(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)
BRENDA BLETHYN IN SECRETS & LIES (1996)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!):
Frances McDormand in Fargo
Diane Keaton in Marvin’s Room
Kristen Scott Thomas in The English Patient
Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves
I’d better spit this one out, since I’ve been mulling it over for a day now, in between massive doses of homework. I skipped writing about this film at first, since Mike Leigh’s films lie so far beyond the limits of my ability to talk about acting. The five nominations that Secrets & Lies got in 1996 (for Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Original Screenplay) feel to me like a collective tribute to a boldly collaborative filmmaking style that does its best to erase the boundaries between the disciplines of acting, writing, and directing. Brenda authors her character jointly with Leigh; he entrusts her with the film’s tremendous central secret, and it’s her job to feel her way through the seismic upheaval in her character’s life when that secret comes to the surface.
In the very broadest sense, Brenda belongs to a long, strong, and proud lineage of mothers in maternal melodramas. However, what struck me most about this performance is how completely stripped she is of the regalia of these performers. Gone are the sumptuous trappings of a Douglas Sirk or Edmund Goulding and the star-centered scenes of a Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo vehicle. In her two most remarkable performance scenes, first on the phone with a total stranger, and then side-by-side with the same stranger in a restaurant in a seven-minute single take, she brilliantly navigates through a sparse, demanding relationship, letting her character unfold in all of her gaffes, false starts, and strangled attempts to articulate the truths that issue so glibly from the mouths of Bette Davis or Jane Wyman. Her improvisational manner certainly reminds me of Gena Rowlands, the grande dame of the disrupted housewife, but Brenda’s dishwater-dulled character is even deprived of the exceptional gift of beauty. Her nomination is truly a tribute to her ability to bring to life a truly ordinary character in the most extreme of conditions. My vote in 1996 goes to another astounding study in ordinariness in extreme situations, Frances McDormand, but I’ll chalk this one up as another of the great performances I’ve discovered on this quest.