Best Actress: Champs
If Katharine Hepburn furnished the driving current of my early actress love, albeit via VHS and cable TV, Emma Thompson's phosphorescent years in the early 1990s marked the first big wave I caught in cinemas, right as it was happening, along with the rest of the world. She had me at Howards End (reviewed here and here), and the ride from there, up through Primary Colors (reviewed here), was just a superlative thing to witness: exquisite drama and mirthful comedy, witty and transcendently articulate interviews, and a triumphant foray into writing, which proved that she really was the Nerd Made Good that I so wanted her to be. I idolized the teacher of the creative writing course I took in high school, where I wrote my very first film review, of The Remains of the Day. When I tipped my hand that I was infatuated with Thompson, Ms. Portwood answered, "I love her so much, I can't even believe she exists." An accomplished, hilarious, beautiful, and proudly bookish actress who served a common cause to me and to my most beloved mentors. What, pray, could be better?
No actor ever got better reviews than Thompson did from The New Republic's vaunted critic Stanley Kauffmann, who could not get enough of how sexy Thompson's intelligence was, and how intelligent her sexiness. In other words, what Fred and Ginger allegedly gave each other, Emma gave to herself, and to nearly everyone who worked with her: she brought out the slow-burn romance in Anthony Hopkins and Alan Rickman and something comparable in Jonathan Pryce, she briefly and charmingly cleared Hugh Grant of his most flippant tics, she set an example of impetuous charm and incisive playing for a young Kate Winslet, and of course she worked onscreen wonders for her then-husband Kenneth Branagh, whose stock with the public never rebounded after their divorce, but who, more to the point, never found another co-star who so capably tempered his hard-charging egotism so that it played more palatably as gusto, ambition, and ardor. Just watching Thompson, I felt included in this luminous parlay of seductive, principled, insouciant smarts, and evidently so did all of the other people filing out of the theater when I went to see one of her movies. It was an exhilarating circuit in which to participate. She inspired the kind of effusive, jocular devotionan adoring, kid-sister feeling from audiences who loved her even as they felt they became better, more elevated people by spending time with herthat these days is the exclusive provenance of Meryl Streep. In some ways, this feels like anything but a coincidence. Thompson scored all of her Oscar nominations during the five years when Meryl experienced her longest drought from AMPAS. 1995, when Thompson was nominated for acting in Sense and Sensibility and became the only trophied thespian in Academy history to reap a screenplay Oscar as well, was the year Meryl returned to the ball with The Bridges of Madison County, and maybe some kind of magical baton got passed. Meryl's latter-day recipe for being cherished not despite but through one's educational pedigree and refined tastes, for talking politics even in the fluffiest interviews in ways that drove neither writers nor readers away, for earning instant allegiance from stars as disparate as Vanessa Redgrave and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and for making a major splash in highbrow dramas before disclosing one's zealous wish to show everyone a silly good time... I'm not saying Thompson blazed all these trails herself, but she did it with startlingly few precedents and without seeming to work all that hard at it. Even Meryl struggled to hit some of these bull's-eyes with her public and journalistic personas until Thompson showed us all how it was done.
