Sunday, August 29, 2010

Take Three: Dianne Wiest

Craig here. It's Wiest week on Take Three.

Take One: Avon calling!

As Peg Boggs, the perkiest, friendliest Avon lady you’ll ever meet at the cinema, Wiest introduced Edward Scissorhands (1990) to the curious inhabitants of pastel-perfect suburbia with the kindliest demeanour seen in a Tim Burton film; she’s the most good-natured character he’s conjured yet. She trots from house to house in matching mauve, enthusiastically spouting her cosmetic spiel, but getting no joy from the idle ladies of Burton’s uniformly stylised Fantasyville, America. So off to the dank, dark castle on the hill she goes - and finds a guy with mangled scissors for hands. Edward needs love, acceptance and Peg offers it; she’ll be the mother he never had. But she thinks he needs a makeover too - it’s his scarred and pallid complexion which brightly troubles her: “at the very least let me give you a good astringent - and this will help you to prevent infection,” she offers with a nod and a smile.

Mother courage: Wiest, as Peg, wanders Ed's castle
for cosmetic custom in Edward Scissorhands

Peg’s the motherly vanguard: a polite, one-woman call to arms for the housewives of Burton’s sickly-sweet suburbia to embrace the change and accept the strange. They get their hedges, pooches and bonces trimmed and fulfil their gossip quota for a year, but when it’s open season for exploiting the scissor-handed one - due to a series of unfortunate incidents unattributable to Depp’s Ed - Peg’s the one who sticks by him. A character like her stands for what Burton’s really getting at, what he’s always getting at: embedding the otherworldly into the everyday. She takes the sharp-fingered weirdo in and oh-so-nicely dismisses the mediocrity of middle-America with pleasant tilt of the head to top it off. She’s spearheading Burton’s cutesy damning of selfish small-town mores like a lightly-rouged trooper.

Wiest 'making up' for Edward's lost time in Edward Scissorhands

Wiest’s scenes with Depp were a joy to watch again (it’s been roughly ten years since I saw the film). Looking at it now I can see why Burton cast her. No one does homely eccentricity quite like Wiest. Whether she’s slapping Depp with make-up, dressing him up in ill-fitting clothes or proudly parading him around town, their shared screen time is one of the most becoming components of the film. In fact, they have just as much of a central relationship as do Edward and Kim (Winona Ryder). And the bit where Peg talks about him leaving for everyone’s good? Well, that bit just cuts me up.

Take Two: Quiet on set: Dianne Wiest, synecdochally, is acting

Despite two viewings I’m still rather baffled by the fiction vs. reality conundrums in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). I’m sure there’s some definable logic to the repetitious characterisations and psychological brain boggling of his directing debut, but I’m happy to remain blissfully none-the-wiser for now. Like David Lynch’s and, of course, Michel Gondry’s cine-universes, what’s real, dream, movie (in this instance, play... performance art) or merely imagined is somewhat beside the point; the journey through Kaufman’s monumentally dissociative deathly fugue-movie is the crux of the matter. The goods lay in how Caden’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) slippery grip on existence comes unstuck, and the women who accompany him along the way - especially cleaning lady Ellen Bascomb.

What is apparent is that Kaufman’s a one-man female-talent magnet. He fruitfully snagged Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Emily Watson for his first directing gig; years of screenwriting respect are splendidly rewarded with some of filmdom’s finest female thesps. But of all of them, the one Synecdoche lady who bested all the above six - and quietly, elegantly walked off with the film - was Wiest as Millicent Weems, the woman Caden casts as the aforementioned Ellen Bascomb, who then (as either Ellen or Millicent) plays the final, “weirdly close” version of Caden.

Wiest as Ellen, as depicted via the stunning paintings of artist Alex
, who provided Synecdoche, New York with his talents

Things get tricky, but it’s in the film’s almost unbearably elegiac last 15 minutes where - despite the eternally-burning house, endless enactments within re-enactments of Caden’s life/play and the musings on the inscrutability of life - the film hits a perplexing and gut-punching emotional stride. Amid a rolling, constantly-dissolving sequence of Caden’s last actions, a peek into what the film may be really about is hinted at.

