Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) - Supporting Actress Sunday

There are some rare instances of exceptional actressing at the edges that, no matter how hard I try, continue to defy my powers of explication. They are the sorts of performances that remind you that the word "extraordinary" does not simply mean "remarkable" but also "very unusual." This is one such performance. I'm transfixed as I watch it, but flummoxed when I try to talk about it. Of course, I'm referring to the "extraordinary" trophy-snagging work of...

...Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously (1983)
approximately 36 minutes and 17 seconds
40 scenes
roughly 32% of film's total running time
Linda Hunt plays Billy Kwan, the Chinese-Australian photographer who awaits Australian foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson, in his beauty years) and who soon becomes the rookie reporter's closest collaborator.
A fixture among the loose cohort of Western journalists reporting on the political unrest in Indonesia circa 1965, Hunt's Billy Kwan is a stranger among strangers.
Short of stature (Billy's regular referred to as a "dwarf" by others within the narrative), and of mixed-race descent, Billy's an outsider everywhere he goes, which he -- through sheer force of personality -- parlays into a curious elite status.
He may not belong anywhere, but he gains access everywhere.
Gregarious, confident, and passionate, Billy also fancies himself to be something of an independent spy, a freelance covert agent assigned to keep an eye on the political scene in post-colonial Indonesia (and of the intricate social networks of the expatriate journalists).
In what is possibly the film's most compelling mystery, Hunt's Billy Kwan keeps "dossiers" on all the people he knows, in which he preserves photographs and observations of particular "figures of interest" in his world.
In Gibson's Guy, Hunt's Billy Kwan discovers his ideal collaborator -- a man capable of getting the story and getting the girl, all while Billy's right behind him making everything happen.
(Director Peter Weir utilizes an elaborate shadow puppet metaphor to underscore the ostensibly greater themes of the film, the most conspicuous of which is "who's really manipulating the characters in this oblique drama of adventure and intrigue").
As the journalists around him become absorbed in the minutiae of verifiable details and ideals of objectivity (all while behaving like drunken goons on a weekend pass), Billy remains convinced that he's the only one to understand what's right and what's wrong in this big picture.
Such grandiosity is both Billy's defining characteristic and, perhaps inevitably, his fatal flaw.
Linda Hunt's performance connects palpably to the character's central conflict and, in so doing, the actress crafts a performance that is, by turns, startling, strange and compelling.
Hunt's Billy is both a cynical realist and a sensitive idealist. His circumstances of birth have trained Billy to be a savvy manipulator -- someone who understands that it's sometimes easier to be the master of ceremonies while pretending to be the team mascot -- yet Hunt's searching performance underscores how nonetheless guided by an unusually open-heart.
Hunt's performance balances this cynicism and sensivity with an at times electrifying alacrity.
As Billy's ideals are shattered in quick succession by those around him, his manipulations become ever more cruel, possibly -- we are left to wonder as the film builds to its climax -- sinister.
But Billy is the film's moral compass (while Mel and Sigourney are its amoral, adventuring eye-candy), so his final actions necessarily reveal the character to be more of a martyr than a monster.
And Linda Hunt's performance as Billy Kwan remains a fascinating artefact.
The only example of gender-blind casting to have ever received the Academy's golden seal of approval, Hunt's performance proves difficult to parse for a couple reasons. First, the film's general style is one of glib realism, with the routinely familiar stock characters animated mostly by naturalistic grit (aka sweat, sex, booze and profanity). This is, with the exception of Hunt's Billy Kwan, the sort of movie where the costumer and casting director perform the main work of characterization. Hunt, on the other hand, is almost hyper-stylized in performance and affect -- a choice that both fits with and reveals the character but is sometimes jarring in this otherwise hyperrealistic cinematic landscape. Second, Hunt's physicality in the role is astonishing, not simply for the fact that this Connecticut-born actress is playing a biracial man but for how far beyond such notions of type this characterization effects. Hunt's Billy Kwan is not especially Asian nor especially male; Hunt's Billy Kwan is mostly just this weird little man named Billy Kwan. On stage, I suspect the cross-gender illusion would be incredibly effective; on film, Hunt's performance creates an astonishingly idiosyncratic creature who becomes, in some ways, the most visually jarring but emotionally "real" presence in this ostensibly realistic film.
Hunt's work in the role of Billy Kwan is utterly unique and, often, marvelous. And though the role and its presentation remain ripe for easy critiques of the more retrograde aspects of the film's status as a simple-minded, post-colonial parable, it's difficult to deny the accomplishment of Hunt's work -- both in terms of craftsmanship and emotional intensity -- in the role.
Linda Hunt's performance is strange, compelling and utterly unique. A fascinating entry into the canon of supporting actressness.


Encore Entertainment said...

So I assume then that you're a fan of the performance? I was not really bowled over...

StinkyLulu said...

I'm not sure I'd say that.

I do admire Hunt's work in the role and her work/character was the only thing about the movie I found remotely interesting. But beyond that I'm not sure...

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

I preferred her as Nurse Hooper in She-Devil.

Alex in Movieland said...

I've seen this waaaaay too long ago. I remember as a teenager thinking she was playing a transgendered or something, definitely not a man.

wasn't this directed by peter weir? he's such a tricky bastard :D in a good way.

p.s.: when do we get to VOTE? :D

Douglas Racso said...

i love her in the movie. but i did not love the movie at all

Fresca said...

Thanks for this. I'm compiling posts of some of my favorite interesting women in film, and linked to your review here.
(I think it's an excellent film, though I sure appreciated it more once I learned about Indonesia's history.)

Billy Kwan's "answer" to the question "What then must we do?" reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt:
"In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing,
the next best thing is the wrong thing,
and the worst thing you can do is nothing."