Why I Changed My Mind: Julie Delpy

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Julie Delpy is, for lack of a better term, a real woman. A woman of many talents, not afraid to be herself, not afraid to be quirky. And not even afraid to be a bitch. When she was younger, it was hard to see things like Europa Europa, her guest arc on the TV hit ER or Trois Couleurs: Blanc and see her as anything but bitchy – her roles were sort of icy or manipulative in ways that made it hard to see her in any other light. And things like Before Sunrise with the generally overrated Ethan Hawke did not lend any charm – a favorite “romance” flick for Gen Xers, Before Sunrise, never appealed to me (like most Gen X pop-culture goalposts and anthems, such as Reality Bites – also with Hawke or Singles, which still does not make sense to me).

The subsequent nine-year intervals between sequels to Before Sunrise, though, have made the films Before Sunset and Before Midnight quite compelling – and I think this is all down to Delpy. Since I don’t get and have never gotten the Ethan Hawke thing (somehow he was the one in Dead Poet’s Society who was singled out for attention, when it was Robert Sean Leonard‘s passionate and tragic turn as Neil that got my attention. Or the passionate, do-anything-for-the-girl classic guy-with-crush performance of Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet. What did Ethan Hawke do in that movie that was so remarkable except defy authority and be the first to jump up on a desk at the end? Yet Ethan Hawke has been the movie star and these others have been “television actors” in popular and well-respected shows, such as House and The Good Wife (and no, I don’t mean that in the snide way Warden Gentles did in Arrested Development), I can only imagine that the load is carried in large part by Delpy.

After the aforementioned “cold” roles in her early career, followed by some missteps like Killing Zoe and An American Werewolf in Paris, I think I could be forgiven my rush to harsh judgment. None of this is to say that her talents went unrecognized – I never watched these films and believed she lacked talent or was just playing variations of herself. I just wondered how it was that she always played this aloof or sometimes misguided character (thinking here of her “Leni” in Europa Europa – she was passionate all right, but the passion was wholly devoted to producing children for Hitler’s “pure Germany”. Perhaps in hindsight I can applaud Delpy’s believability because that role had to have been hard to pull off).

My re-evaluation of Delpy began when I saw Before Sunset. Yeah, I know – I hated Before Sunrise but still had enough curiosity to see where Jesse and Celine (the characters) ended up. I like to torture myself this way, watching things I don’t like, listening to music I don’t like – perhaps just to remind me that there are other, much more beautiful things to watch and hear in the world. But Before Sunset surprised me. Later I saw Delpy in other roles but really decided I liked her after seeing Two Days in Paris (and later, the even funnier Two Days in New York). (I also enjoyed the on-screen keying of cars that Delpy’s father engages in – dismissing it as “normal French behavior” – exactly what I have been trying to tell everyone who isn’t French!) Her performances were subdued and grounded in reality – and that transformed the way I saw her and interpreted her roles.

The change in my opinion also came about because I liked learning that Delpy is so active behind the camera as a writer and director – I love the idea that someone creates the stories they want to see, or they want to appear in. I have read a few interviews where Delpy has kind of downplayed the uniqueness of being a female director, particularly because France actually has quite a number of well-respected, well-known women directors. But this is rather an anomaly in the cinematic world. Not every country has a Claire Denis, an Agnès Jaoui, a Catherine Breillat, a Josiane Balasko, a Mia Hansen-Løve and the countless other women who direct films in France. Delpy can, I hope, forgive the rest of the cinema-loving world for admiring the rarity of her multitasking, multitalented jack-of-all-trades approach to her artistic career.

My feelings should not be overly influenced by what I read or the person Delpy is or appears to be – but the truth is, reading about her own feelings of insecurity or feeling like “a cow” after her child was born – and seeing how she actually looks like a real woman – a stunningly beautiful and stunningly natural woman – imbues her performances with a kind of earthy reality that is not easily found, felt or seen elsewhere. I don’t often have commentary on how actors and actresses look. They are resoundingly “perfect” and put together most of the time, and the especially beautiful and polished are slathered in accolades if they do anything that might make them seem anything less than perfect. It’s like becoming a regular or slightly unattractive person makes a beautiful person an automatic consideration for acting awards. Is that really the measure of how well someone acts? How much vanity they are willing to give up – temporarily, note – to alter their appearance?

