Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Beautiful Decay of Helena Bonham-Carter

It's the premiere of the 4th Season of "Hump Day Hottie" -Every Wednesday @ the Experience

So I was listening to Radio Allegro's very rowdy very funny and very long movie special and not too far into that queer beast, there was what sounded like an unplanned but communal dissing of Helena Bonham-Carter's star turn in Sweeney Todd. Typical of my gemini nature I found myself wanting to both join in and defend her. For you see, I also have issues with the performance but I have deep love for "Miss Lucy Honeychurch" in all phases of her career.

Mrs. Lovett, one of the musical theater's unquestionably great roles, is more flexible than Sweeney Todd's new naysayers will have you believe. I've only seen three incarnations but in just those three she's been played with the emphasis on outre comic lunacy (Angela Lansbury), a vampy desperation (Patti Lupone) and now she's like a practical reserved vampire (Helena). Whether the new approach works is a matter up to individual interpretation, of course. But rather than debate the merits of the performance here I want to focus on the woman in all her glory.

To quote her suitor in A Room With a View, the film which brought her international fame at the sparkling age of 19 "Beauuuuutttyyyyy"

She's been one of the screen's most striking women ever since. Consider that round impossibly delicate face, the huge haunting brown orbs we'll call eyes and, as Tim Burton and his cameramen are proud to point out, an ample and inviting bosom.

Helena was also the star attraction in not one but two of the greatest sex scenes of the past decade of film (Wings of the Dove and Fight Club) and yet filmmakers, even her real life love Tim Burton, don't often seem to capitalize on her eroticism. At least not in pleasurable ways. It's both fascinating and disturbing to me that so many of her films have taken care to either dismantle or desecrate the beauty. She meets a gruesome uglifying ending in more than one of her features: Frankenstein and Sweeney Todd are birds of a feather in this sick way and both were directed by men she was sleeping with. Hmmm....

Grafting death and decay onto her doll like prettiness have made her into something of a goth icon (Fight Club and the relationship with Tim Burton didn't hurt) but that came as a surprise to this early adopter. Who among us that fell in love with her royal prettiness in Lady Jane or her ornery loveliness in A Room With a View, knew that the darkness would eventually engulf her?

This is now the Helena movie equation... it not?

related: Last season on Hump Day Hottie and my Sweeney Todd Review


Middento said...

I'll note that she also has a wonderful turn (and yes, another sex scene, this time with Aaron Eckhart)in the fascinating flick Conversations with Other Women, which I really enjoyed despite myself.

(Oh yes -- happy new year, Nathaniel!)

Anonymous said...

I actually didn't have much of a problem with her performance in ST, and I have many problems with the film itself (stop with the incessant Depp reaction shots!). Certainly, she did the best actual acting in the film, and was also gifted with most of the laugh lines. That being said, "The Worst Pies in London" is seriously lacking, as you pointed out Nathaniel. While thin, her voice is not as offensively amateurish as is Mr. Depp's, and her meek characterization is interesting if only for the strong contrast it is to Lansbury's loony one and LuPone's fierce one.

I do wish she would step away from Mr. Burton for a spell and dig into a role like Kate Croy again...I mean, it's been 9 years since any non-Burton-helmed role to speak of (Fight Club) and her last real raves came in '02 for "Live from Bagdad" on TV.

That being said, I do respect the fact that she has taken the time to become a muse and start a little dynasty (i.e. family).

Sam Brooks said...

I am a total fan of Bonham-Carter and there really isn't a misstep in her career thus far.

A Room With A View? Goood.

Howard's End? Great!

Wings of the Dove? Awesome.

Fight Club? Awesomer.

Conversations With Other Women? Her best performance yet.

Sweeney Todd? Very good.

If you haven't yet seen Conversations With Other Women, I highly recommend it. It's an interesting concept that is pulled off well with an amazing turn from both Bonham-Carter and Eckhart.

And I'm a lover of her performance in Sweeney Todd, too. To me, she gets to the heart of Mrs. Lovett and it's a more introspective, haunting interpretation that may have been attempted before.

And she was also delightful as Bellatrix Lestrange, if woefully underused.

Anonymous said...

