Friday, July 27, 2007

Michelle in the Time of Color Lines

Three reasons to take another look at Love Field:

1) Nathaniel, like many a Pfan, spends a lot more time on Michelle's other 1992 performance. You know the one. meow
2) Hairspray is not the first time Michelle has walked the (color) line, and in a platinum wig to boot.
3) We're all actressexuals here. We can look at Love Field whenever we want. Is it a crime to look at Love Field?

Love Field, named after the Dallas airport where the Kennedys landed on November 22, 1963, doesn't have the greatest reputation. It was one of those early 90s movies that only premiered several years after principal photography wrapped, and only in very limited release, because the studio, Orion, had gone bankrupt. Think Blue Sky, and consider a mini-thesis about doomed vanity projects where major actressexual icons of the 80s play erratic 60s housewives with blinding hair. Also think Blue Sky because, like Lange in that film, Pfeiffer got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Love Field in a reputedly dire year for that category, and despite the fact that neither woman could get anyone to buy a ticket for their movies. Even the die-hard fans weren't so bowled over. Have you ever heard Nathaniel be this terse about Michelle? At the Pfeiffer Pfan ConPventions, they schedule the "Love Field Love-In" at 8:30am on the day people are still arriving, if you know what I mean, and most of the conversation still turns to Susie Diamond.

I'm not on a major recuperation mission here; Love Field is not a great movie, and it often can't decide whether to play as a farce, as you might expect from screenwriter Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex, Happy Endings) or as a Serious Drama, as the studio probably preferred and director Jonathan Kaplan, who had recently directed Jodie Foster to an Oscar in The Accused, seems to have wished. Watch the scene where Lurene Hallett (Pfeiffer) regrets to inform fellow bus passenger and cutey patootie Paul Cater (Dennis Haysbert) that she has just mistakenly reported him as a kidnapping suspect to the FBI, and that they'll both hafta skeedaddle out of this Tennessee Greyhound station lightning quick. Roos thinks this is funny, I think, though not without the charged implications of racial profiling and unnecessary roughness. The movie wouldn't work if it were only played for comedy, but where Roos' avalanche of dramatic incidents and tart dialogue cry out for some kind of halfway-screwball approach, Kaplan ladles in lots of portentous night-shots and cheesily ominous music, as though he's been inspired by the hokiest, cheapest aspects of Mississippi Burning.

Kaplan earns his keep in the two most carefully framed and inventively shot sequences in the movie: an eerie, extended crane shot in which the rest of Dallas is slowly learning the lethal fate of JFK (but before Kennedy disciple Lurene has figured it out), and the last shot of the movie, which captures Lurene's flakiness as well as her emotional generosity without totally pulling focus away from Haysbert's climactic reunion with his daughter. But this careful balancing of tones, the sweet and the serious, the kooky and the acute, is a feat the Pfeiffer pulls off much more often than her director does, and much more memorably.

Notice how, when Kaplan attempts to push the piece in different tonal directions, he veers pretty wildly, disrupting almost any consistency in the piece. Here is Love Field as a perky, semi-serious period comedy...

...and here is Love Field as a glossy celebration of its heavenly star...

...and here is Love Field as a risky, color-saturated, almost expressionist melodrama about race, class, gender, and political inequalities:

