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Acting on the (Blind) Sidelines

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Acting on the (Blind) Sidelines

The Blind Side, which has reportedly made close to 200 million dollars, is based on a true story (the operative word is “based,” of course). If its makers were accused of racism, surely they would be surprised and defensive; maybe they didn’t notice that underneath the inspirational basis of their narrative is a fixation with the idea of sex between the lily-white, condescending caretaker played by Sandra Bullock and Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) her black “gentle giant” charge. It’s a ghastly but revealing movie, not least for one scene with Adriane Lenox, a stage actress who won a Tony as the mother in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Cast as Michael’s errant, drug-addicted mother, Lenox takes her role, which amounts to only a few lines of dialogue, and fills it out with such delicate, shamed emotion that it’s hard not to resent the director for insistently cutting back to Our Star, the ever-bland Bullock, who listens in such an oblivious, absent way to Lenox’s heartfelt attempts to communicate that I was reminded of Lana Turner inanely marveling at the fact that her long-time maid Annie (Juanita Moore) has friends in Imitation of Life (1959). Fifty years later, we’re still stuck with movie star white supremacy, smiling vacantly for untold millions of dollars, while exciting black actors and black characters continue to lead lives on the outskirts of films when they would be so much more vital at their center.

I don’t know much about Lenox, aside from having seen her in Doubt and now in The Blind Side; her IMDb page says that she also won an Obie Off-Broadway playing Dinah Washington’s mother. I’m almost certain that she’s a major performer, so why haven’t we seen more of her in movies? Put it this way: I can imagine removing Bullock from all of her romantic comedy vehicles and half-baked thrillers and substituting Lenox instead. Instantly, those movies start to seem not only watchable to me but maybe even re-watchable, a body of work to be reckoned with. Yet Bullock is prized by her fans for her very averageness, the fact that she isn’t edgy or faceted or unpredictable or even particularly skilled (confronted with the evidence of her plodding, milkshake-like career, it’s easy to see how someone like Julia Roberts is much bolder in similar material, even if she lacks the introspection and mystery at the heart of the best screen acting). Watching Lenox’s one scene in The Blind Side, it was clear that she imaginatively brought out the part of herself that understood this woman’s weakness and the limitations placed on her from birth (for a hellish example of the grandstanding opposite of Lenox, look no further than Mo’Nique’s near-comic burn-the-house down emoting in Precious, a weirdly jolly cavalcade of black stereotypes).

Public Enemies, didn’t he realize that Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover was so much more startling and intriguing than the monotonous, brooding standoff of Pretty Boy Cheekbones between Johnny Depp and Christian Bale? Crudup has been a pretty boy himself, and I often had problems with some of his shrill choices in leading man roles, but as Hoover he caught an uncanny kind of straight-laced perversity that made me wonder if he isn’t that old bullshit “character actor in a leading man’s body” paradigm that’s unconvincingly trotted out for your Clooneys and your Pitts in their Oscar-bid parts. In just a few scenes, Crudup not only gives you the uptight, squat strangeness of Hoover but even manages to hint at the human emotions buried somewhere in his by-the-book, chilly manner. Depp’s John Dillinger is the same old glamorous gangster of yesteryear, all surface and surety, and there’s even less of interest in Bale’s imploding policeman Melvin Purvis, yet Mann’s film follows them both in a straight line to the end when it would be so much scarier and enlightening to trace Crudup’s Hoover on his crooked road to power.

Which raises the question: hasn’t a director ever seen the footage they’ve shot and been confronted with the realization that an actor hired for a supporting or even a bit part was much more interesting and would make for a better screen center than the nominal lead? And hasn’t our theoretical director ever had the nerve to say, “Screw this, my movie isn’t what I thought it was. My movie is really about this woman, playing the mother.” Or, “My movie is really about the cross-dressing head of the F.B.I., not the public enemy and the cop.” This kind of flash happens most frequently when somebody casts a big theater actor in a bit. In Bart Freundlich’s trifling Trust the Man (2005), David Greenspan appeared long enough for me to wonder why no brave indie director hadn’t built a film around him long ago. Elizabeth Marvel has dazzled me in every play I’ve seen her in, but she’s done mostly small parts in films. And I got a serious case of “who is that?” when I saw and heard the actress playing George Clooney’s sister in Up in the Air, only to find out during the end credits that she was Amy Morton. I’m from Chicago, so I grew up with Morton completely dominating plays at the Steppenwolf Theater, yet I’d never seen her in a movie before; going to IMDb, I found that she’s barely been filmed at all. There’s a raft of semi-hidden acting talent out there that could take us to so many new destinations if only directors would look closer and see that the players in the byways of their films are often much more fresh and challenging than the pretty white movie star treadmill we seem to still be stuck on.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.