Judy Davis is visually unmistakable, with her chalk-white skin tone fighting for precedence over her dark red lips, and her frizzy, unmanageable hair framing burned, sensitive eyes. Even if some people might not recognize her name, on screen she is emotionally unmistakable, refusing any kind of sentimentality so obsessively that she often runs the risk of making herself into a frigid, ridiculous harridan. (People who know her work invariably say, “She overdoes it sometimes, doesn’t she?”)
There are some who have called her the best actress working today, a title generally awarded to Meryl Streep, whose career only seems more distinguished than Davis’ because it is more mainstream. Like Streep, Davis is a demanding, major artist, a virtuoso who plays neurotic symphonies on her awkward, nervous energies. Unlike Streep, she is always being pushed underground to supporting roles and lots of obscure television. You have to search her out, but she’s such a distinctive performer that her most run-of-the-mill movies, even things like Georgia (1988) and Gaudi Afternoon (2001), are worth watching just for the graces notes and nuances she brings to the material. Pauline Kael called Davis “a genius at moods,” and at her best (meaning when she’s at her most relaxed), this is an actress who can take a silent close-up and give you the illusion that you are seeing pure, sneaky, unguarded behavior. Watching Judy Davis jerkily shake her head to punctuate a wry point, which is her most consistent physical mannerism, is one of the real joys of watching movies.
Davis was born in Australia, ran away from a convent education to sing and study theater, and made her official debut in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), a dull film that Davis later reviled—her prickly outspokenness on sets and in interviews has surely cost her work. In that big debut, the young Davis is a blobby, disquieting presence, and the camera flinches from her angry impatience with the role. She stayed in Australia for many hard-to-see movies (a habit she continues to this day), and got an Oscar nomination for her Ms. Quested in David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984), a cautious version of an important book, and another film where Davis let her unhappiness with the final product be known, in print. Davis has made a splash with her steady work for Woody Allen, sometimes in small roles, but especially for the psychodrama of Husbands and Wives (1992). In that film, Davis’ Sally, a hypercritical bitch and scourge, is a somewhat uncharitable view of a middle-aged priss, but Davis makes the character more truthful and more indelible the further she goes into dizzyingly self-protective aggressiveness. This is the most memorable version of Davis’ righteous toughness: when Mia Farrow tries to interest her in Liam Neeson by saying that he cried at a party, Davis’ Sally scathingly asks, “He weeps?”, as if she could never date such a weakling.
Aside from her Woody Allen shrews, Davis is mainly known for liking to play real women, mainly for TV. She’s an entirely believable, earthy young Golda Meir in A Woman Called Golda (1982), gives one of the great modern comic performances as George Sand in the amiable Impromptu (1991), won lots of acclaim and an Emmy for a bold but uneven Judy Garland, and less acclaim for a drag-queen evisceration of Nancy Reagan. This is a haughty woman who’s always up for a dare, a strange project, an untouchable emotion. Sometime she fails. I’ll never forget whispering to a friend, “Greatest actress of her generation,” when Davis made her entrance in Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997), only to sink low down into my seat as she proceeded to cartoonishly chew the scenery for what felt like a five-minute take. To her credit, nor will I forget the way she recklessly tests the waters with her abusive husband in Swimming Upstream (2003), a decent, little-seen Australian movie that Davis lyrically anchors with her authority. These five films I’ve picked focus mainly on her TV work, and some things that might be lesser known, or underappreciated.
1. Rocket to the Moon (1987): This HBO recording of a half bad/half inspired Clifford Odets play is buoyed by Davis’ masterful portrayal of Cleo, a skinny, pretty, nervous flirt and pathological liar who dreams of being a dancer. Cleo is an impossible role that calls for old-fashioned personality playing and theatrical technique; everyone in the play has to fall in love with her, so if Davis isn’t completely fascinating every moment she’s on, the story won’t even make sense. She runs with the part at a galloping pace, as if she were stimulated by the challenge of making it believable, and she fills every moment like an action painter splattering a big white canvas (watch the way her hands fly to her face when John Malkovich calls her out on her flighty bullshit). Paradoxically, Davis is at her most believable when she’s lying here, which adds dimension to the film. This is the kind of acting that calls attention to itself constantly, but the artifice is extremely exciting, and it displays Davis’ raw, self-conscious talent better than any other performance she has given.