Ungainly, no? Michelle has to work to keep up with a movie that keeps changing its mind about itself, but by hitting so many notes within her own performance—comic, earnest, self-deluding, lonely, alarmed, frightened, plaintive, slapstick, romantic, angry—she convinces us that the schizophrenic movie is reflecting Lurene's many sides, rather than (more likely) forcing its actress into a kind of recovery mission. The through-thread in the performance is that Pfeiffer doesn't pretend that Lurene is bright or "underappreciated": she has an unreasonable identification with Jackie Kennedy, she makes several faux pas about The State of the Negro, and she doesn't even learn from her mistakes, because she makes the same faux pas again. And yet, Pfeiffer shows that Lurene can be slow-witted and stupid without playing her as slow-witted and stupid. Instead, she plays the good intentions and the human warmth, and allows the script to clarify when and how these benevolent traits get misplaced or misfired. We always understand Lurene (and occasionally feel sorry for her), even when we laugh at her a little. She gives the character several moments of realizing that she's being condescended to—when Haysbert offers her a Look Magazine because it "has a lot of pictures," when he and an African-American auto mechanic lament Lurene's white-liberal dizziness—but Pfeiffer makes an interesting choice to freeze up and cloud over her face in these moments. Lurene doesn't get all Angela Bassett or all Erin Brockovich about being made a fool of; recognizing her errors, Lurene realizes she doesn't know the "correct" way to defend herself, and so she lingers in inchoate uncertainty.

After Love Field, Kaplan's career mostly detoured into failed B-movies like the Andie MacDowell western Bad Girls and the bracing but forgettable Madeleine Stowe thriller Unlawful Entry. Lots of other people went on to do better work, often to the explicit discredit of Love Field: Roos wrote sturdier, more adventurous movies, some of which he even directed with real aplomb (tonally, if not visually); Haysbert magnificently semi-romanced another deluded but gorgeously-intentioned white housewife in Far from Heaven; blink-and-you'll-miss-her Beth Grant earned better spotlights for her delicious caricatures of high-strung eccentrics in Donnie Darko and Little Miss Sunshine. As for Pfeiffer, she rode a bus much more expressively in the opening scenes of Frankie and Johnny (still my favorite of her performances) than she does here, and the daring stylization of Catwoman and romantic raptures of Countess Ellen Olenska made Love Field look like a shoestringy, between-commitments type of project. As the 90s wore on, she took a lot more of those movies (To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, One Fine Day, Up Close & Personal, The Story of Us...), so maybe Love Field, sticking out in odd, unbeloved ways amidst the most exciting and courageous passage in her career, looks unflattering now as a harbinger of future films that wouldn't quite deserve her, or demand enough of her.

But hell, you know? It's an admirable and engaging performance, and she did win Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. She gets some great moments out of a hot pink carrying-case, a partially memorized license plate, a cantaloupe-colored suit with matching hat, a missed encounter with Jackie O., and a nervous grab at her unfastened sweater as she briskly, hilariously walks diagonally through her final shot. Pfeiffer's Lurene is certainly the equal of agreeable also-rans in other years, like Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary or (dare I suggest it?) Annette Bening in Being Julia, and though no sensible voter would have denied the 1992 Best Actress Oscar to Emma Thompson in Howards End, all four of the fellow nominees (to include Sarandon in Lorenzo's Oil, Deneuve in Indochine, and the marvelous Mary McDonnell in Passion Fish) deserve more credit than the media of the moment afforded them. Pfeiffer's Lurene is not an immortal creation, but in fact she's agreeably and appropriately miniature: a kind, sheltered gal who isn't quite as silly as she looks, nor as sober and stately as star-vehicle sometimes require. She's behind glass a little bit, tentatively tapping on the door of a wider world that she doesn't know much about. It's fun to join her for the outset of that journey.


John T said...

Nick, it's great to read your reviews again! I will be pushing this film (which, I'll admit, has never hit the top of my Pfeiffer viewing) up my Netflix list.


thank you thank you

i haven't had internet access but i'm on for the moment and lovintg this.

i'm so glad other people see her genius ;)

Anonymous said...

Never seen the movie, but Nick you've turned it into a mission!


sigboy said...

who were everyone's 92 best actresses mine were

pfeiffer - love field
sarandon - lorenzo's oil
mcdonnell - passion fish
thompson - howard's end
farrow - husbands and wives

with nods too

richardson - enchanted april
jason leigh - single white female
balk - gas food lodging
davis - a league of their own
demornay - the hnd that rocks the cradle

Anonymous said...

