Sunday, January 9, 2011

Supporting Actress Smackdown, Part I: Old Little Princess

In lieu of new feature Netflix Pix this week, I'm participating in StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Smackdown. For those who aren't familiar, the SAS is a great yearly tradition where Oscar bloggers come together to celebrate what StinkyLulu (AKA Brian Herrera) has termed "actressing at the edges." In other words, the series is meant to celebrate the best female acting performances that aren't right in our faces.

I'll be discussing my 2010 Awkward for Best Supporting Actress winner Amanda Peet's performance as Mary in Please Give in a second, separate post, but first I want to pay homage to what I consider one of the finest female performances of the year: Winona Ryder in Black Swan.
"What'd you do to get this role?"
Unfortunately, Ryder's role as Beth McIntyre, the washed-up elder ballerina who is forced into retirement as Black Swan begins, is far too small for consideration in my greater Best Supporting Actress contest. But there is truly no one who "actresses at the edges" better this year.

Ryder, something of an outcast in Hollywood since her shoplifting incident years ago, has done solid work here and there, but never before has she shown the same promise of being a leading lady once again. She still isn't the lead in Black Swan, but she is something potentially better: a new breed of character actress.

Beth McIntyre is the former "little princess" of a New York ballet company, headed by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). She is pushed into retirement by Thomas, her former lover, after a run of disastrous seasons, to make room for new blood: namely, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). Beth's response to this news is to wreck her own dressing room, drunkenly accost Nina at the company fundraiser, and attempt suicide by throwing herself in front of a truck.

Ryder appears four times in the film: twice in the hospital (once unconscious), once after wrecking her dressing room, and at the gala. She truly only has two substantive scenes, the first of which is at the fundraiser. To say she knocks the scene out of the park is an understatement. She blasts the ball out of its skin.

Imbuing Beth with such an inner hatred of this girl, so much like herself at a young age, who is daring to replace her, Ryder burns a hole through the screen. She gives the impression that she's spitting venom with each line, aiming to cause Nina as much pain with her words as is possible. Her delivery is bitchy, campy, and absolutely perfect. The poisonous way she says a word as simple as "frigid" sends chills up the audience's collective spine.

She hurls the most hurtful charge she can imagine--sleeping with Thomas--and Nina throws it back at her with full force. Even Nina insults better than she can. She is inferior in every sense, and we see her fade away as Nina and Thomas walk away together.

"You make the most of it, Nina!"
What makes the showdown such a great scene is that it is beautifully self-referential. Ryder herself has dealt with being replaced by young starlets like Portman in her career, so the irony makes the scene all the more resonating and truly affecting.

Being in the hospital leaves Beth out of commission for almost the remainder of the movie, except for one key scene that occurs near the end. For those who haven't yet seen the film yet, I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say it's a doozy.

There's an argument to be made that Ryder's work in the film is nothing but a glorified cameo, but what a cameo it is. If her career is destined to be more roles like Beth--essentially, character actress work--then count me among the Winona Ryder fans. She is truly one of the great actresses at the edge.


Brandon (Twister) said...

I too found Ryder to be pretty good as well, and she really does work at the edges of the scenes, until she burns a hole into the scene (as you said).

It's a wierd performance in a wierd film -- but she conveys the desperation, the craziness, and sadness in only a few minutes on screen.

Robert said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!! I loved Winona. You totally got everything that made her performance so haunting and frightening. She was like a whirlwind every time she was on screen.

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Awkward is the appropriate word. She looks so aged and beaten when vocally protesting her mistreatment in such a youthfully modern howl. I just can't put the two together but there they are, together in Winona Ryder.

Kevin said...

I think all three of you guys are echoing the same sentiment--the performance is so many things, not the least of which is that it is so beautifully contradictory and it works in such a fantastic fashion. Winona is in her finest form. And thanks to all of you for reading!

troyhopper said...

Hers is a performance so magnetic that one would gladly follow that character's journey in another movie altogether. The irony of art imitating life, which she plays brilliantly, is merely icing on the cake.

Simon said...

Campy brilliance, which you put better than I can.

Karen said...

I really, REALLY, want Winona to make a big comeback.