Thursday, January 05, 2012

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Marsha Mason

Marsha Mason in “Chapter Two”
Lost the 1979 Best Actress Oscar to Sally Field in “Norma Rae”

Grade: **

When considering on/off-screen creative cinematic pairings, one’s instinct doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards Neil Simon and Marsha Mason. Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter are the most obvious dissenters of the unwritten “don’t mix business with pleasure” rule in this era, while Woody Allen’s doomed relationship with Mia Farrow led to an intense period of collaboration in the late 1980s. Neither of those partnerships directly resulted in an Oscar nomination for the performer, which makes Simon and Mason’s success with the Academy all the more remarkable. He penned three of her four nominated roles (in “The Goodbye Girl,” “Chapter Two,” and “Only When I Laugh”) in the space of five years, before their divorce in 1983.

Regarded as an actress who had a short shelf-life with audiences and Oscar alike, Mason was at the height of her popularity in 1979 when “Chapter Two” rolled around. Particularly dated, this romance has the early charm of a Simon script, as the courtship of Mason’s divorcee Jennie and James Caan’s widower George unfolds over the space of five snappy telephone calls. In these scenes Mason approaches flirtation with lively hints of wanting promise, but possesses that dose of cynicism associated with a weary singleton, and treats the character as she should do: a woman not inherently expecting anything, but who becomes dependent upon a man for the second time in her life. Mason shies away from telegraphing resistance as hostile or bitter, her wit less acerbic than stately, pronounced, and warmfully combative.

Both actors’ game punch and inherent likeability distract from the essential contrivance of their early exchanges, but the dialogue-heavy staginess eventually prevents them from delving beneath the surface-hangups of their characters. The injection of mawkish angst as a dramatic plot device only serves to emphasise the uneveness of the writing, more representative in George but nevertheless alienating us from both people who we thought we knew. The flaws in their relationship emerge abruptly, feel shallow, and are drawn out for far too long, that it’s no wonder Mason’s performance feels ultimately tiresome. Her tethered reactions to Caan’s muted self-pity, including one particularly epic monologue where she attempts to convince him why they should stay together, are fundamentally well-executed, but she can’t escape the compartmentalisation of her character into a reluctant confrontationalist which considerably hampers her ability to succeed in this production.

Mason is an actress with embedded self-supremacy, but it's far less suited to this role than it is in "The Goodbye Girl" and, particularly, "Only When I Laugh." She needs much more to chew on than is afforded her here, and in a looser narrative, where the occasional dismantling of her somewhat uptight persona translates as more natural than forced. Simon was a screenwriter with wild extremes of success, and as such this falls near the bottom of his hierarchy, and sadly Mason is unable to forge a path from this disadvantaged position much further than second base.

1 comment:

Fritz said...

Not a fan at all of this performance.