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April 06, 2004

From Gina to Kate

Dear Friedrich --

1. I rent Borderline at the DVD store partly because I sometimes enjoy checking out thrillers that go straight-to-video, but mostly because it stars Gina Gershon, who I often love watching. That bad-girl chic and effrontery of hers amuses me no end. And I do love looking at her mouth.

2. The movie's credits go by, and I notice that the film was directed by Evelyn Purcell, who I remember was once married to Jonathan Demme. In the mid-'80s, Purcell had a filmworld reputation as an impressive woman, so people were expecting great things when she made her own first movie. It turned out to be "Nobody's Fool," an inconsequential piece of hippie whimsy, and people lost interest in her. How has Purcell spent her life since, I wonder.

3. The picture is OK -- an intelligently laid-out and executed ultra-low-budget cross between a neo-noir and a yuppie-under-siege thriller (like "Unlawful Entry"). Unfortunately, it's got no flair or wildness -- almost nothing to rescue it from something basically dull and worthy at its heart. Grumpy thoughts about women directing thrillers circulate in my brain.

4. But Gershon is terrific and fresh, if in a modest way. She and Purcell seem to have wanted to use the movie to show the multisidedness of women -- not just the familiar sexiness and competence, but the way a woman moves between a whole variety of roles and personas: anxious mother, tender lover, tough professional, fearful child, mischievous imp, doomed heroine ... As a thriller, the movie's a semi-anonymous snooze; as a vehicle for putting onscreen some observations about women, it's pretty enjoyable. Nonetheless, The Wife falls asleep halfway through the film.

5. Why isn't Gina Gershon a big star? She seems to have everything a star needs -- looks, talent, charisma, sexiness, distinctiveness ... Plus, she was so wonderful in "Bound" and "Showgirls" ... But both were cult pictures, not big hits ... Is Gershon not a big star just because she hasn't had the luck to be in a big hit?

6. I muse about actresses and stardom ... All those beautiful, talented actresses who are plausible star material yet who never do become stars ... Among fairly recent names, there's Kelly Lynch ... Madeleine Stowe ... Minnie Driver ... Annette O'Toole ... Diane Lane would be on this list if she hadn't gotten lucky and achieved stardom with "Unfaithful" ...

7. I'm still thinking about this when I watch the Ron Shelton cop-buddy picture Hollywood Homicide the next evening. The movie is slick, energized, and even kinda brilliant, but almost nothing about it clicks, IMHO. It's got a glittering, party-hearty mood, but watching it I felt like the guy down the hall who isn't in the mood for such a lot of loud carrying-on.

8. Stories that have an actual jock-like quality, though -- what a good idea for a list. Not literary stuff like Roger Angell or Malamud. Who needs more of that? But a list of rowdy, physical, extraverted stuff like "North Dallas 40," "Ball Four," "Semi-Tough," "Bull Durham," "Cobb" ... And I start coming up short. Are Dan Jenkins' other novels any good? I haven't read them. I've heard good things about a mystery novel called "The Shake," but haven't read it yet either. I liked that Bobby Roth movie about golf, the one that starred Randy Quaid. Hmm: should I include "Tin Cup," Ron Shelton's own golf movie, even though I wasn't crazy about it?

9. In a supporting role in "Hollywood Homicide," however, is another candidate for my previous list, the amusingly self-possessed vixen Lena Olin ...

10. So once again I'm thinking about actresses and stardom. And the actress whose name always surfaces in my brain when I'm thinking about this topic finally makes her appearance: Kate Nelligan. Do you remember her? She's about our age -- a beautiful dark-haired, dark-eyed Canadian who studied in Britain. At a very young age, she became a celebrated theater actress there, was the muse of the playwright David Hare, did Shakespeare for video ...

11. Unlike lots of actresses, Nelligan was actually given a fair and deliberate shot at stardom. She was wonderful opposite Donald Sutherland in an OK spy thriller called "Eye of the Needle"; came to America; did some amazing theater here (I saw most of it); got a ton of press coverage; and then starred in an awful feminist thriller called "Without a Trace." She was terrif, but the movie bombed.

