei's Cassidy offers exactly what she might in a lapdance -- empathetic attention and a concern ony for his needs -- but without the ratifying alibi of sexual display. Yet Tomei's Cassidy knows she's crossed an essential, if invisible, boundary and scoots back to the relative safety of the strip club.
The next time we see Tomei's Cassidy -- in what is perhaps my favorite sequence of Tomei's performance, if not the film as a whole -- she's having a rough night hustling private dances.
In a quick series of mostly wordless scenes, we see Tomei's Cassidy at her most vulnerable...
And at her most mercenary.
In what proves to be a crucial decision for the character, Tomei's Cassidy chooses to pay attention to Rourke's Randy (instead of a potentially more lucrative customer) because it will make her feel better about herself.
With this decision, Tomei's Cassidy breaks one of the core "rules" of sex work: she chooses a client on the basis of how the transaction might meet her emotional -- rather than financial -- need. Little wonder, then, that another line is soon crossed, as Tomei's Cassidy agrees to meet Rourke's Randy outside of the club, ostensibly to help him select a birthday gift for his estranged daughter.
Thus, Tomei introduces Rourke's Randy -- and us -- to Pam, the "real-world" counterpart to Cassidy. With elegant clarity, Tomei charts both the continuities and distinctions between Cassidy and Pam in the subsequent scenes between her and Randy. We see that, while "Cassidy" is sexy, Pam is pretty. While "Cassidy" lives inside the club, Pam has a complex world of aspirations and obligations outside that building. But Rourke's Randy likes them both.
I realize now that it is in this rhythmically repetitive sequence of scenes (the two get close, Tomei runs away) that Tomei's performance amplifies what I consider to be the most compelling emotional thread within The Wrestler. The film draws upon a gloriously simple conceit: a man and a woman, each a skilled professional performer making a life and a living at the lowest rung of the performance food chain, arrive almost simultaneously to the same crossroads. Neither their bodies nor their spirits can withstand the demands of their profession much longer yet the terror of the unknown looms. In one another, they see a glimmer of recognition, the sort that promises to end their self-imposed isolation and offers hope for a life beyond this, the only thing they have known. It's an enthralling scenario, one with the makings of a great cinematic romance. Yet The Wrestler is a tragedy, in the Shakespearean sense almost, and Tomei's performance -- in what is, in some essential ways, a double-role -- cues, early on, the ultimate impossibility of a truly sustaining relationship between these two characters.
The decision to quit stripping has been a long-time coming, yet her encounter with Randy accelerates things in ways that Tomei's character doesn't anticipate. Rourke's Randy has a difficult time respecting the edifice Tomei's character has carefully built to separate her self (Pam) and her work (Cassidy), largely because Randy experiences no such separation between his professional persona and his actual identity.
While Tomei's character wants to be rid of "Cassidy" so that she can get on with her life, Rourke's character sees no life worth living without Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Thus is the tragic rub within this film. Tomei's Pam wants out of stripping before it destroys her, while Rourke's Randy seems willing to let wrestling be the end of him.
In many ways, Tomei's character arc is defined by the slow, inevitable collapse of the scaffolding separating Cassidy and Pam. And one of the brilliant gestures within The Wrestler is that we get to see the final implosion. What's more, Tomei gets to perform the character's most emotionally naked moment while she's nearly entirely nude, on stage at the strip club. Director Aronofsky and Tomei's accomplishment in this scene is, in a word, bold.
She's naked and we're watching her inner conflict. Not every actress could make that happen and, with meticulous clarity, Tomei does.
And as Tomei's character races from the strip club to the arena, hoping to stop Rourke's Randy from -- literally -- killing himself in the ring, our hopes rise with hers. If anyone can stop Randy, Pam can. But Rourke's character, like an addict who has decided to use again, is beyond even her reach. As she watches from backstage, Tomei generously adds a gracenote to her already masterfully crafted performance. Tomei's character surveys the scene -- the lights, the crowd, the adrenaline -- and we see her quickly realize that the integrity of her caring attention can do little to cut through Randy's need for this kind of fix. And as she leaves the arena, it's a quiet triumph for the character, a tiny spark of hope within the devastating glare of Randy's self-destruction.
Tomei's is a meticulous, mature and unflinching performance and The Wrestler's the better for the clarifying, emotional reality of her presence.