Greatish Performances #50

lee grant-001

#50 — Lee Grant as Joyce Enders in The Landlord (1970)

Lee Grant was accustomed to fighting for what she wanted. Grant was placed on the infamous Hollywood blacklist after delivering a pointed eulogy for character actor J. Edward Bromberg, blaming his death on the stress caused by the insidious probing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By her own accounting, Grant stayed on the blacklist for twelve full years, all of them squarely in the prime age range for film and stage actresses. She got some work during this span, but it was a constant struggle the television series Peyton Place and the film In the Heat of the Night put her back on sturdier career footing. With a survivor’s self-assurance, Grant was ready to take what she wanted, and that included the role of Joyce Enders.

The screenplay for The Landlord was gifted to Hal Ashby by Norman Jewison, Grant’s director on In the Heat of the Night. Jewison knew Ashby, an accomplished editor, was itching to make his feature directorial debut, and the more seasoned helmer saw a good match for the aspirant in this dark comedy about a spoiled, wealthy fellow named Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders (played in the resulting film by Beau Bridges) who buys an crumbling tenement building in the inner city. Grant coveted the part of Elgar’s mother, unconcerned that the character was ten to fifteen years older than her, making it a risky gig in the business that still slavishly valued youth above all, discarding older actresses like empty popcorn tubs. But Grant said she knew this woman. She’d seen countless versions of the character’s acidic privilege in her own family.

Crinkling her voice into an aged waver, Grant plays Joyce as person constantly teetering on the edge of aggrieved consternation but with a powerfully encultured instinct to present herself with genteel and refined social graces. She gleams when hosting and shrewdly reserves her most prejudiced sentiments for conspiratorially whispered asides, preferably while the golf cart is puttering away from the guests. There is an air of slight daffiness about Joyce, which Grant plays as a vestige of her money-fueled isolation from actual social ills. She has the luxury of choosing not to worry about significant problems and therefore can put petty slights in their place. But Grant also refuses to play Joyce as dumb, even as she starts to encounter, through her son’s real estate dabbling, parts of society that were previously obscured by her estate’s tall, tended hedges. When Joyce’s safe boundaries start to fray at the edges, Grant shows her not simply reacting. She works to figure out her situation, her eyes narrowing like a chess master thinking ten moves ahead.

When Joyce ventures out to Elgar’s building, her encounter with a resident named Marge (Pearl Bailey) leads to Grant’s tour de force of vibrant discovery and self-reckoning over a long, impromptu, boozy lunch. Mindful of the way alcohol would break down the character’s defenses, Grant slows down the reactions and amplifies the emotions as Joyce external processes her life with this new, unlikely friend. Every beat of the performance is a new delight, as Grant fills the character with colorful twists of verbal tone and flickers of awareness across her face. There is an abundance of twitchy, fussy detail that never festers into indulgence, because Grant already did the work to established this tremulous bearing as the recognizable truth of the character. She stays right at the edge of comic exaggeration, testing the water with a gentle dip of a toe that raises only the slightest ripples.

Grant’s delightful, devious inventiveness as Joyce earned her an Oscar nomination, her second overall and first since being cast aside by a fearful Hollywood. Five years later, she won an Academy Award for her ferociously strong performance in Shampoo, another Ashby film. He’d already seen her close up in The Landlord. He knew what she could do.


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 in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan
#49 — Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City

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