12. Right after "Withouth a Trace," Nelligan seemed to drop out of the stardom game altogether. From what I've heard, she realized that she hated the wannabe-a-star fast lane, and decided to ditch it and lead a semi-sensible life instead. So ever since "Without a Trace," most of her acting work has been in small movie roles; she was in "Wolf," "Up Close and Personal," and "Prince of Tides," for instance.

13. Good for Nelligan -- but also too darn bad, at least from a loving-to-watch-talented-actresses p-o-v. Those early Nelligan performances had such beauty, such power, such dark erotic drive, such clarity of execution ... She had all that British technique, yet also a huge range of emotional and sensual resources; she was like a dark-haired, North American Helen Mirren ...

14. So it's over to Amazon. Nice to see that "Eye of the Needle" is still available. Too bad that Nelligan's "Measure for Measure" seems out of print ...

15. One of Nelligan's most astounding performances was in a British TV version of Zola's "Postman Always Rings Twice" precursor, Therese Raquin. Bold, tragic, impulsive, squalid, desperate, alone -- Nelligan really was fabulous; although she was never nude, she gave one of the sexiest performances I've ever seen. And, son of a gun, "Therese Raquin" is now available on DVD; it can be bought here. It costs $37 -- which is, gulp, not cheap. But, hey, the show is a good three hours long, if I recall right. And Nelligan's performance is the equal of just about anything you'll see in the theater, where chances are you'd pay a lot more for a lot less.



posted by Michael at April 6, 2004


I have become something of a fan of Andie MacDowell, who started out getting all her lines overdubbed in Greystoke and then gained some fame in "Sex,Lies, and Videotape." Recently I have seen a few movies, some comfortable, some better, all pretty small that have impressed me as far as MacDowell building a career. Her movies seem better than she is. I mention, w/o necessarily recommending:

Ruby Cairo: quest b-thriller with Viggo Mortenson, Liam Neeson, and the wonderful Jack Thompson

Harrison's Flowers: Brutal movie about war correspondents in Bosnia, and a wife searching for her missing husband, David Straitharn, whom I will always watch( same with Stanley Tucci). Watch this in close proximity to "The Pianist", and see why Adrien Brody deserved an oscar.

Dinner with Friends: A movie about divorce, and about marriage. Maybe Dennis Quaid's best performance. Toni Collette excellent too.

Another actress just under the radar. Won't buy a ticket to see her, but will catch her on TV or video.

(There are guys like this. See David Straitharn and Stanley Tucci above)

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 6, 2004 9:45 AM

1. Madeleine Stowe got a fair chance at "stardom" if appearing in a hit is the formula for "stardom"---she got a great romantic lead in "The Last of the Mohicans." She also was in that Richard Dreyfuss modest hit---"Stake Out." So apparently it's not that.

2. It's funny you mention Kate Nelligan---she was also who I was thinking of. She got an Oscar nomination even, once, for "Frankie and Johnny", which was the same year as "The Prince of Tides". Lena Olin is another---she seemed to have it all, including an Oscar nod and a hit---"The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Yet...

3. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is another of these names. Never quite broke through on her own, in spite of "The Color of Money" and a few others. The author of "The Prince of Tides" wanted her(Mastrantonio)for the lead shrink in "Prince of Tides' but Babs wanted herself.

4. I don't think it's quite as simple as "appearing in a hit" if you are to have any staying power. I mean...why is Ingrid Bergman one of the Great Movie Stars and Isabella Rosellini, who looks and talks so much like her, most memorable for some supporting roles and her cosmetics modelling contract with Lancome? Pia Lindstrom (another Bergman daughter) wound up on the cutting room floor in her first movie. As a biographer of Bergman pointed out, whatever happened to Ingrid, she never wound up on the cutting room floor.

