Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Joan Allen

Joan Allen in "The Contender"
Lost the 2000 Best Actress Oscar to Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich"

Grade: ****

As quickly as James Brown can roar, "This is a man's world!", Rod Lurie's The Contender asserts that prospective Democrat Vice President Laine Hanson is going to be up against it. Allen as Hanson is first seen cavorting with her husband -- a prelude of sex before the politics really begins -- and the subsequent interrogation of Hanson's collegial promiscuity suggests that the film is going to have plenty to say about society's expectations of the working woman. So it proves, but rather than affront Laine with a measured air of the formidable, Allen manages to make her really quite warm and open, not traits we often associate with politicians, however great their need to appeal to the collective.

Years later, Tilda Swinton would famously fashion something special in "Michael Clayton", with a corporate scapegoat that many would settle to play as a 101 of frigid career-gals. Allen understands the different facets of Laine's sense of duty; the seminality of appearing strong in the wake of threat, but also the tremulous nature of her approach towards ambition. A scene in which a bravura-filled, Presidential Jeff Bridges entertains the Hansons reveals Allen's knack for bringing humility to her characters. She wants to be a success as more than a politician, and there's such a mark of elated majesty about her demeanour here that recognises that that final feat is upon her.

"The Contender" is so skewed towards celebrating Laine's poker face that if this role were given to a less generous actress one could imagine her becoming too formidable; a stilted, gratuitously-elusive "victim" of circumstance unable to breach the boundaries of the moderate arena. It could be that, in maintaining the fluidity of her character's approach towards the political dynamic surrounding her, Allen becomes the perfect politician herself; self-aware but not permanently assured, coy in the most matter-of-fact sense. As she dashes off well-rehearsed answers to a jaded Gary Oldman it doesn't feel triumphant as much as it does a massive inner-struggle, both to tread a line of uniformity that she isn't comfortable with hugging, and her requirement to address wholly trivial matters.

Politicians have to feel credible but do we really need to know them? It's a startling achievement that Allen is able to sidestep her film's stolid, cutthroat environment, independently crafting a different dimension for her film. While "The Contender" looks to politicise Laine as a woman above all this cocksure banter, she moors her into a blank canvas, undoubtedly superior but always keen to learn. Plenty can take notes here; Allen may not quite have my vote in 2000, but she's a candidate well worth endorsing.

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