5.17.2009

Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives - Supporting Actress Sundays

At this point in my journey through the Supporting Actress archive, I find that I'm becoming very interested in the notion of "stock character" types -- which sorts of characters seem to make recurring appearances among the nominated performances for Best Supporting Actress. And this week, I've hit upon one of the most compelling (and esoteric) of such stock characters, one developed almost entirely within the ouevre of the single director who is only surpassed by William Wyler in the number Supporting Actress nominations to emerge from his films. Of course, I'm talking about Woody Allen and the "stock character" is one brilliantly and instructively performed by...

...Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives (1992)
approximately 32 minutes and 41 seconds
20 scenes
roughly 30% of film's total running time
Judy Davis plays Sally, the most strident of the dissatisfied wives in Woody Allen's acerbic (and pre-SoonYi) portrait of marital malaise.
The character of Sally is a familiar Woody Allen construct: a woman (often, but not always, of a certain age) who has it all -- looks, brains, talent, wit -- who is deeply, desolately unhappy. This Woody Allen "stock female character" is defined both by her desperate loneliness and by her private gnawing certainty that she has been cheated of some undefined something that is her due. This particular "Allen woman" might be debilitatingly neurotic (think Gerladine Page in Interiors), anxiously manipulative (think Mia Farrow in pretty much anything Allen directed her in after Hannah) or charismatically erotic (think Penélope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona) -- but this Allen woman is always bitter, sad and possessed of a vicious tongue. And -- most importantly -- the actresses inhabiting these brilliant, beleaguered women routinely deliver some of the most spectacular actressing in the ouevre of Woody Allen as the filmmaker stands back to watch these women let these eviscerating verbal barbs fly.
And rarely has this particular Woody Allen female stock character been performed with such full-throated confidence as Judy Davis does in the role of Sally.
When Davis's Sally announces that she and her husband of nearly 25 years will be separating, she does so with the obliquely self-satisfied verve of a novelist announcing the sale of movie rights, or a parent proclaiming their offspring's acceptance to Harvard. (Of course, we later learn that Sally thought herself to be the one who had settled in her marriage, that something better surely awaited her.)
When, however, she realizes that her marriage had been the only thing keeping her devastating loneliness at a safe remove, and that her husband has apparently found happiness with another while she remains alone, Davis's Sally soldiers on, guns-ablazing -- unconcerned with casualties left behind in her scorched earth strategy of complete vengeance.
Davis's Sally is perhaps most remarkable among Allen's difficult women for her utter lack of apology.
Davis permits the character's self-absorption to be total, self-ratifying, an end unto itself. She does not flutter with self-consciousness, or implode from the weight of her own angst.
Rather, Davis's Sally is solely concerned with maintaining the formidable edifice of her own ego (and blithely oblivious to whatever collateral damage she might cause) -- and why shouldn't she be? She's worth it! (She's a fox, not a hedgehog!)
I love that Davis's full-throated delivery transforms what might have been throwaway barbs into ballistic missiles. For Davis's Sally, the act of judging others comes as naturally as the act of breathing and -- in some ways -- is more essential than eating. As a result, Sally's sideways insults amplify both the character's grandiosity (as when she rants about Mahler not knowing when to stop) and her interpersonal tonedeafness (her articulate disdain for pretty much anything her date professes to admire). As a result, Davis's Sally is not nearly as pathetic as other iterations fo this Woody Allen stock character. (She is, however, a lot more obnoxious -- emphasis on the noxious.)
Yet, as Allen and Davis are both careful to communicate, Sally's obnoxiousness is part of her powerful appeal, as men fall this way and that over themselves in pursuit of Davis's Sally. Some men retreat (like the unknowing coworker Paul who stands helplessly as Davis rants and rages on the phone with her ex). Others unwittingly pursue (like the lovestruck Michael [played here by an ideally hunky Liam Neeson] who has no idea how outmatched he -- a hedgehog -- is by Sally, a fox.). But these unsuspecting men prove to be merely obstacles in Sally's path as she pursues her single-minded goal: to prove her husband wrong for wanting anyone but her.
And unlike most of these particular Allen women, Davis's Sally is victorious in her pursuit. Her estranged husband returns and, for Sally, this is a victory to savor.
I especially admire how deftly Davis maneuvers the primal and the polite in her performance, quickly revealing (and quickly concealing) the character's primal need/s in glimpses that sometimes last mere milliseconds.
Moreover, Judy Davis shows us this emotional foundation for Sally's generally awful behavior without ever excusing it. Davis's Sally is NOT -- deep in her heart of hearts -- a "good" person (she's actually sort of awful) and Davis shows that...gloriously.
All told, Davis is consistently spellbinding in the role. The movie becomes most alive when she's onscreen. And she somehow makes the most overtly obnoxious character on the screen also the most likable.
Judy Davis's performance as Sally proves to be a provocative, memorable and delightful performance of one of Allen's signature "difficult" women.

7 comments:

Curtis said...

Now this is a brilliant performance! Judy Davis breathes as much life into this character as Penelope Cruz did into Maria Elena.
Loved the hilarious comment about Mia Farrow's roles, post Hannah; he must have been writing from the heart.

Alex in Movieland said...

and when you think this role was written for Mia Farrow... :D

I LOVE this performance. It's one of my favorite nominations ever.

In case you guys wanna refresh your memories with that brilliant telephone scene, I've posted it on youtube, so that the entire world could enjoy it :P

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uhH3D0S1vM

Scott said...

Simply superb. I'll be surprised if she doesn't win the smackdown. Not only is her work far more impressive than Tomei's, I'd say it stands up well against any of the winners in the 1990s.

Alex in Movieland said...

Scott, not against Dianne Wiest's :)

Curtis said...

Definitely one of Allen's best female creations but not a shoo in for the win. I'm still waiting for the Miranda Richardson Sunday.

P.S. I'd say Juliette Binoche is probably the most deserving 90's winner in this category.

Scott said...

Well I didn't mean "stands up well against" to mean absolutely better than. :)

par3182 said...

this, along with jean hagen's lina lamont, ranks as the greatest performance not to win in this category