Sunday, January 06, 2008

FYC: Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

This post is part of the Supporting Actress Class of 2007 Blog-a-Thon @ StinkyLulu

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...

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Leave it to Nathaniel to make my day! Wow,this was amazing.Excellent job!

StinkyLulu said...

You so fancy!

Sam Brooks said...

Wow. I did Marisa too! Such an underrated performance.

And an amazing post here, too. Bravo.

Andy Scott said...

She sounds so nice. I hope she gets nominated.

Great post/interview.

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

If she hadn't won her Academy Award, would we be revering her like Catherine Keener?

(I've been waiting for your entry too, Nath. :) )

Steven said...

Great entry and great podcast! Congrats on your premiere. :)


NicksFlickPicks said...

The Marisa interview is pure joy. (And thanks so much for asking my question!) I've already linked up to this. And I will try to speak in shorter thought-streams the next time we podcast.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview. Thanks for asking my question, and I second your answer (she has great taste in directors).

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Nat (I don't know why it's supposed to be the ultimate compliment of a celebrity to say of them "they seem down to earth" but she really does - intelligent and funny without a shred of nose-in-the-air ego.)

And I enjoyed the second half of the podcast - awards discussion in real-time! One thing I'd recommend - adding a female voice (Susan, perhaps?) to the conversation? (Or maybe Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun?)

And yes, I voted for you on the bloggies. ;) Good luck!


Unknown said...

Great interview. She sounds so cool. I wish you talk to her about the Seinfeld episode. Anyway, wow, she actually works a lot; what with these movies of her that I never heard.

And when she mentioned John Cameron Mitchell as one of the artists she wanna work

Anonymous said...

Re: the Supporting Actress blog-a-thon, I finally rent Stardust at home and my sweetie and enjoyed it very much - not a perfect film but fun nonetheless. (It probably worked better on some levels on our our small screen at home than it would have on the theaters screen. Claire Danes' confession of love to the boy-turned-mouse - I was completely distracted by all her facial movements throughout that scene. People who complain that Kidman can't move her face should be tied down and watch Danes' alarming facial tics.)

That said, I'm surprised no one has done a blog in support of Michelle Pfieffer as Lamia. I'm not a Pfieffer worshipper the way you are Nat (although I loved her as Catwoman, and in Married to the Mob, I don't rush out to see a film because she's in it). But she really rocked the house as a wicked witch - and one of the rare instances where old-age make-up actually helped the performance rather than interfering with it. She lit up the screen every time she appeared as the absolute embodiment of "wicked". That performance may not be fashionable in an era of "realistic" acting - but it summons the memories of old-fashioned movie acting (and movie enjoyment) and gives Margaret Hamilton a run for the money as all time best on-screen villaness.


El Gigante said...

Just finished listening to the podcast and may I just say congratulations Nate. In addition to having a lovely speaking voice you really came off well in the interview. Your questions were on-point and while you came across as a clear appreciator of her you still kept things professional. A very entertaining 50 minutes. Can't wait for more.

PIPER said...

Tomei is really a fantastic actress. Plus she's not afraid to get naked, which is always a plus.

Yes, I know I'm a shallow pig.


i personally don't believe it's shallow to enjoy beauty. so long as more internal gifts are also valued ;)

Catherine said...

Very entertaining podcast. I had it on my mp3 player as I was going on my walk this evening and I kept getting strange looks as I guffawed loudly every few minutes. "Marion Cotillard is definitely in this movie!" had me in stitches.

I really hope this is a regular thing. I know you can't get guests like Tomei all the time (pity...) but I enjoyed the second half as much as, or even more than, the first. You guys...*wipes away tear* I like just listening to (informed) people shoot the shit about films, and whoever kept howling with laughter in the background, I salute you!

Anonymous said...

Nathaniel - What a terrific first podcast. Holy Cow ! I saw 'Devil' over the weekend and checked your site to see what you had to say - wanted to compare notes! I was so happy to see that Miss Tomei spent a little time at the Fim Experience.

Have I told you how much I love this site ?

I do - I really do !!!


NicksFlickPicks said...

(Aside, @Catherine - I am the laugher. I'm glad you sympathize. These guys are funny.)

Cheurch said...

Hey Nat

What a great performance... by YOU lol. A very well conducted interview I must say; poised and sharp. MArisa's performance itself is one of the best in the movie, perhaps one of the best supporting roles of the year as played by her, however it's the type of role that, when played right, brings out your talent while taking you out of contention. It's a baity role people can identify with, but not a peformance people are willing to understand. I'm sure Marisa could have 'gone for the Oscar' but decided to stay true to the character
Can't wait for the next episode!


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this interview!

Now I can play the part where she says, "Hello Nathaniel", and pretend that she's talking to me.

And that I'm P.S. Hoffman.

Anonymous said...

That was a nice podcast. I'm glad I took the time to listen to it. I'm glad I checked it out. Even though I thought that Marisa Tomei's performance in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" wasn't anything of note or Oscarworthy over what could get in supporting actress (too slight a role on paper, no fleshing out to be done by even a better actress), that interview kind of endeared her in my head a bit. Not that I dislike her or anything -- I was a fan from way back in her "A Different World" days.

cslewisfan said...

Wonderful interview, first audio piece I've heard with Marisa. I have read various interviews with the actress, but you don't always know how to take a written comment. To hear her voice tells so much.

I've read that Marisa loathes the "cutie pie" roles as she calls them. Hearing her replies to your questions I see why. She is intelligent, real, and cares tremendously about what she does. Though she has so much more talent and versatility than such roles demand, I wonder if she realizes why folks want her to keep doing them. I just saw the '93 movie "Untamed Heart". Regardless of how people rated the storyline, I thought Marisa pulled off an amazing performance. I don't know if she would consider her character in this fairy-tale romance to be one of those "saccharine" roles (her words again). She not only showed a versatile and wide range of expression and emotion, but in everything a beautiful heart came shining through. I wondered, "is that just great acting or is there really that kind of life and love down there, underneath, bubbling up into the character Caroline?"

After hearing the real Tomei in your excellent interview (with that same wonderful laughter, sincerity, honesty, and heart) I am prone to believe that at her core Marisa really is that sweet and kind. Yes, and intelligent, extremely talented, versatile and so very capable. But you had to fall in love with her a little bit just hearing her "in person".

Anonymous said...

Great post about the film and especially about Marisa Tomei.
Loved the interview - that was the first time i heard one with Marisa and she seems to be really nice.