This past week my mind kept drifting back to John Sayles' Passion Fish (1992). This is not an altogether rare occurrence. It's just one of those films. The general feel of it stays with you and, for me, there are few screen moments about acting as memorable as the 'anal probe' scene. Don't ask me to explain. You'll just have to see the film.
John Sayles had his breakthrough in 1980 with The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a film which would heavily influence the Oscar-nominated The Big Chillthree years later. Seven introduced audiences to the superb thespian David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck.) and for that alone, John Sayles should be more celebrated than he is. Like many directors whose films feature heavily populated ensembles, Sayles has a repertory of sort and Strathairn is the chief star having appeared in seven of his films.
Despite all of the juicy roles Sayles has written and directed for actors over the course of his career, only one performer has ever emerged with an Oscar nod. The lucky actor? Mary McDonnell. In Passion Fish she played an actress bound to a wheelchair. She lashes out at everyone but eventually meets her match in a strong-willed nurse played by Alfre Woodard. Both actors had been nominated for an Oscar previously: Mary for Dances with Wolves (1990), Alfre for Cross Creek (1983). Though Alfre won the Independent Spirit and was Globe nominated she was rudely passed over come Oscar time, despite this film being entirely dependent on the duet between the two actors.
I was thinking about Passion Fish this week because both of these women were starring on my television set. As some of you noticed, I have become hopelessly obsessed with the new Battlestar Galactica wherein Mary McDonnell plays the sudden unelected President of a nearly obliterated human race in outer space (take that Geena Davis). Ms. McDonnell is excellent in the series: equal parts tough, confident, scared out of her wits, and leading with several decks stacked against her. Meanwhile, over on Wisteria Lane, Alfre Woodard has a much larger audience on ABC's Desperate Housewives. On paper Alfre's latest career turn is the clear winner. Imagine it. Do you want to star in a low budget cable series based on a failed 70s sci-fi series or co-star in the most popular show on television? But that's the funny part about the filmed arts. On paper is never the same thing as onscreen. McDonnell has arguably the best role of her career while Woodard has one of her most thankless. This great actress has been reduced to repeating the same scene relentlessly in a season-long subplot that has barely budged an inch for months. What's more her whole storyline as Betty Applewhite has uncomfortably racist undertones. Hers is the only black family on a mostly white show and there's been lots of unfortunate shots of the lily white leads staring at her house and her family with great suspicion. Desperate Housewivesis an entertaining show but its horribly uneven and can sometimes can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Battlestar Galactica, however, is a true gem. You should not go one more week without seeing it.
Sometimes TV is where you have to go to find your best role ever (Edie Falco, Mary McDonnell, Sarah Jessica Parker). It's often where you go for steady employment inbetween movie gigs (Alfre Woodard). And in many cases its where you go when your movie career mysteriously dies (Geena Davis, Glenn Close, Juliette Lewis, and about a million others). TV giveth. TV taketh away.