Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Signatures: Patricia Clarkson

Adam of Club Silencio here with another look at my favorite actresses and their distinguishing claims to fame.


Patricia Clarkson is one the best supporting actresses alive. But the truth is, she's not always that supportive. While she's busy outshining whoever's in the lead spotlight, Patricia's characters are playing on the sidelines to their own cinematic agendas. She drifts into the background, glowing of warmth, wit and maturity. Much like a cinematic confidant, Patricia Clarkson's reliably brilliant even in her most minuscule moments. But to rely on Patricia Clarkson is to fall into the same trusting trap as her on-screen counterparts. She builds you up, holds you close and then pulls the rug out from under you.


Take Far From Heaven's vivacious socialite, Eleanor Fine, who teases the conflicted Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) about her reputation for "kindness to negroes." They share plenty of tawdry laughs and idle gossip, but when Cathy finds herself at its center and falling in love with her gardener, Eleanor is the first to show how quickly a warm shoulder goes cold. Patricia works her way into the film as Cathy's one common voice -- a woman seemingly open to progress. As the film progresses, its clear it was all vicious set up for some judgmental glares and the juiciest gossip yet.


Building on that twist is Patricia's turn as Vera in Dogville. Vera's character is the first to admit, "I cry too easily." She comes across as a woman timid and reserved, who's married to a cold lout but who passionately loves her children and isolating small town. She soon warms to the mysterious Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) once she's cared for her children and taught them lessons of Ovid. Soon they're laughing together, sharing favorite prose, and Grace is welcome in Vera's home anytime... for the next hour or so. Just as quickly as rumors of a philandering tryst spread back to Vera, we see this woman once prone to sadness become relentless in her pursuit of pain. She takes Grace's hard-earned collectibles and shatters them one by one, urging Grace's stoicism while begging for her tears. Patricia Clarkson again undermines her own sweet stoicism with a sour mistrust that goes far beyond the film's calculations. She'll smash your spirits and your Hummel figurines.


Of course Patricia's characters aren't all so savagely constructed. Often enough her characters are genuinely of good will, with reasonable motivations. Take her scant role Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a part that would probably have gone unnoticed in the hands of most actresses. Patricia manages to use her few scenes to work her way right into Vicky's trust and somehow gain pull on her relationships. In mere moments her character, Judy, begrudging of her own vapid vows, pushes Vicky into a radical and unlikely affair. Even when Patricia means well, in the end somebody still winds up getting shot.


Patricia Clarkson's career is High Art. In terms of screentime it probably adds up to so much less than the effect her scenes eventually have. Even if we should never depend on her characters, we can always depend on Patricia's one-of-a-kind radiance and sly "supporting" touch.

So what's your favorite Patricia Clarkson performance? More importantly: which stellar actress should she compliment and undermine next?

25 comments:

Fernando Moss said...

Dogville and High Art for me... but also The Station Agent.

Adriano said...

Besides the movies you mentioned (especially Dogville and Vicky Cristina Barcelona - she's my favourite character from the latter), I always think of her turn in Pieces of April.

But she also shines in two lesser-known performances: The Dying Gaul and Elegy. On the first one, she manages to be sexier than a sex scene between Peter Sarsgaard and Campbell Scott. On the second, she manages to be sexier than Penélope Cruz! She's the whole package, it's impossible not to adore her.

jbaker475 said...

Dogville and The Station Agent for me (although I still need to see Pieces of April). Her crying scene with Kidman in Dogville is just brilliant.

Rae Kasey said...

Pieces of April is the first one that comes to mind. She's marvelous in everything, though.

fruitburger said...

She's brilliant, Campbell Scott is brilliant. I wish the two of them would do a picture together that would get them recognized for the enormous talents they are. I love them both.

Encore Entertainment said...

Pieces of April comes to mind immediately. She was excellent there. But I'm glad you brought up Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I have no problem with Ms. Cruz's win but I really don't see how her acting or that of the other cameo horse [Viola Davis] was better than Clarkson's short but important turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. So what if her character was not responsible for a huge turn in the narrative. We're rewarding acting not the script and I think Clarkson was the best supporting actress in the film and of last year.

synecdoche said...

Besides "The Station Agent," I loved her on "Six Feet Under" as Ruth's spacey, failed-artist, occasionally drug-addled sister.