A brief shot of a lonely Wiest - bookended by past and present snippets from her (real?) life - staring out of an open window, her face crumpled into teary despair, suggests we may have been watching Ellen’s life, not Caden’s, all along. This shot, accompanied by the static-faltering audio cues that she feeds Caden through an earpiece, as he strolls through the body-strewn devastation of his Synecdoche set, ushers in the end of the film. As he sits with the woman who played Ellen’s mother in a re-enactment (dream?), she disconnectedly delivers Synecdoche, New York’s final three-letter word that stops the film dead.

Mrs. Mop: Wiest cleans up for Caden in Synecdoche, New York

Wiest is the key component of Kaufman’s film: it’s all her (in the way that Inland Empire could actually be about Grace Zabriskie’s visitor - due to one telling late shot in that film - more than it's about Laura Dern’s Nikki/Susan.) Wiest plays her triple role with subtly affecting shifts in tone. The beauty of her performance(s) is how she underplays each mournful angle of the women she’s portraying; there’s an uncanny sadness, hinting at something more, right from her first scene. Despite her fragmentary moments, Wiest makes each one matter for the brief amount of time she’s on screen. Things get very blurry and indistinct indeed, but she guides us through Kaufman’s head-scratcher casually but regretfully, gently evoking all the feeling that the earlier parts of the film lay in place for her. Now, I don't know about Caden, but if Kaufman and Lynch could just hook up and make a mind-warping movie with Wiest and Zabriskie as a pair of bizarre, neighbourly cleaning ladies I’d die a happy man.

Take Three: Holly-Woody

Of the five films Wiest made with Woody Allen, her role as recovering coke-head and flaky actress, Holly, in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) was perhaps her best. It was also one of the most deserving Supporting Actress Oscar wins of the last 30 years). Of course she won a second for Bullets over Broadway, but Holly’s the Woody gal getting the Take Three treatment.

A disastrous date in progress

Holly is the more forceful, wayward and insouciant sibling - the black sheep of Hannah’s clan. Where Hannah herself (Mia Farrow) and Lee (Barbara Hershey) were passively thoughtful and fretfully adulterous respectively, Holly was the sloppy interloper, still very much in the process of shaking off the remnants of her former self; still asking her sister for money or favours. (The scene where Holly sheepishly asks Hannah if she can borrow $2000 shows off Holly’s blithe dependency to a tee.)

One of Wiest’s – and indeed Hannah’s - best moments is when Sam Waterston gives Holly and April (Carrie Fisher) a tour of his favourite New York architecture. Wiest’s resigned interior monologue in the car afterwards, when, much to her chagrin, she gets dropped off first, is one of the most concisely delivered in an Allen film, and unreservedly sums up Holly’s regretful and self-depreciating attitude to love:
"Naturally I get taken home first. Well, obviously he prefers April. Of course I was so tongue-tied all night. I can't believe I said that about the Guggenheim - my stupid little roller-skating joke. I should never tell jokes. Mom can tell 'em and Hannah, but I kill 'em... I hate April -- she's pushy...

Now they’ll dump me and she’ll invite him up. I blew it – and I really like him a lot. Oh screw it, I’m not gonna get all upset. I’ve got reading to do tonight. Maybe I’ll get into bed early. I’ll turn on a movie and take an extra Seconol.”
Wiest’s facial expressions are perfectly in sync with her voice-over monologue. Her face adds to what’s said; her eyes aptly convey Holly’s agitated acquiescence. Undoubtedly it was moments like this that went toward her nabbing that first Oscar. Holly’s unlucky, can’t get the breaks, and Wiest ensures we give a shit every step of the way. Her impatient and jumpy neediness to be liked translates wonderfully.

Wiest is a perfect fit for Woody’s world; it’s no wonder he used her five times (and let’s hope for a sixth in future). Her often mile-a-minute line delivery never misses a beat. Her natural, unaffected interactions with Farrow and Hershey are faultless. (With that title it’s vital they click, even when they don’t). A late moment, when all three meet up at a restaurant, showcases her flawless timing and comfort in the role: the camera roves around the table, catching every one of her well-placed lines and gestures. And with similar ingenuity she conveys two character extremes on the two very different dates she has with Allen’s Mickey, which speak volumes about Holly: one a punk gig (lively, involved), the other at a jazz club (fidgety, despondent).

Everything about Hannah is solid; it’s the perfectly-balanced study of Allen’s core, ongoing obsession with the lives of likeable, entertaining folk - folk we may rarely meet, but take pleasure in spending time with onscreen. Whenever I come back to Hannah it’s as deliciously, surprisingly funny as it was the first time. And Wiest’s scenes are always the ones I look forward to watching the most: they’re relaxed, agreeable and full of character.