How, though, does one avoid a retrospective orientation, even a kind of valedictory tone in writing about Thompson from the standpoint of 2010? I have the strong feeling that most of my students have no idea who she is, much less do they associate her with the kind of blooming excitement that to me is synonymous with her legacy. In large part, they know her as the woman who single-handedly supplied to Love Actually, a movie they've seen as many times as I've seen Howards End, a plaintive and much-needed chord of recognizable human feeling. A few of them have seen her in her twin HBO triumphs of the early 00s, Wit and Angels in America. I love how fully she articulated her butch version of Nurse Emily in Angels, and Wit is a handsome, moving transposition of a strong, Thompson-friendly play. Still, neither of these projects showcases that particular trait, that energetic irony, the bouncing and well-schooled irreverence, that drew me to her so quickly and fully. I suspect she's a hard one to translate to later generations of fans, and without meaning to sound churlish, if what you've got in front of you are the pristinely played but smallish roles in Love Actually and An Education, the two outings as Nanny McPhee and the two as Sybil Trelawney, the adept but only halfway memorable work in the otherwise insufferable Stranger Than Fiction, and the frankly wobbly performance in a showcased role in Brideshead Revisited, where Thompson's unmistakably secular persona just never finds its way into Lady Marchmain's unforgiving religious devotions, you'd be forgiven for identifying a shrewd actress but wondering what all the fuss was about, and maybe yearning for someone with more fire, bigger canvases, and a more robust aura of really loving the work. All plaudits to Thompson for devoting more of the last decade to serious activism and philanthropy and to the raising of two chlidren than to building the sort of portfolio of screen work that her 90s career led us all to expect. But surely it's also fair to say that I miss her, and that the cinema feels diminsihed when she appears so furtively. I regret the lost chance to learn about women in their 40s in the ways we all surely would have if Thompson had been a more frequent guide and chaperone in those investigations.
Then again, recognizing my selfish desire to win her back full-time to the movies some day, I concede not only that a return to the timbre of the Forster and Austen years is unlikely, it's not even necessarily what I want. Had the divorce not happened, had her pace of work not slowed, had the world not hailed her into responsibilities that felt greater or more urgent than acting in films (and it's obviously not for me to say how much, if anything, these various alibis did or did not have to do with each other), I remember thinking in the mid 90s that I was ready for some changes from Thompson. We knew her charisma and joy, her perspicacity. She implicitly revealed through her incandescent, agile Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothingher best performance in 1993, and the one that didn't win an Oscar nominationthat the cinema remains starved for a top-drawer Rosalind or a Viola. I hoped, though, that someone else would play them. Further from her comfort zone, I admired her work as hard-driving barrister Gareth Peirce in In the Name of the Father, largely because she looked so wan and self-contained so much of the time, exposing the human tolls of righteous indignation, of a career sunk in the slow, bureaucratic process of doing the right thing. This was a different Thompson: I adored it less, and it bespoke a few gaps and limits, but I wanted to see more of it. Her lusty but astringent and idiosyncratic turn in Carrington augured promisingly for a Thompson freed from being charming, focused on her body at least as much as on her mind. Alan Rickman's The Winter Guest, a moving mother-daughter drama that nobody saw, showcases by far the angriest and chilliest performance I've ever seen Thompson give, with no histrionics. I'm always keen to see someone so lovable successfully navigate such an about-face into remoteness and despondency, just as I was thrilled in Primary Colors to watch how someone as smart as
Let's hope we see more of those sides. 2008's Last Chance Harvey, a movie ignored by almost everyone except the Hollywood Foreign Press, found Thompson in spectacular form. You could argue that Kate Walker is a modern Elinor Dashwood who never did find her Edward Ferrars, or draw lines to other Thompson creations, but she also felt, wonderfully, like a ground-up creation, a lovely and sad and patient and disappointed woman who discovers just how ready she is to open herself up again, and discovers amidst the very same day that she wishes, deeply, that this weren't true. Thompson got nice notices from bloggers for how she sat in the audience, coaxing an overcome Sally Hawkins through a breathless, weepy, halting speech at the Golden Globes; she was simultaneously friendly and maternal, with just enough comic zest to distract from the younger woman's touching, almost embarrassing vulnerability. Thompson knows everything about the spotlight: a veteran of how to occupy it, in ways almost anyone could stand to emulate; a veteran of how to lead newer talents through it; and a veteran of learning to live outside it. I wonder if, like Julie Christie, she's going to spend the rest of her working years offering one or two major performances per decade while she attends more often to more serious workreminding everyone of just how much we miss her and how we've never fallen out of love with her, while making it clear how small and spoiled we are for grousing that she doesn't come around more often. But I do wish that she would. I love her so much, I can't even believe she exists, and until Harvey came along, I had started to doubt that she did. She was a major teacher and role model during my adolescence, and all these years later, I'm still not ready to graduate.
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