Greatish Performances #17

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#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid Magnussen in White Oleander (Peter Kosminsky, 2002)
This might be a good time to reiterate a central tenet of this series: highlighting a certain performance isn’t intended to anoint it as the best ever work of the thespian in question. I don’t lead with that information to undercut my celebration of Michelle Pfeiffer’s work in White Oleander, but to forthrightly acknowledge that I could slap any number of the actress’s cinematic efforts in this slot and feel equally certain that I am writing about something exceptional. For a stretch of about ten years, from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, Pfeiffer was as good as anyone working regularly in film. Her very best performances — Ellen Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Selina Kyle in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Susie Diamond in Steve Kloves’s The Fabulous Baker Boys — can stand up against the work of any of her contemporaries. Even in lesser films, Pfeiffer was often the very best part, by a generous mile. With a refresher viewing, I could come up with a thousand words on why she deserved an Oscar nomination for Sweet Liberty. Sitting through an Alan Alda movie again is a step too far for this feature, though.

Somewhere around Wolf or Up Close & Personal, Pfeiffer became more inconsistent, as if she was starting to lose interest. Even in films that presumably should have provided ample opportunity to develop richness in character (A Thousand Acres, for example), Pfeiffer was overly distant, from the plot, from her character, even from her own process. That couldn’t be completely blamed on the material since she’d been transcending the films she was in almost from the beginning. In a way, that make the great work when it arrived a little more special, demanding attention as Pfeiffer was roused to her former forceful self. The last time I saw her truly engaged and employing every bit of her unique talent — flinty, sharp, quietly inventive, using her physical beauty as a tool to dig for something darker — was in Peter Kominsky’s White Oleander.

Adapted from one of those novels that roared to prominence because Oprah Winfrey insisted all her disciples read it, White Oleander primarily follows the miserable adolescence of Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman), a girl bounced around to various foster homes after her mother is incarcerated. That positions the film as a showcase for a procession of prominent actresses (led by Robin Wright and Renée Zellweger) as wildly different caretakers for Astrid. Lohman is exceptional in the role, perfectly calibrating a turn as a youth that is shell-shocked by her ill turn in life and gradually becoming more jaded as it becomes clear there’s going to be no respite for misery, at least no respite that she doesn’t conjure up on her own. I was prepared to tag her as a major-actress-to-be from her performance here, and I was never more sure of that in the scenes when she kept pace — just barely, but that’s no slight — with Pfeiffer as her mother.

Playing Ingrid Magnussen, Pfeiffer has to convey an internalized viciousness and tireless cunning that went beyond anything she’d done before. Ingrid isn’t some innocent who wound up in prison through some abuse of the system. She’s there as a natural endpoint of the sort of aggressive manipulation of others that has defined her approach to life. Further, the nuisance of being behind bars isn’t going to strip away a bit of her clenched-fist authority over others. The structure of the movie means Pfeiffer’s performance is largely confined to relatively straightforward dialogues with other characters — usually Astrid, but occasionally one of Astrid’s foster mothers — and the starkness of the scenes suits her, perhaps is exactly what enlivens her. Around the turn of the millennium is when the last concept of major movies as aspirations to prestige was being stripped for parts as franchise vehicles took over. Pfeiffer may not have know this would be one of her last opportunities to be a true actress rather than another cog in the machine, but she approaches it that way. Every one of her scenes is a decisive statement of what she can do, how she can hold the screen, the myriad of ways she can take over a moment with a glance or the slightest shift of expression. The character decides she’s going to use her overcharged intellect to destroy a person seated across her, and Pfeiffer lets a sheet of steel descend before her eyes.

Often, White Oleander feels a little too much like a transplanted novel. The mechanics of the writing are too present, like chapter headings are going to ping to life at the top of the screen at certain transitions. It is evident fiction, with Pfeiffer injecting the needed heat of reality, even though her character is the clearest construct. Ingrid is almost a supervillain whose power involves wrenching drama into the realm of melodrama. Pfeiffer plays it with a confidence that matches that of Ingrid, and that certainty deepens the truth of the character and therefore the entire film. One of the qualities I’ve long admired most about Pfeiffer’s acting is her uncommon ability to take her characters through the drastic changes that are the stuff of dramatic arcs while still clearly signaling that the same inner person remained intact through the transformation. In some ways, her work in White Oleander is the opposite: Ingrid remains resolutely the same, more obstinate in not abdicating her power as the turns in her life are meant to leave her cowed. Even the eventual and inevitable emotional shredding toward the end is somehow under her command. It’s easy to lament that Pfeiffer hasn’t gotten a chance — or maybe taken the opportunity — to deliver a performance this strong since. I’d rather relish the acting that does exist.


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
#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover as Simon in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams as Lisa Reisert in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig Robinson in Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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