Jan. 25th, 2017

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Earlier today, I found myself suddenly thinking about Alicia Witt, an actress who seems to have made a career out of playing universally dislikable female characters. She's played overt psychopaths since being cast as St. Alia the Knife in David Lynch's Dune at the age of eight; her turn in the sadly forgotten Rafal Zielinski movie Fun as a folie a deux spree-killer who meets her doppleganger/enabler at a California bus stop (based on both a play by James Bosley and the crime which inspired it) is truly chilling.

Since then, she's blown through parts like the smiling shark of a "D-girl" who flirts with offering Christopher a Hollywood alternative to Mob life on The Sopranos, an incredibly brief stint as Logan's partner on Law & Order: SVU as a brash "Mick/Wop" detective who manages to offend everyone she runs across, and a one-shot guest appearance on The Walking Dead as Negan acolyte Paula (this article gives a good summation of what Witt brought to the role: http://ew.com/article/2016/03/13/walking-dead-alicia-witt-paula-the-same-boat/).
Yes, she's apparently done comedy too--always a gap in my brain--but her particular note seems to be playing acerbic bitches with a high self-opinion and not a lot of patience for fools/life in general.

As I observed to a person on Facebook, she's a bit like "the Miguel Ferrer of redheads," aside from the fact that Ferrer was eventually celebrated for playing literally unrepentant assholes. Goes almost without saying how a facility for assholishness is never really something mainstream narrative likes to cheer on in females, though.

I'd build a whole show around Witt if I could, especially now I know she also plays the piano and writes songs, just like Robert Downey Jnr. or Jeff Goldblum, but like I said, chicks like her rarely get the showcase they deserve. Where's Alicia Witt's version of Tony Stark, Ian Malcolm or Mister Frost? Angela Bettis can still eat out on May, I guess, but she too most often gets stuck playing the character-part freaks, maybe because of that weird wandering eye. Whereas Witt is attractive in a supposedly acceptable way, and yet...and yet.

(Yes, I get that actresses of colour have to deal with this basically all the time, which is why I'm so glad Shonda Rhimes is as successful as she is. Viola Davis's recent observation that she eventually had to start turning down "five-minute parts" even if she thought they were likely to net her Oscar nominations is one I can absolutely identify with; my Mom's done her share of those, or probably more than. But aside from getting renewed, how well is The Catch actually paying out for Mireille Enos, another slightly off-putting redhead? I guess we'll have to wait until March to see.)

I suppose I stumbled onto this whole line of thought in part because Mom and I went to see Paul Verhoeven's Elle last night, which is organized entirely around a recently Oscar-nominated Best Actress turn by the blindingly talented Isabelle Huppert. Huppert plays Michelle LeBlanc, who we first meet literally in the throes of being raped by a home invader in a ski mask. We follow her through aftercare and the rest of her day, noting that she isn't responding "normally" to the trauma at all; Michelle, it turns out, is a woman whose entire life has been shaped by a neighbourhood killing spree conducted by her father, who seems to have suffered a psychotic break the year she was ten--even now, every time he comes up for parole all of France seems to go into a spasm of nostalgic hatred, causing random strangers to dump their garbage on Michelle or scream shit at her in the street. Thus, she's not exactly likely to go to the cops when something bad happens, for fear of them also blaming her for being his daughter.

The interesting thing about Elle is that although it's naturally a bit over the top, like all Verhoeven films, the overall effect is that it's nevertheless one of the only non-period pieces I've seen from him in which all the characters are recognizably effed up within normal human ranges of effed-up-ness. It's human, humane, empathetic, and yes--often quite funny, in a pitch-black farce sort of way; Michelle has very little self-censorship in her nature, stating at one point that "Shame is an emotion so weak it doesn't really keep anyone from doing anything." She attempts to seize control of the rape in much the same way she tries to seize control of everything in her life, which appears to have been one long flinch away from the very idea of victimization; after figuring out the rapist is her next-door neighbour, a guy she's been genuinely attracted to, she even briefly tries to integrate him into her life as a sort of kinky sidebar. But eventually, she figures out that having consensual sex with him is literally like fucking her Dad, which is seriously twisted, and offers herself up one more time right after denouncing him as the asshole hypocrite he is, perhaps assuming he'll kill her.

That that doesn't happen is--in many ways--a testament to her own realization that while she's been bad, she's not evil; she really is capable of love and friendship, of empathy, even if her acerbicness and commitment to as little cooperation with bullshit social niceties as possible can make her look (and feel) like the biggest bitch in the world. And since this is something I've often felt about myself, I guess that in the end, Elle confirms a theory I've held since I was a film critic--we respond best to emotional manipulation from films which reinforce our own world-view, not question it, or make US question it. It's a bit like my reaction to M. Night Shyamalan's Spilt, which continues to fall squarely in the "wound as superpower = hooray" camp, rather than the "intersectional issues so bad I can't even" camp; I get that that's faily on my part, but that sort of failure is, I can only assume, also part of my nature, much like caring more about people than dogs. I know it. I own it.

TL; DR: Not for everyone, but some may find things here that they like--could be the tagline for Elle, could be the tagline for Alicia Witt. And on we go, probably racking up other universally dislkable characters/opinions with every move we make.


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