(the 4th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)
JANE ALEXANDER IN TESTAMENT (1983)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!):
Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment
Meryl Streep in Silkwood
Julie Walters in Educating Rita
Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment
I once knew that Testament was a post-apocalyptic drama, embarrassingly enough, since I claimed yesterday not to know a thing about the film. Sure enough, I’d forgotten by the time I started watching, and the nuclear attack’s sudden intrusion on a loose family storyline caught me off-guard and sucked me in something fierce for the rest of the film. I wound up catching the film on a faded, pan & scan VHS after the film disappeared from Netflix Instant and the DVD I rented had to be returned with a burn error. I’m kind of glad I wound up watching it this way; the videotape aesthetic made it speak all the more urgently with the voice of its pre-Gorbachev, Doomsday Clock-beleaguered era. I give the film high, high marks for its delicate balance of the agony and the tranquility in a survivors’ tale, and for filtering the horrors of war completely through the slow unraveling of daily life.
Jane plays a mother trying to keep her family together after a nuclear war that first wipes out the world outside their small Northern California town, then slowly eats away at everything that remains. Much credit goes to the screenplay, which understands the surreal nature of breakfast the morning after the attack, presenting a normalcy that can only start to vanish, or the importance of still having piano lessons in the midst of a slowly dying community. The theme that stood out to me in this film was the paradox of death and survival, disintegration and endurance, a quality that Jane’s performance somehow epitomized. Jane, criminalyl underrated despite four Oscar nominations, might be best known for her small Supporting Actress-nominated roles opposite Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein’s wary but conscientious source in All the President’s Men and Ted’s sympathetic single-parent neighbor in Kramer vs. Kramer): she’s a master of striking just the right tone in a single scene, and here her abilities are fitted ideally to a leading role. It’s she who takes the movie’s collection of short, spare scenes and stitches them into a narrative. The film provides no concrete measure of time; its passage is seen perfectly her increasingly hollowed—but never empty—visage.
I’m never one to shy away from rankings, but Jane’s performance in Testament reminds me just how tricky comparing performances can be. She plays a strong mother who must bury a child, just like fellow nominee Shirley MacLaine does in Terms of Endearment, as well as a woman who endures the horrors of radiation poisoning, just like Meryl Streep in Silkwood. Yet her performance couldn’t be further removed from both of her peers’, while remaining equally profound. In the end, the 1983 Best Actress contest is an agonizing choice. The three nominees I mentioned: Shirley, Meryl, and Jane, give three incomparable performances on entirely different registers, and even Julie Walters as a delightful latter-day Eliza Doolittle and Debra Winger as yet another striving mother hold their own in this year. I’ll scrunch my eyes and mouth shut and give the trophy to Jane for her masterful job of embodying the disintegrating but enduring world around her, and close the book for now, though I’m liable to revisit this choice in the future.