Sunday, May 23, 2010

Take Three: Veronica Cartwright

Craig here with the first in a new Film Experience series: Take Three. Each Sunday I'll write about a different character/supporting actor's work through three of their most notable films.

First up is Veronica Cartwright.

Take One: Lambert's Game (not Ripley's)

Through circumstance or by design, Veronica Cartwright's career, more than most, epitomises the accomplished character actor perfectly. She's an ideal starting point for this series by the fact that one of her first major roles was to be the female lead in a certain 1979 sci-fi-horror film. But, upon arriving on the set of Ridley Scott's Alien for a wardrobe fitting, her role was instead re-allocated at the last minute to one Sigourney Weaver. Cartwright could have been sci-final girl Lieutenant Ellen Ripley who went on to destroy several planets/spaceships and save countless people from Xenomorph hell over three more Alien films, but she was given the film's secondary female role of Nostromo Navigator Lambert. In space no-one could hear her scream 'I was robbed'.

So close, yet so far. It wasn't to be her big breakthrough role. (Although I did wonder if one excised scene, that was reinstated for the 2003 Director's Cut, where Lambert slaps Ripley contained a modicum of triumph.) But Cartwright made Lambert her own: imagine Alien without her identifiably fretful and very human distress and maybe we, the audience, wouldn't have so closely experienced that feeling alongside her and everyone else aboard the Nostromo. Really, she was the only crew member who you could almost see thinking, 'All this, right here, is messed up!' Her reactions were authentic (as has been widely reported, particularly during the 'chestburter' scene), and surely we too would've had a WTF! moment if a phallic, acid-toothed E.T. leapt from John Hurt's midsection right in front of us - especially when you were expecting breakfast. But regardless of the demotion, before and, particularly, after Alien Cartwright's career of incomparable supporting roles has been truly singular all the same.

Take Two: Invasion of the scene-stealer

Many of Cartwright's characters seem to be a moment's unexpected shock revelation away from hysteria. She often plays women almost permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And how she does it. The very last scene of Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is apt proof of Cartwright's ability to make her characters almost implode with psychological strain (especially when faced with a tightly-permed, faux-Donald Sutherland pointing and screaming at her). And here, as with Lambert, her Nancy Bellicec is the eyes and ears of the audience, and, ultimately, the sole vessel in whom the audience can replicate, and see reflected, their fears (that's when she's not the sole vessel for a devilish disposal of cherry stones - see below): Sutherland is fingering her/us out as the next unwilling victim(s) in the film's last shot. That last scene, and actually much of the film, belongs to her: but what would we do in her shoes? (Apart from run like the wind!)

She's the last woman standing (as opposed to the second-from-last a year later in Alien), and her final, palpably frenzied trauma-fit at having got so far only to be betrayed is conveyed through her thoroughly convincing decent into head-shaking hysteria. If Not-Quite-Sutherland and co. didn't actually get their slimy hands on her in 1978 (I like to think Nancy did actually manage to escape alien conversion), she wasn't so lucky when their 2007 pod-peep-ancestors eventually got to her when she cropped up - as Nicole Kidman's rightfully paranoid patient Wendy - in the fourth Snatchers incarnation The Invasion. (I may as well chuck in two Invasions for the price of one here.)

Cartwright & Kidman having a staring contest in The Invasion - whoever blinks first is clearly still human

Again she stands for everything that's worth remaining human for, providing a heartfelt turn during the most affecting scene in the film, when she breaks through her fears and admits, "my husband is not my husband". This all points (no pun intended) to the fact that on-screen aliens have been following Cartwright characters around for years: she also added much distinguished gravity to 2005's loose Snatchers telly revamp Invasion (revisiting of past work in new formats continued again recently in TV's Eastwick, though she doesn't reprise her role as Felicia) and was Emmy-nominated as alien abductee Cassandra Spender for four episodes of The X-Files. She works well opposite organisms of otherworldly threat, it seems.

Take Three: One order of cherry pie - to go!

When that trio of love-starved New England women became The Witches of Eastwick someone had to provide staunch opposition to all that magical mayhem ("Oh, Clyde, I have nothing against a good fuck, but there is danger here and somebody has to do something about it!"). For a short spell she turned the film's plot into a witch-vs-bitch-fight. Cartwright's God-fearing nutjob-on-crutches Felicia Alden got all hot under the buttoned-up collar as the ideal sparring partner for Jack Nicholson's "horny devil" and provided two of the film's very best scenes: her church freakout and, yup, that prolonged fruity puke-a-thon.

Hold on, Nicholson's been at the fruit bowl - she's about to blow!