Cocoa Dior said...

I would love a three-way acting piece with Patricia, Marcia Gay Harden, and Catherine Keener. Can someone please pass me some kleenex, I think I just messed myself.

Kurtis O said...

"Even when Patricia means well, in the end somebody still winds up getting shot."

Love that line.

I love Patty in Pieces of April and The Station Agent.

I'd love to see Patty star opposite a "movie star" like Megan Fox just to show her what a real actress looks like.

Ryan said...

She is wonderful and all, but I don't really get why people are saying she was the best of VCB. Well each person has their own opinion.

I wonder how history will remember her? She isn't too terribly famous, not that she needs to be. I can see people unfortunately forgetting about her.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Ok, so I first saw her in Good Night, and Good Luck. And I remember thinking, "There's something ABOUT her." A few films later, I saw her after blind-buying Dogville, and I was just...holy crap. That's probably my favorite performance of hers, but it's followed closely by her turn in Married Life. Of course, I'll be the first to admit that I've not seen all the Patty C I should have.

Kent said...

No mention of HIGH ART? That is my favorite performance of Patricia Clarkson. She's so moody and mind shattering in the role as Greta.

Chris Na Taraja said...

I know this is not a TV sight, but I have to put a shout out for Patricia's amazing work as Ruth's sister Sarah in 6 FEET UNDER

I just saw the episode "The Rainbow of her Reasons" where she convinces her friend Fiona Kienschmidt to going hiking with her. Sadly, Fiona falls off the mountain and dies.

Patricia starts off the episode in shock, talking about how everything in the universe happens for a reason. Soon she is drunk in the kitchen, blaming herself for killing her friend and screaming at the top of her lungs "Am I the antichrist!!"

It made me laugh and cry at the same time. I just adore her.

Almost everything she has done is great, but HIGH ART is one of her best.

Chris Na Taraja said...

Pieces of April too.

BeRightBack said...

Adriano: The Dying Gaul! She is definitely the main thing making that movie worth seeing. So good.

Anonymous said...

THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS, a too much overlooked picture, but Clarkson and Close are outstanding in it...and also award-worthy...what a pity it was so ignored!!!

mirko

Blaise said...

1. good night and good luck
2. high art
3. elegy

Ange said...

I love Patti! And I have to say her role in Good Night, and Good Luck is just HOT:
"Name me one woman who asks her husband to take off his wedding ring before he goes to work."
"Ava Gardner."
I also love her doctor look in Lars and The Real Girls; Her role in All The Real Girls is great,too.
Anybody remember her in Murder One?
Can't wait for her performances in Shutter Island and Cairo Time.
And Ryan, no she will not be forgotten, at least not by me.

Alice said...

Yes, yes, must agree with all the Pieces of April calls - that was the first performance to spring to mind. She's pitch perfect.

As for who I'd pair her with, what about Helen Mirren or Cate Blanchett? In fact, I'd love her to take be a surprise lead, a la Richard Jenkins in The Visitor.

Scott said...

I'd pick her work in Dogville, which I think is one of the great performances of the decade. But I'm very happy to see that so many people loved her work in Elegy (and on Six Feet Under too).

Sean said...

Six Feet Under and Elegy for sure! Loved Pieces of April too.

NicksFlickPicks said...

High Art and Dogville waaaaaaayyyy out in front for me, but I second the love for Clarkson in The Safety of Objects. Also think she saves a ridiculous part in All the Real Girls, and as has been quoted around these parts before, I will always love Paul Schneider for saying, "Having Patricia cast as my Mom added a whole new layer of incestuous longing that wasn't in the script."

Fun write-up!

Wayne B. said...

Te adoro, Patty.

My favourite performance of hers has yet to come. You know the one, where some gloriously creative auteur gives her the lead role that she deserves. Yes, it's true that she's one of the most gifted supporting actresses but I'm ready for a full 90+ minutes of her!

But in all seriousness I go between High Art and The Station Agent for her best performance.

Glendon said...

Just watched The Station Agent, my God this woman can do it all. She even gets the best line of the movie.

RC said...

I love patrcia clarkson - she makes any movie better.

favorite roles are in films like Lars and the Real Girl, Pieces of April, The Station Agent.