5. A friend of mine once said that Mastrantonio could never be a convincing bimbo (even when sort of playing one, like "The Color of Money") because to be a bimbo, one needs looks which are quickly and easily processed, and she is too complex. Even her looks. I thought that was an interesting observation. Maybe to be a movie star, one needs to be quickly and easily processed, and these women are too complex for that. I mean---what one word would you use for Nelligan, or Mastrantonio? "Cute"? "Gamine"? "Seductress"?
"Ice Queen"?
"Ballbreaker"? "Independent"? "Smart"? See--none of it quite works.

Posted by: annette on April 6, 2004 9:49 AM

Hmmm...I seem to remember Kate Nelligan being nude in Therese Raquin. She was prone in bed with her lover, and IIRC, she wasn't wearing a stitch. Maybe I'm wrong, but Kate Nelligan nude isn't the kind of thing one would normally misremember.

Think I'll buy the DVD and make *absolutely* sure about this.

Posted by: Patrick on April 6, 2004 2:25 PM


Actresses tend to be very female, and a lot of them put their careers on hold to have children. Then, they fail to rebound after their break, either because they've lost momentum, or they've put on weight, or they just aren't as driven now that they have kids.

Also, a lot of actresses marry Big Guys and don't need the money, or they put more emphasis on their hubby's career. Nancy Davis Reagan is the most famous example.

And, actresses' shelf lives are shorter, so it's harder to keep coming back from dumb script choices, the way Travolta has done repeatedly over the last 30 years.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 6, 2004 7:19 PM

I believe "Dead Solid Perfect" was the name of the Randy Quaid golf movie you refer to in #8.

Posted by: Ron on April 7, 2004 10:54 AM

Bob -- Thanks for the recommendations.

Annette -- You're one of the best commentators on the "stardom" thing I know of. Someone should give you a column. Good point about Stowe, which makes me wonder why she never did become a star. She took some time off for family and sanity, and that didn't help. But maybe she's someone women have trouble taking into their hearts -- what do you think? Or maybe she isn't distinctive enough, though she certainly is for my money. And like you I wonder what happened to Mastrantonio. She had some momentum going for a while.

Patrick -- I remember a few of the actresses in "Therese Raquin" who were playing artists' models getting nude. But Nelligan? You're probably right, though, given the condition of my memory these days. And I'm eager to rewatch the show to find out. Mostly I remember Nelligan in 19th century undies, crawling around like a cat in heat. Whew.

Steve -- How true. Movie actresses have such a short period during which they can hit stardom. And if it doesn't happen, mom-hood and family life are probably much more appealing options than continuing the struggle. And I think you have to like the fight, as well as the life, which many people find out they don't. It's a superdemanding and in many ways awful way to live, and it doesn't seem uncommon for many gals who get a taste of it to bail into something else. I remember an actress named Kaki Hunter, who was charming and sexy, who had five minutes of heat around her back in the '80s, I think. And then she vanished. I was killing time one day and turned up a couple of references to her on the web -- she'd just gotten fed up, so picked up and left LA, and was now living some kind of hippie life in a desert town. Where she was occasionally putting on little theater productions, amusingly enough. Acting's great fun for those with the talent and the temperament, but "making it as an actor or actress" (let alone trying to make it as a star) often turns out to be a hellish way to try to live, at least for a semi-sane, semi-normal person.

Rod -- "Dead Solid Perfect," that's it, thanks. I enjoyed it, did you?

Any nominees from anyone else, by the way, for movies or books that have that genuine jock feel?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 7, 2004 11:37 AM

Well, I see you haven't got the DeNiro/Moriarty
"Bang the Drum Slowly" up there. Like "Brian's Song" or as in "Sleepless in Seattle" "Dirty Dozen" discussion, a macho handkerchief movie. They are rare. :)

Anybody able to name or even seen the cast of the first "Bang the Drum"'ll just go IMDB. Salmi/Newman

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 7, 2004 2:36 PM HAVE given me a column! Didn't you know? If I actually had to produce on time for money, I'm sure I'd be more like Madeliene Stowe than Julia Roberts in the "stardom" category!

I know less about the genuine feel of sports than I do about the theory of stardom, but a lot of people thought "Remember the Titans" with Denzel Washington was very good.

Posted by: annette on April 7, 2004 2:46 PM

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