Cartwright's pin-sharp skill at creating profoundly memorable characters is none more evident than in Witches: you see the very bile rise up in Felicia's face; she vehemently means every word in her religious rants, summoning up as she does some kind of wicked, wrathful acting goddess. With cherry-scented vomit (or even hospital oatmeal) smeared ungainly across her mouth, and spitting hellfire sermons at everyone who'll listen, Cartwright was unafraid to eschew vanity to maintain supporting performance perfection. If the Alien lead was stolen away, a Best Supporting Actress nod was more so here. Remote-control fruit-based possession doesn't get any classier than this.

An indication of just how great Cartwright was in Witches, for me, was how much I missed Felicia after put-upon husband Richard Jenkins offs her with a fire poker (how apt). I always thought she exited the film way too soon. Felicia was the film's mentally-unbalanced fly in the ointment, trying to keep apart the devil and the divas. In fact, I wanted a last reel comeback where - in a feat of unearthly cinematic crossover - she could've combined elements of these three key films and turned everyone into vacant pod-people by projectile-spewing acid-covered cherry stones all over them. Ridiculous, yes - but then that's how much pure, enjoyable delectability I believe Cartwright adds to a film. She's simply the supporting sci-fi-horror scream queen.

Alien invasions or no, there's very little that can dehumanise a great Veronica Cartwright role. She's been delivering supporting actor greatness to us for years, it's time once again show her our own supportive gratitude in return.

14 comments:

mrripley said...

Craig I thank you.

I love ms v and had the pleasure of an e mail from her just 6 months ago.

I too consider her a missed supporting actress oppurtunity in
79 - shoulda been there in that weak year,has anyone on film captured fear quite so well as she did here.

87 - some of her line readings are genius "you have no spine clyde" and my fave "that son of a bitch who bought that house" & the scene in and outside church.


t/you.

p.s. love her deleted scene bitch slap to sigourney weaver.

NATHANIEL R said...

thanks for covering her. She's so underdiscussed and always memorable.

witches of eastwick is an intersting cast because she's sort of the goodguy but the film never displays her as likable and it's the witches and the devil that are continually "charming"

also. i guess i'm not up on my aliens lore because i had NO idea she was supposed to be Ripley. good sport then.

City_Of_Lights said...

What a weird coincidence....I just watched The Invasion yesterday for the second time. Very nice profile Craig.

Whenever I think of Veronica I think of two things....her as a child actor in The Children's Hour, and as a mom in Flight of The Navigator, an 80's Disney Channel film that aired more times than Shawshank Redemption on TNT.

She has one of those faces, and voices, you don't forget. I always perk up when I catch her unexpectedly on screen.

NATHANIEL R said...

i actually always think of lost in space. because i am ancient.

NATHANIEL R said...

but that's her sister Angela.

but the mind will go where the mind wants to go.

MattyD. said...

This feature made my day. I've loved Veronica Cartwright since I watched "The Birds" all the time as a child and found her the only character who was my eyes, ears, and brain. Funny to see that become such a common thread in her career!

dl said...

Veronica Cartwright is one of the most under-appreciated character actressess- she can share that title with Judy Greer. She can do drama , comedy, and action (Alien) with such effortlessness. Ms. Cartwright's eyes and her facial bone structure is always memorable - similar to Bette Davis . She is not a classic beauty and that works in her favor. I just wish Veronica was given the opportunities that Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, & Meryl Streep were given. Ms. Cartwright is definitely their equal. Because of her beyond brilliant turn in "Witches of Eastwick" , she should be working regularly whether on film or tv.

P.S. It would be a treat to see her act on stage.

MRRIPLEY said...

Nice to see such support and would be interesting to know nat's 87 supp actresses.

Craig said...

And she stole every scene she was featured in Straight-Jacket (2004).

Btw, very well-written and thought-provoking article, Craig.

Marsha Mason said...

So underrated in Alien which I coincidentally just watched last week. Such an expressive face. She really doesn't have that many lines in that movie, but she's in it the whole time, and you know everything you need to know about her just by watching her face.

judy holder said...

What dl said - every single word of it. She's one of those actresses I always want to see more of, and see more often. (I am liking the idea of her in a Showtime series, something where she can show off her range a la Tara or Nurse Jackie or - something for goodness sake!)

I had no idea she was supposed to be Ripley, btw. God, the irony of that.

Joe said...

One of my favorite roles for VC is the role of Marjorie in Bernice Bobs Her Hair. Has anyone else seen it? She's actually very pretty in that role, but the villian of the piece. I've always loved her performances, and have to say that her screams as she's done in by the alien make that scene one of the scariest in any film. period. I'm looking forward to seeing The Yellow Wall Paper with Ms Cartwright in the cast.

Craig Bloomfield said...

@mrripley - Glad you enjoyed the piece.

@Craig - thanks for the kind words.

@Joe - I want to see BBHH. I read the Fitzgerald story just last year - so good.

Me said...

I have had the pleasure of her company on a couple of occassions and just wanted to add that she is also an incredible person and a joy to be around. A class lady and one of the best actors working today! So great for you to showcase her. Where would the movies and TV be without stellar character actors as she?