You've heard the names. Or rather you've heard the name. OK, two names. If you've been listening to pre-Oscar taste makers, you'd believe that only two supporting actresses turned in valuable work this year: Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There). But don't be fooled. The talent pool runs deeper than two. Oscar voters will eventually choose five. I'd like to celebrate one. She begins her film famously on all fours; not an auspicious introduction, perhaps, but when you cast a strong actor they'll make the most of any position you place them in.
Marisa Tomei is a strong actor. She won a surprise Oscar early in her career by stomping comically through My Cousin Vinny (1992). Nine years later she sailed to new heights with an aching turn as a guilt ridden woman in In the Bedroom (2001) earning a second and well deserved Oscar nomination. And that's just scratching the surface of what's been a solid and varied career in television, stage and the big screen.
Too few hosannas have greeted her latest turn in the Sidney Lumet film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead . I suspect that that's because the film itself doesn't always know quite what to do with her, all caught up as it is in the downward spiral of two brothers (very grim) played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Gina happens to be sleeping with both of them, but despite her central trophy girl status she is often barely in the frame and sometimes suspiciously out of it -- the film's major error to my mind is that in its many frequent loops backwards to revisit the horrific family tragedy (a deadly robbery) at its center, it denies Gina her own chapter. She's the only major character who never gets to claim her own section of the film. Yet whenever she's onscreen, interest is piqued.
Tomei gifts Before the Devil with a welcome diversion from its often ugly and sweaty humanity with her physical beauty and Gina's flirtatious demeanor. More importantly, the actress rescues what could have been a nonsensical and blank character on the page. How she does it might seem counter intuitive but it works: she zeroes right in on the confusion, she bravely illuminates that very same blankness. Who is this woman exactly? In her first scene sudden tears and mood swings serve as red herring hints at depth and mystery -- but the performance, a sly one, keeps on denying any true reveal. Maybe she's just not there. The closer you get to looking at who Gina is, the more she seems to slip away.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview Marisa Tomei and I was nervous to ask her about what I saw as surprising emptiness in Gina. I loved the performance but I was afraid that I had misread it. I was relieved to hear Tomei confirm my suspicions. I'll use her own words here since they're more coherent than my own:
I always felt that she [Gina] was quite shallow. He [Sidney Lumet] felt that she had at least some of a heartbeat compared to the rest of the people in the piece...It all comes back to the body, doesn't it? Most discussions of her role in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead frequently reference her nudity. People like to refer to conspicuous movie nudity as "gratuitous" but when a character connects almost exclusively to others as a sexual object, it feels like an accurate display of the character's soul.
Ultimately, she really just is a leaf in the wind. I--I... you don't even have to say 'is she shallow or is she not?' She just doesn't have a center. She doesn't have a lot of self worth. She doesn't have a way of holding on to herself, particularly beyond her body.
When she's not in flagrante she's often seen watching the other characters. Typical movie wisdom would suggest that this marks her as the outsider who longs to be inside, forever tragically an in-law rather than a true family member. But one of the nifty dualities of the performance is that one begins to sense that Gina is only observant so as to not be truly observed, so as not to actually be involved. She can't get too close.
In bed she teases her husband "tell me what you're thinking. tell me what you're thinking", while rocking her hips suggestively. He stays mum. But in a post funeral sequence later in the film she gets her wish. Her husband actually does bare his soul, crying and needy. Her response? Embarrassment, fear, frustration, boredom. Her reaction shots are an almost comic mask of childlike discomfort mixed with adult pain. She might love him but ohmygod she wants out of that car.
She didn't want to know what he was thinking after all.
Even her exit scene, my favorite, is a difficult read. It might be the most awkward "storming out" scene in the movies. She's leaving! But Gina just kind of stands there, fumbling with her suitcase, feeling her way through the situation, desperate to provoke a reaction. She even asks for money. She wants to leave, doesn't she? Or perhaps she wanted a different reaction. When she doesn't get the reaction she wants, back inside her body she goes and out come the sexual barbs, self reassurances about her own desirability and guilty confessions.
Gina starts the movie on all fours and ends it defiantly on her own two feet but the effect will be temporary. This woman is still flailing around. As Marisa says, she's just "a leaf in the wind".
For more of my interview with Marisa Tomei (Talking Oscars, My Cousin Vinny, In the Bedroom and more), please check out the premiere episode of the Film Experience Podcast ! If you don't have access to iTunes you can download the mp3 version of the podcast with this link. Safari and RSS users can use this xml feed for the enhanced version.