Not the point. The point is that Delpy actually looks and sounds the part (“the part” being a woman in her 30s/early 40s). Contributing to the scripts for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the conversation – content and pace – throughout feels almost dull at times but in a refreshing and good way. Why? Because that’s how real conversation is. Sometimes it digs into emotion, sometimes it digs into feelings and insecurities and vulnerabilities, sometimes it is witty, sometimes it is just the kind of petty shit that people hurl at each other in moments of weakness, despair, anger. It’s not perfect – but in that way, it’s perfect. A perfect reflection of everyday life. In Before Midnight, Delpy especially – but really the whole cast (which is mostly Delpy and Hawke) – captures, with almost no action – the up-and-down nature of a relationship. Before Sunrise was lauded for supposedly capturing this, but it’s easy to have two young, idealistic adults meet and talk all night and have it be the most romantic night of their lives. Before Midnight, though, is entirely another level of “romantic” because it had to capture two people who had actually idealized each other when they were young – it showed the reality of what happens if someone pursues the “what might have been” or “the one who got away”. It isn’t going to be ideal. If anything, the dialogue and performances convey perfectly the fragility of relationships. All the things unsaid, the resentment, the misinterpretations – and the question of whether love is ever really enough.

Why I Changed My Mind: Lucy Liu

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The other day I wrote a lot about Julianne Nicholson (and every time I write “Julianne” I am very tempted to write “Julianne Moore” since she springs to mind first) – which made me think a lot about the cast of Ally McBeal – one of the shows I have disliked most in my prolific television-viewing history. Many actors associated with the show earned my dislike simply because they were in the show. Some have redeemed themselves in other ways – at least partially – including Lucy Liu.

Lucy Liu has a long television history that I won’t recount. Her bit parts here and there in her early career were not memorable or offensive, but only worth mentioning to note that she has been around for a long time, paying her dues.

She has also been in a bunch of high-profile films, like Charlie’s Angels, which I could do without (even if I am quite sure she was, to use a phrase I would never use but am today, kick-ass in her role).  Perhaps more notable – and about when I started to change my mind about her – the Kill Bill films from Quentin Tarantino. Liu owned her role as O-Ren Ishii and is actually one of the more memorable parts of the Kill Bill series for me.

Another role that made me think twice was Liu’s presence in the musical Chicago. The first time I saw it, I hated it but sat through it anyway. Subsequent viewings have softened my feelings – and I have begun to appreciate it. Liu’s role as Kitty Baxter was not huge – but it was another that remains memorable.

I caught Liu’s roles in the inane Cashmere Mafia (not sure that one is forgivable), the sometimes very entertaining Dirty Sexy Money and ultimately a surprising role that I found quite redeeming, Officer Jessica Tang in the underappreciated cop drama, Southland.

Considered, reconsidered: Where I went from just appreciating Liu and feeling she had been fully absolved of her Ally McBeal and Cashmere Mafia guilt to actually really liking her has been her starring role in Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller. Her serenity and subdued smarts play well off Miller’s portrayal of the over-the-top mad genius, Sherlock Holmes. Liu embraces what has traditionally been a male role and turns it into something all her own in the Elementary version of this classic tale.

Why I Changed My Mind: Julianne Nicholson

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The TV show Ally McBeal has, for me, placed a hex on most actresses who’ve appeared in it. I hated the show to a degree I cannot begin to describe. The ensemble cast thus suffers. This is true especially of Lucy Liu and Julianne Nicholson. I am not sure I can ever like Calista Flockhart or Courtney Thorne-Smith. Portia de Rossi is exempt because of her work in beloved Arrested Development. That said, it has been hard to watch actors in obnoxious roles and imagine them doing something redeeming. While my feeling about Lucy Liu has changed (softened), a more striking transformation took place in my approach to Julianne Nicholson.

Nicholson is not as high-profile or “on-the-map” as someone like Lucy Liu has been, but her choices have been unusual and unexpected, showing her capacity not just for depth but for losing herself in some very stern, unglamorous roles that show off her talents in ways that something like Ally McBeal never could.

I should not hold the choice of material against actors or believe that these choices somehow reflect on their abilities as actors. Being a working actor, I imagine you take the roles that you can get; you make the best of even bad material – and who can blame an actor for wanting to participate in a popular show, where visibility is much higher? And I am in the minority in believing that Ally McBeal is crap material.

Julianne Nicholson has turned up in the most surprising places, much to my delight. While she has popped up here and there, and has been pleasant, her very different and staid roles in Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire have shown the breadth of Nicholson’s range. Her career has been filled with independent films, many of which are well worth seeing (just the other day I saw her in a small role as a supportive friend to the main character in Keep the Lights On). Yet she has balanced these deliberate choices with mainstream roles in shows, such as the aforementioned Ally McBeal and a more entertaining, if procedural, Law & Order – Criminal Intent. Based mostly on her work in Ally McBeal, I never would have said that I thought she’d exhibit the kind of authority needed to pretend to be a cop. But she was surprising and delivered the goods.

Considered, reconsidered – it’s a tough world for working actors. I don’t doubt that for a moment. Thus harsh criticism shouldn’t be the first thing I unleash. I suppose it’s a little bit easier if you are pretty – as Julianne Nicholson is – but easier still if you are distinctive (another score for Nicholson). That said, when the acting is clearly more important, and the willingness to forgo vanity in favor of plainness is something an actor can embrace (not in the showy Charlize Theron in Monster or Nicole Kidman  in The Hours way – but in a more subdued, subtle way), it is easier to see the actual talent and the work that goes into the role. This is where Julianne Nicholson really shines.

