...Jocelyne LaGarde in Hawaii (1966)
approximately 23 minutes and 59 seconds
roughly 15% of film's total running time
LaGarde's Malama is also a devoted and intelligent leader of her people, wary of the haoli (white folks) landing with increasing frequency on her islands while also recognizing the imperative that she lead her people in adapting to the changing times.
Within her first scenes, it becomes clear that LaGarde's Malama rules by instinct, yet -- as also becomes quickly evident -- Malama's seeming impetuosity is girded by an unfailing wisdom. The film conveys this paradox when Malama meets the narrative's protoganonists.
LaGarde's Malama immediately adores the minister's wife (Julie Andrews doing a warmed over version of her Maria von Trapp -- you know, after she's married and gets all prim and boring) while loathing the minister upon first sight (Max Von Sydow in a nearly intolerable performance of one-note priggishness). The audience, I dare say, couldn't agree more with Malama on these quick assessments.
Malama effectively adopts Andrews' Jerusha as her teacher (Malama wants to learn to write English so she can pen a plea to the American president, James Monroe) and so the Hales settle on Maui, as missionaries to Malama and her people.
The character of Malama is, for me, one of only two genuinely interesting characters in this vast and overwrought epic of colonialism, evangelism and capitalist expansion. (The other interesting character would be Malama's son, Keoki, played here with generosity and strong potential by Manu Tupou.) The character of Malama is a formidable, charismatic presence whose apparent simplicity is belied by her strategic sophistication in maintaining the integrity of her people in the face of the haoli threat.
The character of Queen "Ruth" Malama provides a jolt of complexity into this deadly dull epic -- not quite enough to bring the film completely to life, mind you, but enough to make it mildly interesting for its middle hour or so.
Jocelyne LaGarde's performance as Malama brings its own jolt of complexity, but in an entirely different way. LaGarde's nomination is notorious for being the only nominated performance by an actor for their single film role. Biographical details on LaGarde are scant (note how I couldn't even find a headshot of her out of character), but, as the story goes, the French-speaking Tahitian was "discovered" for the role because of her great look and impressive screen presence; thus, in spite of the fact that she spoke neither English nor Hawaiian, LaGarde was hired for the role and learned her lines phonetically with the assistance of a voice coach. (I am not attesting to the veracity of any of these details. That's just the way the story goes.)
LaGarde's performance, then, emerges as an emblematically curious conundrum. Is it LaGarde's work merely that of an extraordinary physical specimen poked and prodded into enacting the tasks of the pivotal role of Malama? Or does LaGarde's performance represent an unlikely but formidable acting accomplishment?
I'm not sure. There are times in LaGarde's performance when I'm struck by the curiosity of it, when I'm mostly stunned by the spectacle as LaGarde appears to channel Hope Emerson, Yul Brynner and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson all at once.
But there are other times when I find LaGarde's performance to provide some of the only moments of genuine emotion in the entire picture. And it's striking that LaGarde's performance emerges (along with Gene Hackman's and Lou Antonio's, though they're in bit parts) as the only characterization to permits meaningful complexity. Indeed, I find that I'm adamantly disinclined to dismiss LaGarde's performance as a mere stunt.
LaGarde's line readings aren't always the most nuanced, but her characterization is vivid and consistent, bearing a subtlety that surpasses that presented in most of the principal roles.
LaGarde's is a perplexing but memorable and, at times, fascinating performance. Nomination worthy? I'm not so sure. But a valid, worthwhile performance contributing some of the most interesting actressing in the film? Absolutely.