The Home Stretch: Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field

(the 1st of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)


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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!):

Emma Thompson in Howards End

Catherine Deneuve in Indochine

Mary McDonnell in Passion Fish

Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo’s Oil

It’s a credit to Michelle’s skill and goodwill within the industry that she rallied for a nomination out of this delayed-release independent drama from her own production company.  She certainly makes the most of her part, thoughtfully portraying a loquacious, naïve Dallas housewife who gets swept up first in the national trauma of JFK’s assassination and then (in somewhat implausible fashion) in a race-fueled manhunt that she unwittingly foists upon a black man and his daughter while on her way to the funeral in Washington D.C.  Like fellow nominee Susan Sarandon for Lorenzo’s Oil, Michelle had the ability, but the not the role, to get her to stage; unlike Susan, her luck ran cold and she never found that role.

Some actresses, like Deborah Kerr and Glenn Close, have the acting chops and the roles to merit a win, but suffer rotten luck competition-wise in their strongest years.  To me, Michelle belongs to a special class, including Eleanor Parker and Naomi Watts, who have the whole package as a performer, but never land the type of role that can take them all the way to the win.  It’s not too late (look at Helen Mirren), but I lament that her most recent chance to win, now twenty years ago, couldn’t bring her closer.

As one might imagine, the plot stretches over some shaky ground and can’t evade every Hollywood pitfall when it comes to depicting black-white relations in the Civil Rights Era.  Nonetheless, I have a good deal of respect for the script’s characterization combined with Michelle’s interpretation (the two are closely entwined, as Michelle went to great lengths to get the project made).  Mixed in with her character’s friendly, sympathetic tendencies, the film is at pains to show the folly and harm that her simplistic worldview causes to those around her.  Unlike the heroic, or at least blameless white allies often nominated for Oscars (Gregory Peck, Jessica Chastain), this is a character with a flawed notion of race, one which improves by the film’s end but is not perfected, and which causes damage that is forgiven but not erased.

Finally, I have to hand it to Michelle for the technical execution of her character.  Chatterboxes are the kind of role that are easy to play but difficult to make into round characters, a feat that Michelle accomplishes.  She has a sophisticated grasp of how her talkativeness manifests in a variety of audiences and moods, from excited bubbles of volunteered information when talking to law enforcement to gentle, crafty small talk when drawing out a shy child.  I don’t want to make this performance out to be more than it is, but as I said, it’s the work of an actress who knows what she’s doing and deserves more to show for it.  Ultimately, she falls before the Academy’s inspired choice of Emma Thompson in Howards End, but makes the most out of a limited opportunity.


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