Saturday, May 08, 2010

Five Women We Love To Watch (On TV)

Women in Hollywood, unfortunately, don't get nearly enough attention on the big screen after the age of 40. It is shameful that such a liberal town ultimately acts in such a boorish manner. Actresses like Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Susan Sarandon, to their credit, broke whatever barriers would have held back their remarkable careers.

As unfair as Hollywood can be to older actresses, television -- or, more accurately, cable -- is quite welcoming. Cable loves complex women and complex stories. Glenn Close, Edie Falco, Toni Colette, Holly Hunter, Mary McCormack and CCH Pounder have all found audiences and critical acclaim on cable. Women dominate dramas on cable and, in the case of Julianne Marguiles, they don't do too bad on network TV either. Here are five actresses, of varying ages, who don't get nearly enough attention for their work on the smaller, and of late more serious screen:

5- Natalie Zea. If the face looks familiar -- from a place other than FX's awesome Justified, just renewed -- it is because she was on HBO's unsung Hung, where she played the client that broke the heart of the hapless Michigander man-whore. Zea is such a natural, fueling her Justified character -- Raylan's ex-wife, Winona -- with incredible charisma and moxie. Why hasn't she been written about more? The show's star Thomas Olyphant, told legendary executive producer and screenwriter Graham Yost early in production, “That girl is so good that if you don’t write for her, you’re a moron.”

4- Melissa Leo. As with her castmate Khandi Alexander, Leo -- fresh from an Oscar nomination for Frozen River -- is one of the backbones of the slowly paced, New Orleans drama Treme. Melissa Leo takes control of scenes, not by scenery chewing, but by doing exactly what the is needed. And it is not so hard, carrying scenes with her competence, given the meaty role she has in Toni Bernette. Leo has an incredibly expressive face, reflecting the wisdom gained from achieving middle age in the business. It serves Ms. Leo well in playing a "tireless attorney working to defend the rights of New Orleans musicians and other citizens." Hollywood's loss is indie film and cable's gain, says I.

There is a scene in the first episode of Treme that can pretty much take your breath away. Two police officers are sitting in a diner. Leo's character, Bernette, approaches the officers. Pleasantries are exchanged. Leo's character motions to sit down and she is denied, rudely, by one of the officers who is not a fan of defense attorneys. In Leo's face in that moment, in that scene, betrays a world of hurt, suggesting the character's tender, vulnerable nature, offset, almost immediately by a Southern charm one presumes Bernette employs often as a veneer to function in the bowels of the New Orleans legal system. It happens almost faster than the eye can detect, but enough to register in the viewer's consciousness. It is when Bernette is at home, in charge, with her family, that the guard is let down, that she no longer has to protect the weak and in so doing, protect her own weaknesses.

When Melissa Leo and Khandi Alexander are in a scene together, well that's just --as they say in N'Orleans -- lagniappe.

3- Julianna Margulies. And now for something completely different. There is extreme subtlety in what Julianna Margulies does in the role of Alicia Florrick in CBS' The Good Wife. In the first episode she is a politician's wife whose life is rapidly becoming undone. "The opening scene, which times the pace and soundtrack to the pounding heartbeat of Alicia’s shock and her sense of surreal detachment, is as vivid a depiction of personal crisis as any on television," writes Alessandra Stanley. It only gets more detached from there. If Melissa Leo has a wonderfully expressive face, liquid eyes, fire -- Margulies is her polar opposite. Chilly, with brief periods of warm; removed. Margulies' performance is all about the subtraction, the restraint and what goes on in between emotional, private spaces and must be hidden from prying eyes. Margulies' Alicia Florrick reveals herself by what she doesn't show, or in what she only alludes to in her silences and thoughtful pauses.

From TimesOnline:

Charles McDougall, the award-winning British director of the first two episodes of The Good Wife, who was involved in casting Margulies, calls her a “proper” actor. “Instead of approximating the emotions required, she nails them precisely, take after take, shot after shot,” he says. She has quickly created yet another memorable character in Alicia Florrick: a troubled, proud woman, dealing with conflicting emotions, who for now has chosen to stand by her husband, despite the pain and hurt she is feeling. As Margulies is married, to a lawyer, it prompts the rather obvious question: would she stand by her man?

“I don’t know what I would do,” she says. “Before I dove into Alicia’s psyche, I thought, you just leave. How could you be treated that way? But now I’ve been playing her, I think it depends on the circumstances. It’s much more complex than people allow it to be. I don’t think marriage is something you should walk away from so easily. It’s not. It’s just not.”

I could watch Margulies' thoughtful face all day -- she is really that beautiful, that dark and that enigmatic -- trying to figure out what is going on in her mind, and don't think Sir Ridley Scott isn't aware of the effect.

2- Karen Gillan. Karen Gillan's feisty -- there really is no other way to describe the character -- Amy Pond is a joy to watch. She fairly crackles with electric intensity. There are many, uh, dimensions -- no pun intended -- to the personality of the Doctor's latest assistant. After the absent-minded Doctor breaks his promise, the Time Lord returns, years later, to find that the young child he promised to return to has aged by over a decade. There are also psychiatric issues in that she never really got over him and his promises of adventure.

So Pond leaves her fiance on the night before their wedding to take the good Doctor up on his offer of adventure and fighting cosmic Evil in the time stream. The reviews are pretty good. Karen Gillan plays this character with all of that in mind. She didn't have to, but she does Making Amy Pond memorable, perhaps even more memorable than the often one-dimensional -- this time the pun is intended -- Doctor. The viewer loves her slapstick wackiness, because, let's face it, the woman may not be all there. Amy Pond may be mad. Still, she is tough. And funny. There is something quite touching in thinking that for more than ten years this woman, possibly crazy, clutched on to the belief that there was this multidimensional cartoonish Doctor. And idealistic -- Ms. Pond never forgot -- and, well, is quite pretty and funny and ridiculous also. She brings that to the role. Karen Gillan's Amy Pond has all of the wide-eyed attributes of the child left behind, only in the body of a sexy young woman. So confusing.

1- Khandi Alexander. It didn't quite hit me how good Khandi Alexander is at what she does on HBO's Treme until a scene last week where she is trying to enlist help in getting information on a falsely imprisoned family member (a running narrative with her character). In the course of maybe a minute or so, Alexander infuses her character, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, with desperation, pride and flirtatiousness -- in fluid succession in order to get what she wants.

It was astonishing to watch. And seamless.

Then, I was led back to IMDB. Has she always been this good? Why hasn't anyone noticed? The answer is pretty much yes. Even more astonishing is range of characters she has played -- a drug addict in The Corner, a Chief Medical Examiner in CSI: Miami, a Sargent in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Catherine Duke in the sitcom NewsRadio. Khandi's commitment to each character she inhabits is total.

As Randall Roberts in Show Tracker writes:

You can even turn down the sound. Just look at what she does with her eyes, with her brow, the way she clenches her jaw, purses her lips, that smile that can drop away in a flash to a scowl or a full-blown fit. She can deaden her eyes or make them spill with life.

Whether LaDonna is respectfully nudging her mother to move to Baton Rouge, her voice lifting into a pinched plea while scrambling eggs, or whether, thus denied, she's snatching a piece of bacon off her mom’s plate and tearing at it with her teeth, Alexander is wonderfully magnetic in this episode, and it’s great to see her given work that’s allowing her to stretch out.

Khandi Alexander is a wonder to behold.

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