Why I Changed My Mind: Paula Malcomson

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I won’t say that I ever disliked Paula Malcomson’s work, per se. She suddenly turned up all over the place, wielding different accents and playing roles representing different social strata across several time periods. I cannot go so far as to say that she is chameleonic – she does not completely disappear into all her roles (notably, her role as Abby Donovan in the recent Ray Donovan, is a bit too over-the-top with the put-upon Boston accent that it stretches believability). That said, she almost disappears into all her roles and imbues each role, even the villainous and suspicious ones, with a vulnerability and humanity that is unusual.

Why I thought of her suddenly, I am not sure. I suppose it’s because I was talking to someone about Battlestar Galactica – laying on thick praise – but cautioning them against its prequel, Caprica, in which Paula Malcomson plays a pivotal role. It is not that her portrayal of Amanda Graystone was anything less than great – she fully embodied and embraced the role and gave it the complexity it needed. It is more that the show never came together. The cast was never the problem.

I guess then that I did not change my mind about Malcomson so much as I decided to afford her work a more serious look. It would almost be easy to overlook her presence because she does slide into all kinds of different roles with such apparent ease. She would be easy to ignore – except that when you are really watching her, you can’t ignore her. In particular, her very human and heartbreaking role as Trixie in the late, great HBO series Deadwood was riveting. But in a show packed with a great cast and often overshadowed by the show’s main character – excessive profanity – it was easy to watch Malcomson be absorbed by Trixie, transfixed, but easily move on to the next thing, the next  Al Swearengen tirade for example.

Malcomson may not stick around on some shows for long but her roles – and what she brings to them – create repercussions in the twists and turns of a story. A case in point – Sons of Anarchy, in which her character, Maureen Ashby, delivered information that infused the story with new life. Her portrayal of Ashby was not only sympathetic but helped to shed light on a character whose specter has hung over the show’s entire run – John Teller – a character who has never actually existed on-screen (alive) in the show but whose history, legacy and legend informed the story and motivations of the characters (particularly John Teller’s widow, son and former best friend). Malcomson was able to subtly bring John Teller – and another aspect of his personality and aims – to life.

Considered, reconsidered – for now, we can enjoy Malcomson’s presence in Ray Donovan – hoping she tones it down just a little bit, becomes slightly less shrill (although she does have her searing moments) – and her return to the Hunger Games film series to reprise her role as Katniss Everdeen’s mother.

Why I Changed My Mind: Minnie Driver

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During my recent headache-inspired film-viewing overdose, I randomly decided to see the film The Governess, starring Minnie Driver and Tom Wilkinson.

While some actors, actresses, musicians or writers strike me the wrong way right off the bat (and I later change my mind), I have no rational explanation for why I decided I did not like Minnie Driver. It was not her performances (all of which were superb, right from the beginning, e.g. Circle of Friends, or one of my all-time favorites, Big Night). There was just something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. Many actors I have disliked and about which I later changed my mind evolved or grew more into themselves, which explains the evolution of my opinions about them. It might not even be about their performances or their aging gracefully into different roles so much as it is about the roles they are actually offered.

But none of this was applicable to Ms Driver. Unlike someone like Kim Dickens, about whom I changed my mind, I did not groan to myself if I knew Driver was in a film – I still watched and enjoyed it. For a while she seemed to be everywhere and showed a great range – period pieces, drama and humor, smaller parts to leading roles, and eventually film to television. Arguably she is a bigger star than most of the people I sat on the fence (and eventually jumped to one side or the other) about – a fact that made her harder to avoid, had I wanted to.

It was not until I saw her in the underrated TV show The Riches (which itself was something I avoided during its original run) that I began to respect the depth of her talent. I think a lot of people sort of fell in love with her when they saw her in Good Will Hunting, but for me, I guess I could have fallen in love with her work, so to speak, much earlier if I had really been paying attention. Her work in the aforementioned Big Night was subtle and insightful, her turn as Debi in Grosse Pointe Blank was believable (in the most broad and comprehensive way – “believable” makes it sound like it was barely passable, when in fact I mean the opposite). Later her memorable TV appearances proved that she was also not afraid to make fun of herself and to make fun in general (Will & Grace in particular, but also more recently in Modern Family).

Considered, reconsidered – being in the public eye and putting oneself out there for the world to see, while a choice, is a vulnerable act. Actors are scrutinized constantly, so the armchair criticism of someone like me – on an individual level – does not matter much. But on the whole, if exposed to this constant criticism en masse – I cannot imagine it’s fun. The public’s – and fandom’s – taste is fickle.

That said, Minnie Driver has been delivering top-notch performances all along.