I liked very much your reviews. But frankly I still think LOVE FIELD perf undeservedly outshone the other (and IMHO far better) Pfeiffer's perf of 1992.
I always thought that if academy voters and critics in general were a little bit more nonconformist the best catwoman ever (don't care what the three girls from "TO WONG FOO" could think about it!) could have had her due.
Of course I'm happy Pfeiffer won the best actress prize on Berlin. It's good when the internional film fests celebrate the talent, no matter if the stardom is involved too, just like in the Pfeiffer's case...I remember too many times when, for example, Nicole Kidman was neglected the best actess trophy which went instead to less glamorous, famous and (often) talented thespians.
I remember very well that regarding the Academy Awards that year was considered in general poor for the best actress race and Thompson's victory was very, very foretold.

My ideal line-up:
1) Catherine Deneuve (Indochina)-not a great fan of the film but it's good to think LaDeneuve as academy award nominee.
2) Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns)
3) Susan Sarandon (Light Sleeper)-Pfeiffer's same problem, the more conformist perf scored the nod
4) Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct)-and I'm not kidding about it
5) Emma Thompson (Howard's End)

Alt: Richardson, August, MacDonnell, Leigh, Stowe.

Mirko S.

Michael Petrarca said...

I also consider Frankie and Johnny to be her finest performance ( not one false moment start to finish). That said, I recently watched Love Field with some family members. At the end, my mother looked at me and said "that was great". Actually, it is coming on ELOVE channel in 5 minutes. So we all know this movie in't great but her performance is. I actually fell in love with her character and Michelle's perfomance in this role when she takes the young girl behind the barn to go to the bathroom. Upon seeing something in the newspaper she falls down and gets up quickly with her underpants still around her ankles. I loved Pfeiffer and Lurene a that momemt. I agree that Batman Returns is phenomenal but have always felt that the movie as a whole is unwatchable and that takes away from her performance. When I watch it I skip to her parts and igore the rest. The reviews for her performance in Love Field were incredible especially New Yorker, LA Times, and NY Times. Well got to go because I just heard "It must have rained all night". We all kow what that means.

Posts like these just remind me how underappreciated this actress is, especially by the greater Hollywood community.

Thank you for these incredible posts. "Thank you thank you, she doesn't have much time left". She is incredible. Goin' back to Love Field.

Anonymous said...

My 1992 picks (without having seen Pfeiffer):

1) Emma Thompson (Howards End)
2) Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct)
3) Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish)
4) Whoopi Goldberg (Sister Act)
5) Josie Lawrence (Enchanted April)


NicksFlickPicks said...

For me, Stone and McDonnell are duking it out for the fifth spot. I'm always a little less impressed with Stone after I watch Basic Instinct, whereas McDonnell has been a fresh discovery both times I've seen Passion Fish... but Stone's is also the most memorable performance with the most iconic and craftily played moments. Alfre Woodard is up there for Passion Fish, too, but I don't think she's quite as strong as McDonnell, especially when her father shows up.

Oh, my top four are Thompson, Farrow, Cora Lee Day in Daughters of the Dust, and Tilda Swinton in Edward II. Both of the last two were festival hits in '91 but debuted theatrically in the US in '92.

I have more to say on this subject, but I'm saving it for a feature on my own site. [/tease]

Thanks for all the kind responses to the post, right away! Filling Nathaniel's shoes is a tall order.


my lineup would probably be


Glenn Dunks said...

I haven't seen Pfeiffer, Sarandon, McDonnell or Thompson's performances from '92 (i know)

From 1992 I did like Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mia Farrow in Husbands & Wives and Ariyan Johnson from Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. enough that when I eventually see all the others they would be major factors and not just also-rans.

Anonymous said...

Memorable, Mr. Davis. Great reading, as usual.

This is one of Pfeiffer's best performances, mainly because the character, at first, is incredibly annoying.
Throughout the film, the nuances of her performance - voice and eyes - impress a lot.