2. High Tide (1987). Unquestionably Davis’ career-best work, and her most personal, this delicate Gillian Armstrong soap opera makes up for the same director’s misuse of the actress in My Brilliant Career. Davis plays a lofty loser who finds herself backing a third-rate Elvis impersonator. She can’t help teasing her self-important boss, gets herself fired, and takes to the bottle, finding comfort with a sweet teenaged girl who turns out to be her abandoned daughter. Armstrong allowed Davis an unusual amount of freedom on High Tide: she let her improvise, and Davis even did some writing on it, apparently. This poetic license seems to have lowered her defenses, so that her gifts emerge from their carapace and she moves from far-out emotion to far-out emotion with woozy fluidity. To speak in musical terms, most of Davis’ work is staccato, sometimes ruinously so, but her performance in High Tide is one smooth legato line, and she’s confident enough to let go of most of her tricks. Look at the bewildered way she cries when she’s upset, picking the tears off her face as if they were wiggling bugs. Look at the complex, wondering way she watches her daughter shave her legs in a shower stall. Surely Armstrong deserves some credit for a scene as affecting as this, but Davis is the clear creator here, putting together a portrait of a selfish woman who runs away from feeling, then finds herself romantically drawn to it. The performance is especially moving in the context of Davis’ embattled career: followers of that career know how much on-screen vulnerability costs her.
3. Children of the Revolution (1996): Davis is ideally cast and has a roaring good time as Joan Fraser, a self-absorbed Commie femme fatale who sleeps with Stalin and has his child. After singing the Internationale with love struck Geoffrey Rush, she looks nauseated when he kisses her, and snaps out some more slogans about the revolution in order to put him off. This role stimulates Davis’ zesty anti-social side, which she sends up mercilessly, and as the character gets older, she zeroes in on the narrowed, ugly aspects of paranoid old age, and especially its increasing focus on bodily functions and failures. She does not lose her humor: “Ronald McDonald is the devil!” she howls, in the 80s. “Gorbachev is a walking birth mark! He wouldn’t know his proletariat from his asshole!” In conniption fits like this, a specialty act in many of her films, Davis is getting her jollies, obviously, but she is also both glorifying and condemning the ecstasies of detailed rage. She’s drawn to cold misanthropes like Joan, and reaches a revealing bad-tempered height with these archetypal Judy Davis lines: “Nice people have never done much for me. To tell you the truth they irritate me. I’d rather spend an hour with an interesting shit than a minute with a bloody nice person.”
4. Dash and Lilly (1999): This extremely enjoyable cable biopic of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett is a bit glossy and simplified, but it is sparked by one of Davis’ most inventive performances—her Lilly is full of Bette Davis-like verve and heat. Davis’ playing here is a continual joy and surprise, and her drunk scenes are a scream: listen for how the Australian Davis manages to do an American accent with sly hints of the Southern accent Hellman is trying to hide and smooth over. As her predatory Lilly keeps drinking, her twang keeps creeping in, and Davis makes the fight to keep this regionalism in its place a dynamic, even awe-inspiring battle. Watch her blissful relaxation after her first night of being fucked by Sam Shepard’s manly Hammett, and the look of unconditional love she gives him at his worst moments. For all its evasions, it’s a convincing look at a pair of unlikable soul mates, and the actors are perfect for their roles.
5. A Little Thing Called Murder (2006): A Lifetime movie in name only, this outrageous, sometimes very offensive black comedy features what must be Davis’ most risky performance. As Sante Kimes, a trashy sociopath who wants to live the high life, Davis starts out in the bizarre sort of high camp/Kabuki mode that has marked some of her worst performances. She’s beyond over-the-top as she cheats, lies, steals and grubs her way through life, taking her son along with her (she crosses her eyes Jerry Lewis-style as she faints in court, a comic high point). But when we see Sante murder a man, all the laughs we’ve enjoyed in the first half catch up with us, and the fun freezes as we see her sadistic killer instinct emerge. In the backseat of a car, holding a hammer, we watch Sante revving herself up for the murder with the kind of disturbing, aggressively peppy sexuality that marked her uneasy singing of “Santa Baby” with a feather boa (as if Davis is saying, “You afraid of women, Woody? You don’t even have an inkling!”) More disturbing is Sante’s murder of a nice old lady, which she scarily justifies with the flimsiest of excuses. In this eye-opening movie on a debased, coddling cable network, Davis confronts and lays bare the most troubling problem of them all: people who murder others without a twinge of conscience. And she does it by staying true to her own outré, tense, yet ultimately tender and moral spirit.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.