#5 — Parker Posey as Libby Mae Brown in Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest, 1996)
One of the most vexing elements of evaluating performances is weighing the work of the actor against the quality of the writing that went into the initial creation of the role. The common desire is to heap praise on the performer. After all, they’re the primary conduit into the character for the audience. They provide the entryway. They’re explaining–through their craft–exactly who this fictional person is. And yet a character on screen represents a significant amount of collaboration. The writer, director, costume designer all clearly have their say, and any number of other toilers on set and in the post-production studios added their own shadings. Obviously that’s still the case in Christopher Guest’s comedies built around improvisation, but those films do feel like they offer a purer view of the actors’ efforts. They own the choices in a different way.
When Guest assembled his troupe for Waiting For Guffman, he brought in a lot of seasoned pros, notably Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Eugene Levy. These individuals had well-established credentials when it came to improv, but the fifth person passing stools around the Blaine community theater stage was a different matter. Parker Posey’s film credits already numbered in the double digits by the time Guffman came out, but that was more a product of her crazily prolific nature in the mid-nineties–her IMDb filmography lists seven titles for 1995 alone–than ages of skill-honing toil. Her major breakthrough in Party Girl came just one year earlier, and she was a mere four years removed from drawing a paycheck for a soap opera role. Like her character, Libby Mae Brown, she was a relative newcomer.
Libby Mae’s audition to be part of Corky St. Clair’s musical theater extravaganza “Red White and Blaine” consists of a provocative performance of the song “Teacher’s Pet.” But even as she’s hiking up her denim skirt and striding towards the table where the director sits, she seems utterly guileless, completely unaware that there’s an inherent sexiness to what she’s doing. She just following her instincts and, in the process, becoming quietly enthralled with the thrill of performance. There’s no hidden agenda, no veiled come on. Instead, she’s just having the time of her life singing and dancing. That distinction is key. The great value of the performance–and the film itself, for that matter–lies within it.
Guest is mocking these small-town entertainers, but he’s also celebrating them. They demonstrate no awareness that the material they are working on is subpar, no hesitancy about stepping up to the edge of the stage and belting a song with all their might so it can reach the back row and beyond. It is utterly plausible to them that a talent scout may deem the show worthy of a coveted spot on Broadway. That optimism is effusively on display in Posey’s performance, as she joyously bobs her head in time with the silliest rehearsal exercises and beams when she’s in the company of her new compatriots in showmanship. It’s behavior that’s in marked contrast to the flatline expertise in her discussions about her day job at the local Dairy Queen. Talking about that, she gets bored and drifts away in the middle of a sentence.
Much as I enjoy all the performances in Waiting for Guffman, many of them betray the actors’ respective histories with sketch comedy. They’re accustomed to constructing performances meant to make an impact in a few busy moments for an audience hungry for the next vibrant stimulus to laughter. They are a little broad, a little jokey, more invested in the silliness than the emotion. Fred Willard has never met a moment that he couldn’t invent an offbeat punchline for, and similarly dependable comic instincts are shared and shown by many of the other cast members. Posey always stays true to the moment. She’s never hunting for the laugh. She’s always Libby Mae Brown, getting some respite from her humdrum life by singing and dancing with spotlights in her eyes.
That singing and dancing lacks some razzle dazzle, and that’s part of the charm. Libby Mae performs with an endearing amateurishness. The cadences are off in her line deliveries, and her singing voice is a lovely, lilting quest for tone. When she duets with Corky on “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” a number that manages to be a pinpoint perfect spoof while also unexpectedly sweet in its own right (a paradoxical quality it shared with the justly Oscar-nominated song from Guest’s later A Mighty Wind), the earnestness of the performance is oddly moving. For a moment, it’s possible to forget that “Red White and Blaine” is meant to be laughed at. Posey, an actress who commonly brings a fiercely sarcastic edge to her work, has treated Libby Mae with too much kindness to invite the happy disdain of knowing superiority upon the character. Libby Mae believes in the integrity of that moment, and so does Posey. And, to her credit, so did I.