I like Holly. She’s not pushy.


MRRIPLEY said...

I always liked her in that 83' kathleen quinlan film that no-one remembers,she plays the put upon battered housewife and she has one totally oscar clip scene when she breaks down in the kitchen.

Sean D said...

Excellent piece! Dianne Wiest is probably one of the most talented actresses alive. Although, I'm sad there was no room here for 'Bullets Over Broadway.'

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Oh, yes, yes, yes! Third grade: Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands. I perked up and thought, "Oh my! What is *this*?" That movie *kills* me every time I see it. And Synecdoche, NY! My favorite of 2008, and Wiest's performance hits me more with each subsequent viewing. And Hannah and Her Sisters! You've said it all, really. God, she's amazing. Didn't Matt Damon tell James Lipton she's his favorite actor?

Rabbit Hole can't come out soon enough. I've got the Wiest Infection and there's no cure.

Seeking Amy said...

Oh brilliant brilliant choice and great write-up. I'm so glad that she was in Edward Scissorhands because she is such a warm, key ingredient. I love that little moment where she smiles at Edward and sits down for him to cut her hair.

No need to elaborate on Hannah and Her Sisters, one of the top 10 supporting actress wins of all time if you ask me. Her and Samantha Morton in Synecdoche were the two elements that held it together. It wasn't until Wiest came into the picture that I finally felt an emotional connection to all of what was happening, and indeed that shot of her all alone was haunting.

I do want to all single her out in Parenthood, and although she received an Oscar nom for it, I feel like she still doesn't get enough credit. It's an interesting companion performance to hers in Scissorhand. Unlike Peg, her Helen in Parenthood is pretty weary, but she still struggles to keep everyone together. That scene where she watches as her son, Joaquin Phoenix, gets rejected from his father has an aching facial reaction from Wiest. She wishes that she could be everything she can for her son. Also love the bit with the vibrator.

Jude said...

"Rabbit Hole" needs to come now so I can get my Dianne Wiest filling. You're right, hopefully the sixth Woody Allen feature is just around the corner for her!


Walter -- wow. that'd be cool if Matt Damon said that. I've heard that Brad Pitt said something similar.

Jude & Craig -- i wish i could trust that Woody knew what was best for him these days but he so rarely falls back on his old regulars these days.

Seeking Amy -- i'd also list it as one of the best oscar wins ever. I wish I had seen all the winners so i could make an actual top ten. will have to get on that ;)

Owen said...

One of my favourite American actresses. I love her so effing much.

/3rtfu11 said...

Dianne Wiest is the definitive character actress goddess. We should all bow and worship at her feet. I suspect Renee Zellweger stole her whole tightening of her facial muscles from Wiest. However, when Wiest does it can convey a rainbow of emotions. Using the same exact facial expression she makes us laugh, cry and has us feeling ashamed like the little children that we are to her.

Bia said...

The Scissorhands scene where Winona spins around in the snow to the beautiful score by Danny Elfman. I Love that...

sp said...

Besides the fact that Wiest is incredibly talented, she is always infinitely watchable. You can tell she has a profound love of acting ( and performing) . Dianne has such a firm grasp of drama & comedy - she makes it look too easy. Plus, her vocal inflections & diction are extraordinary. But , it is incredibly rare for a well-regarded character actress to have the career longevity she has had - without being on the movie A-list with Streep, Sarandon, or Mirren.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Oh, maybe it *is* Brad Pitt I'm thinking of. I know it's *someone* from Ocean's 11. (wait...could it have been Scott Caan?)


i saw her on stage recently -- wrote about it here -- and she was so funny and still had it.

can't wait for rabbit hole.

Craig Bloomfield said...

Walter - I agree with you about Wiest's performance, and actually the whole film, getting better the more you see it. Those last 20 mins are some of the best scenes I saw in '09.

Sean - Glad you liked it. It was a shame about BOB but it got pipped at the post by Hannah.

Seeking Amy - thanks. Yes, when Wiest appears the film changes and steps up a few notches on the emotional front. And the moment in Ed Sciss is indeed great.

George P. said...

I think one of the earliest films I remember seeing her in when I was younger was the Whoopi Goldberg comedy "The Associate." Ooh, I loved Wiest back then.

Burning Reels said...

Your cleaning ladies idea is inspired!

Nice to see her enjoying a mini renaissance?