Monday, July 11, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Anjelica Huston

Anjelica Huston in “The Grifters”
Lost the 1990 Best Actress Oscar to Kathy Bates in “Misery”

Grade: ***

Renowned for her formidable, disconcerting presence, Anjelica Huston was on stellar form in 1990, first scaring audiences to death in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of the famous Roald Dahl book, “The Witches,” and months later returning to haunt John Cusack’s troubled con-artist in stylish crime thriller “The Grifters.” As both a Witch and a Grifter, Huston asserts an air of immovability, and exercises a bitter self-righteousness towards those that pertain to know better than she does. While the maniacal nature of her cosmetic, made-for-children performance in the former offers no doubt to her character’s motivations, in Stephen Frears’ film one is likely to ponder more dubiously over whether her bite lives up to her bark.

Cusack’s troubled Roy never once refers to Huston’s Lily as a maternal figure, having clearly relied on her very little as a child. Estranged mother and son, Roy and Lily haven’t seen each other in the eight years before “The Grifters” commences, and boy it shows. Huston’s attitude towards him in their reunion scene is one of someone revisiting former shame – and her behaviour has such a removed, clinical edge to it, without making Lily seem operatically cool (like Swanson or Crawford might have), or stretching to the psychosexually trashy levels of dementia Diane Ladd opted for in “Wild At Heart.” You can see her going through the motions, remembering how it feels to care, and even amidst the stony Medusa glare Lily uses as a physical defence mechanism, there’s a solemnity and sheer terror at having to confront this area of her life again.

Huston’s underplaying of the role aids in clouding an already uncertain relationship, but it isn’t always to the benefit of the character or the film. Frears doesn’t seem to get what Lily is about – or at the very least isn’t as concerned about her as he is about Roy or girlfriend Myra (a Glorious Annette Bening) – and doesn’t give Huston much opportunity to demonstrate the more inherently volatile characteristics of Lily. “The Grifters” is often interesting, but pretty tonally half-baked, and Frears is far too shy in plugging the pulpier devices of the narrative, opting instead for sinister stylisation and repetitive visual tropes. You can sense Huston struggling to put her stamp onto scenes (especially those which feature Bening) as it’s unclear whether Lily is supposed to be predominantly jealous of Myra or wise to her youthful, rash ambition.  The politics behind the relationship triangle never seems to reach the forefront of the film’s motivations, and Huston’s time-biding style of intuitive acting rarely sees a point of refraction to exploit in the underwhelming efforts of John Cusack.

Resultantly, however, Huston dredges sufficient amounts from Lily’s character – more through layering this woman’s history onto celluloid than dealing with the here and now of her predicament. A scene in which she is wholly subservient to her boss offers a wealth of history in that regard, and in the tensely-played finale she finds a more emotive outlet in Roy than she’s ever offered. Nevertheless, Huston can’t shake off the frustrating aloofness of “The Grifters” as a tentative adaptation, more thoughtful and noteworthy than the nondescript ethics of the film itself, but still a slighter entity than the powerhouse actress we’ve grown accustomed to. 


Candice Frederick said...

ooh this looks good. gotta put this in my queue.

Cal said...

It's very intersting, but as I said, a bit of a missed opportunity overall.

Alex in Movieland said...

don't remember much about this one, just that it was on the good side. Best Actress 1990 - not a fantastic year.