I really think it's time to divorce. This marriage isn't doing her any good. Her career just... disappeared. And none of her recent performances (I haven't seen Conversations, I mean her Tim Burton movies - except, aldo ST) belong to the same league of her previous works. I think she should try to dump Keira Knoightley's from Joe Wright's heart before she has to play Keira's mother.

-cal roth

Colin Low said...

I really think it's time to divorce. This marriage isn't doing her any good. Her career just... disappeared.

Wow. I know you mean well, but that just sounds awful. God forbid that people have romantic relationships for reasons other than their careers!

Nat, I actually experienced the reverse apropos of Helena -- I first saw her in Fight Club and fell head-over-heels in love with her, after which her goth image cemented with Big Fish and subsequent films. I was surprised to learn that she used to be a period film actress (the dark rings below her eyes are a mainstay now, aren't they?).

Anonymous said...

HBC was servicable in "Sweeney Todd", and I say that being extremely skeptical of what she and Depp would pull off with the so difficult material. I don't think she's nomination worthy though, and I'm wavering on Depp now too. What's going to hurt them so much is the comparisions to the other contenders in their respective fields.

Joe Reid said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, Nathaniel. Helena needed a respite from the hate parade.

Michael B. said...

I saw Sweeney Todd and quickly fell in love with Helena. I watched Harry Potter 5 again and noticed in just her 6 minutes in the film she was perfect. Looking at the pictures you put up, I noticed that she would be the ultimate Catwoman.

Colin Low said...

Oh my gawd, 17 Year Old Blogger, you're right!

I can just see it -- Christian Bale as Batman, Heath Ledger as the Joker, Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face, and Helena Bonham-Carter as Catwoman. Someone get on this now.

(Although I don't mind the rumours that Maggie Gyllenhaal will metamorphose into Catwoman, either!)

Anonymous said...

ok this may be sacreligeous ( did i spell it right) but i think helena deserved the oscar in 97 and not as most say judi dench certainly not helen hunt and she deserved 92's supp actress nod not vanessa redgrave although a judy davis win would have been my choice,any1 agree.


mr ripley, i think you'll find many HBC for the Oscar in 97 fans here. I know several people reading have expressed as much... and she was my choice as well.

i also agree that she should have been nominated in 92. that was a good year as supp actress nominees go but she still should've booted someone

Anonymous said...

Her perf in Wings of a Dove was certainly award worthy - the darker side of the "period piece film" - but I've been hoping she'll get away from Burton too (Planet of the Apes? Hello? And sorry, she's wasted in Big Fish - I was yelling at McGregor's character, "Kiss her, you dip!") In fact, she's been pretty much wasted this entire past decade (thanks for the Conversations recommendation, middento), and she is one of our best screen actresses, no? Even in early period work, such as Where Angels Fear to Tread, where she's onscreen with Judy Davis and Helen Mirren, she gives the most subtle performance of the three by far.

That said - your post about the decay of her lovliness onscreen actually reminds me a lot of Depp himself, Nat. He is also an actor who loves to play against his own beauty - witness Pirates, or most especially "The Libertine" (Samantha Mathis gives an amazing turn in that film, btw) in which he starts out the prettiest face onscreen and ends up blind, crippled, his disease-eaten face smeared with make-up and a false nose that can't hide the effects of's a very similar effect, "et's play off my beauty because beauty for it's own sake is tiresome".

But back to Helena - thanks for the love, because there hasn't been enough of it lately - just like she hasn't been onscreen enough lately. She needn't divorce Burton, btw, to work with other directors, but I hope its not a case of directors having their heads up their butts and not sending her scripts!


Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot - didn't Hamlet (the ridiculous version where Glenn Close played Mel Gibson's mother - and Gibson was humping his own mother on her bed *shudders*) come before Fight Club? That's another in your list, Nat - she starts out the pretty period Helena and ends mad and bedraggled, with straw and bones in her hair, feeling up a soldier. That was sort of the prototype for the rest of her career to date right there.


Anonymous said...

She has become supremely annoying, but I try very hard to rememeber that I loved her in projects like that MERLIN miniseries from 1998. Of course, she always turns around and ruins it for me by starring in crap like PLANET OF THE APES or distracting me in good films like the recent HARRY POTTER film.

