Greatish Performances #12


#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in the The Truth About Charlie (Jonathan Demme, 2002)
There are probably faster, more decisive ways to quash a film career than to take on a role originally played by Audrey Hepburn, but I can’t think of any. Julia Ormond was in the full flush of her Legends of the Fall Hollywood honeymoon when she agreed to take on the title role in a remake of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, a part that had originally belonged to Hepburn. Any further thought of Ormond becoming the next big thing–and that thought was certainly out there after Legends–was stamped out by the unfavorable measuring against the earlier actress. Not so much the earlier performance, since Sabrina isn’t exactly held in reverential regard, but the actress herself. Hepburn was among the most photogenic females to ever sign a big studio contract, had charm to burn onscreen and had only seen her legend grow in the years after she decided to work only occasionally, devoting most of her time to humanitarian efforts. For some, she’d forever be Holly Golightly, preserved in especially fashionable amber. Regardless, courting comparison is an action only for the foolhardy.

I’m not sure foolhardy is a description for Jonathan Demme, but obliviously fearless seems to work. At times, his entire career seems like a series of ill-advised choices, which only reflects his willingness to continually push himself further as a creator. He takes on risky topics, works in genres that are out of alignment with his humanistic streak and occasionally dives into novels that are dauntingly difficult to streamline into happy movie entertainment. He also has a habit of getting enthralled with actors who satisfy some artistic instinct without necessarily creating an easier path to financing projects. This often happens with supporting players, but occasionally someone caught his fancy who demanded a little more primary placement in a film.

It was after working with Thandie Newton on an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that Demme become convinced that the English actress was a pending star only in need of the right project to get her there. Beloved wasn’t an especially good experience for Demme, especially when the critics turned on it, so it took him a while to find the motivation for a follow-up. Finally he settled on a remake of Stanley Donen’s Charade, a caper romantic comedy from 1963 that was considered something of a soft classic, not exalted enough to be untouchable, but with enough fans craving each new showing on Turner Classic Movies to make it somewhat treacherous to take on. And then, of course, there was the presence of Hepburn, paired with the equally formidable Hollywood icon Cary Grant. Demme was convinced Newton would shine in the role, and whether or not she could be described as foolhardy, Newton trusted her director.

She was right to trust him, just as assuredly as he was spot-on correct about Newton’s charms. Newton plays Regina Lambert–eschewing the nickname Reggie that was commonly used with Hepburn’s version of the character, a moniker choice Newton’s character playfully dismisses at one point–a bored newlywed dissatisfied with her marriage. Her plans to break away from her husband are preempted when she finds he’s been murdered, and, in classic Hitchcockian fashion, she finds herself the innocent drawn into a baffling, complex scheme with several individuals of dubious motivations swirling in and out of her life, all after some mysterious money her now deceased spouse had in his possession. Among the most prominent is a man who positions himself as Regina’s protector, played by Mark Wahlberg in a performance that plainly doesn’t merit consideration for this recurring feature.

Demme’s take on the material is more fun and inventive than he’s usually given credit for, applying the playful techniques and approaches of French New Wave cinema in a nod to the plot’s Parisian setting. The best part of the film, though, is undoubtedly Newton. She plays Regina as a sharp and sensible, which only makes it more notable when she becomes exasperated with the circumstances surrounding her start spinning like a warped record. She knows how to handle herself, and has just enough skill for taking command of others, which doesn’t mean she’s fully equipped to deal with the springing mania of dueling toughs. That distinction helps to accentuate a real sense of danger, a quality largely missing from the picturesque lark of Donen’s earlier picture. What’s more, Newton virtually brims over with personality, launching a scene to life with her pointed reactions to others or even a coquettish yawn, which comes across not as a seductive invitation to join her in bed, but instead as a sense of ease with the other person, a willingness to let herself be completely open and in the moment. This latter quality, it probably goes without noting, is indeed far sexier.

There are familiar beats for Newton to play throughout the film. This is, after all, a project that faithfully follows in the storytelling treads laid down around forty years earlier, when audiences wanted satisfaction more than surprise. Even when engaged in the expected, Newton takes moments and even entire scenes in slightly unique ways, emphasizing Regina’s flaring inner strength when it seems the moment calls for fragility, or finding reservoirs of warmth when the significant mechanics of the plot are grinding at their loudest. Even still, Newton never loses sight that the film is first and foremost an entertainment, and even her most complex scenes are flavored with astonishing personal charisma. As a director, Demme’s approach to Newton has the rhythm of a dance in perfect syncopation, knowing when to press in close and when to lean back and give her room to move, twirling and beaming and feeling the pleasure of the reckless night, sprung open with possibility. He directs as if he’s hopelessly smitten with Newton. All through The Truth About Charlie, it’s terrifically easy to see why that might indeed be the case. Maybe she’s not Hepburn, but Newton shows she has a magic all her own.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories

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