Cher in Silkwood (1983) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Oscar has something of a weakspot for entertainers "crossing over" as legitimate or serious actors, giving nomination nods to what appear in glow of the moment to be auspicious "second debut" performances. Yet, while Academy history has shown many such nominees to be flashes in the proverbial pan, few have delivered on such hyped promise and fewer still have proven themselves so handily as...

...Cher in Silkwood (1983)
approximately 28 minutes and 32 seconds
39 scenes
roughly 22% of film's total running time
Cher plays Dolly Pelliker -- housemate, co-worker and close friend of Karen Silkwood (a solid and surprising Meryl Streep), the labor activist whose mysterious death provides the narrative impetus for this strange and fascinating film.
For early 1980s audiences who mostly knew the performer for her glamorous and glittery popmusic/television/media persona, Cher's presence in this film -- as the homely sidekick, no less -- appears as something of a startling incongruity.
It's worth remembering that Cher's performance in Silkwood marks only her second serious film role (her first came a year earlier in Robert Altman's little-seen adaptation of her stage success Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) as well as her first appearance in a major dramatic picture.
The role of Dolly Pelliker is not an especially complicated one. The role follows, in some ways, the conventional "best friend" template and serves, mostly, to provide a clarifying counterpoint to the character of Karen. Karen's a striver, while Dolly's content just getting along. Karen's friends with everyone, while Dolly's only close to Karen and Karen's boyfriend Drew (the hunkarific Kurt Russell). Karen enjoys being a rebel, while Dolly's only an outsider because she has to be.
Yet the role of Dolly is also surprisingly difficult, requiring the performer to vivify a guarded character who's on the sullen and/or depressive side.
And Cher's good in the role. Very good, even, at certain moments. (Though her strongest turns arrive in Dolly's more playfully acerbic moments, as opposed to the accumulation of glum moments which make up most of the character's screen time.)
I recall Cher's performance in and nomination for Silkwood being somewhat dismissed by contemporary media commentators as a gimmick in which one of the era'a most glamorous icons was "slumming" or "playing pretend" as a grubby lesbian in a political film. I even recall Meryl Streep coming to the defense of Cher's actorly honor in more than one interview. Yet, viewing this film with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how easily it might have been to mistake Cher's performance as a stunt and to see the evidence of her actorly inexperience as lack of talent/skill.
For, truth be told, Cher's performance as Dolly is a bit muddy.
Indeed, Cher's characterization of Dolly is not especially precise. (I'm never quite sure whether Dolly's somewhat taciturn and brusque by nature, or depressive and surly because her life's hit a bad patch.) And major character moments remain somewhat oblique. (Director Nichols's use of longshot during most of Dolly's major moments might be the source of this, and its a curious choice given the director's propensity for tight shots elsewhere in the film.)
Often, Cher's Dolly is more of a presence than a person in the film, which makes it difficult for me to get really enthusiastic about the performance. This fact is made all the more conspicuous by my complete geekery over the exceptional work by veteran side-player Sudie Bond, in the bizarre but heart-rending role of Thelma (Dolly & Karen's shrill, bewigged co-worker who's "Silkwood shower" scene remains -- for me -- one of the most harrowing scenes in this or any film). Sudie Bond's performance is truly great actressing at the edges and thrills me in ways that disrupt my enthusiasm for Cher's tentative (and less vivid) work closer to the center of this film.
That said, Cher's accomplishment in the role definitely slashes and burns Cher's previous celebrity image to announce her arrival as a legitimate, serious actress, a status that would be confirmed time and again in the coming decade. And while it might sound like I don't think Cher's nomination for this performance is an entirely worthy one, that's not exactly true. One moment, in particular, sells me on Cher's performance as Dolly.
The moment arrives late in the film, shortly after nuclear contamination has been discovered in the home shared by Streep's Karen and Cher's Dolly. The subsequent investigation soon reveals that Karen's the only one who's "cooked" and the anomalous aspects of the case impel Karen, Drew and Dolly to travel to Los Alamos for further assessment. As the scene begins, Cher's Dolly is nearly giddy with contentment, traveling once again with her chosen family and joking about being in the newspaper alongside her friend Karen. When Streep's Karen, however, presses Cher's Dolly about whether Dolly might have clued investigators to the fact that Karen possessed some potentially incriminating documents, Dolly's affect shifts abruptly.
In a flash, Dolly's smile crumbles. Her body contracts, her eyelids become heavy, and her previously childlike exuberance is replaced by a grim, terrified guilt. In this moment, more than perhaps any other in the film, Cher conveys Dolly's guilelessness as well as her desperate fear of losing her friends (who are as family to her). It's a mysterious yet palpable moment of potential deception -- a defining moment for the character -- and Cher conveys Dolly's complexity with palpable immediacy.
In moments such as these, Cher's work in the role of Dolly -- while not always extraordinary in and of itself -- remains fascinating, in part, because of just how clearly it augurs the quickening of Cher's gifts as a formidable actress.
In the wallflower role of Dolly, Cher deploys her formidable charisma and presence in service of the character's defining vulnerability. And while her characterization is nowhere near as precisely expert as those crafted by the journeymen actors working all around her her, Cher's performance in Silkwood nonetheless signals her arrival as a film actor of exceptional, compelling promise.


Aaron said...

I didn't notice it the first time around, but this time when I watched the film I noticed precisely what you are talking about at the film's end. There are these moments where it seems as though Dolly is guilty of something. This is particularly strange in that shot in the airplane that you've capped where the camera keeps Streep and Russell in focus and even though both of them are focusing on Cher, she is kept out of the focus of the camera, softly blurred.

This makes Cher's performance really interesting to me, and makes that pan near the very end that goes past Sudie Bond and then winds up on Cher's crying face an ambiguous one. It made me think, just for a second, that maybe Dolly put that tranquilizer in Karen's drink.

The more I think about it, (and I know I spend far too much time thinking about queer killers) the more I think this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers.

Encore Entertainment said...

Very insightful. I need to start posting my thoughts on the actresses.

Matt said...

Glad you appreciated Sudie Bond's performance. I found it authentic and her radiation scene disturbing.

chadd said...

Sudie Bond was also in Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, with Cher. She played the wife of the owner of the Woolworth's store who ran the store after her husband died. I remember when they all told her to turn off Jesus and get real. Also how she would take half empty glasses of Orange-Aid and dump them back in the Orange-Aid dispenser. Gr8 actress and a gr8 film. CHER rocks!!!

Joe Shetina said...

The scene where Thelma gets cooked still haunts me. I don't think Cher really shows her stuff until the last half. Like you said, when her face so suddenly changes when Meryl Streep asks her if she tipped them off. Left a sinking feeling in my stomach.


i'd disagree that Nichols is all that found of tight closeups elsewhere in this movie. I was amazed watching it again how much of the film is in longshots (so underused nowadays when all film directors seem to be thinking television with every framing choice) so i don't think he was singling Cher out.

but i do heartily agree that Sudie Bond is terrific as Thelma. And I also really enjoyed Diana Scarwid even if she went for flash over complete naturalism like most of the performers here

StinkyLulu said...

@Nathaniel: I think I agree with you, but there are a number of head/shoulders shots of Sudie and Meryl (and even Craig T and the manager guy) but comparatively few of Cher & Kurt.