I think there's a great actress in there. However, she gets too caught up in her weirdo mannerisms. She needs to take on a couple of normal, down-to-earth roles for a while.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Reading this post makes me hope that the powers that be are preparing a 20th Anniversary DVD of Getting It Right.

Anonymous said...

You people are crazy. She was as awesome in Planet of the Apes as the movie was awful. Her acting (and to a lesser extent Tim Roth's) was first class and enough to make me glad I'd paid to see that film. Not to mention she was actually believable as an intelligent ape rather than behave like a human with lots of makeup on.

Anyway, I too love HBC and had been, until now, unaware she is an object of any kind of ongoing hate. Performances yet unmentioned here but worth mentioning are:

Theory of Flight. If award bodies are supposed to be blindly in love with actors playing sick and disabled people, where were the accolades for this realistic and sympathetic (but never asking for pity) performance?

and Twelfth Night. As a major Shakespeare freak I can't wait for Helena to star in a screen version of a Bard's play again. Her Olivia, just like her Ophelia, is a yardstick I'll always keep in mind up when judging any past or future interpretations of these characters.

As for Sweeney Todd, I won't be watching it before February -- but seeing as I am a longtime fan of Bonham Carter, Burton and Depp, I do wish the film a dozen Oscars sight unseen. ;)


omg, yeah. getting it right. wasn't that her first contemporary role? and it was a sign of more wildgirl roles to come. i guess i should've seen this coming sooner.

Anonymous said...

nat just a question who were your 92 supp actresses,i like to know to compare with my own which i do every year once fb awards are done - mine were

helena bonham carter
judy davis
alfre woodard
miranda richardson
marisa tomei


without studying my 1992 lists of "films seen" i would say that that's probably the same as my list ... with the possible exception of alfre woodard who, if I recall the film correctly, I'd probably say is a lead performance... but maybe not. I haven't seen it in a long time.

gabrieloak said...

Helena was also good in The Heart of Me, a small British film that keeps showing up on Sundance.

Anonymous said...

we agree at last,yes woodard could be said to be supporting but on 2nd watch it really is about mcdonnell,ok best actress 92 just to really pick your brain.


best actress 92

for sure:
THOMPSON -Howards End
PFEIFFER -Batman Returns
SARANDON -Lorenzo's Oil

after that it's some mix of
McDONNEL & WOODARD -passion fish
FARROW -husbands and wives

and other people i'm forgetting

SORRY. can't do this without my lists.

Anonymous said...

ok my 5


Anonymous said...

get your lists i need to know your 98 actress and supp actress.

Anonymous said...

i saw "the sisterhood of travelling pants" the other day and alexis bledel looks very much like the young hbc. most especially during the honeychurch era.


tim r said...

Great post, great comments. It's HBC's best year in film for a long time, and I'm also inclined to defend her choices in Sweeney Todd, because I think there's comic mileage in how she shrugs her shoulders and just gets down to the dirty work. As you rightly say, Nat, there's no one way to play the role, and her very lack of ambivalence was a valid and funny approach to it, for me -- particularly in this pared-down version.

Plus, it's great to see Conversations with Other Women getting so much love here. One of the best surprises I had last year.

Anonymous said...

Have to say that I loved her performance. She discovers layers of devious calculation, longing, sadness, and genuine maternal warmth that I hadn't seen in previous interpretations. She's also very funny, but not in the grand, theatrical way that we're used to.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see her team up with David Fincher again. Or Iain Softley. Her collaborations with Burton are fun but not that well suited to her.

It baffles me that HBC only has one Oscar nomination. She has given at least 5 Oscar nomination worthy performances (Hamlet, Howards End, Wings of the Dove, Fight Club, Conversations with Other Women) She's obviously not much liked by the Oscar voters, but that's partly because she does not choose "Oscar bait" films.

Sadly I think Wings of the Dove was her best chance to win the Oscar. I think she was better than Dench in '97, but all the fawning over Dench split the "Brit" vote and Hunt snuck in.

Belle said...

Oh for f***'s sake you uptight know it all wankers. Let her do the films she wants, she doesn't do it for you she does it for herself so back the f*** off. Let her love who she wants, let her chose the film roles she wants. What are you?! Her Mother!!! Get on with your life cause shes getting on with hers no matter what you say.