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Girl Talk and Quiet Desperation: Christopher Guest’s Women

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Girl Talk and Quiet Desperation: Christopher Guest’s Women

For Your Consideration, the fourth film from Christopher Guest’s floating improv comedy ensemble, has received poor, rather weary reviews. It’s been ten years since their first real effort, Waiting for Guffman (not counting the much earlier This Is Spinal Tap, which has some of the same players). At the time, Guffman felt like something new, a character-based comedy with an underlying sense of the real anxiety behind delusional behavior (it seemed close to the best novels of Dawn Powell). Best in Show, their second movie and probably their funniest from a sheer laugh-measuring point of view, sacrificed some of this gravitas for easier forms of humor: it’s no mistake that it was dominated by Fred Willard’s jovial, inane announcer. In For Your Consideration, Willard tries to graft the same persona onto an Entertainment Tonight-style TV host, and it doesn’t ring true, to put it mildly.

These four Guest films are based almost exclusively on what the actors involved can come up with, and the successes and failures in the series are unusually tied to performance, which is why the actor portraits in Consideration are finally so touching, in spite of the film’s inexact satire and some clumsy work by the company (mainly the men). It is almost always the actresses in Guest’s films who make the biggest impression.

When the male characters are memorable, they are usually stereotypically feminine to some degree, like Guest’s archetypal small town theater queen in Guffman, or Michael Hitchcock’s hysterical yuppie in Best in Show. Gender is quite fluid in this series. The gay couple in Best in Show is a sort of nightmare version of the “everything is a double entendre” queer writing on Will and Grace, yet they do seem like a loving, healthy match-up. Similarly, in the same film, Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge are a lesbian pair who transcend Killing of Sister George-discomfort to seem like a perfect couple, with Lynch’s masculine, sharp assurance in ideal contrast with Coolidge’s pillowy, out-of-it vulnerability. (It might be germane to note that Guest and his wife Jamie Lee Curtis are a famously gender-reversed butch-femme couple).

These non-traditional alliances make a telling contrast to the marriage of the “Lunts of Blaine,” Ron and Sheila Albertson in Guffman, one of the more harrowing depictions of an awful, but inescapable relationship outside of Ingmar Bergman films. The depth of this study is due almost entirely to the work of Catherine O’Hara, who makes Sheila Albertson into a woman caught in a trap throwing out desperate signals for release, most memorably in a classic drunk routine where her wild woman’s eyes go bleary and she says a lot of things she shouldn’t. Maybe because he has O’Hara to play against, Willard makes Ron Albertson into a scarier version of his usual fool—we might even say Ron is capable of bully-like cruelty far removed from the cartoon vengeance of Willard’s host towards the end of For Your Consideration.

As a performer, Guest has been completely adrift since Guffman, trying out a lot of voices and disguises that never coalesce into a person, or even a caricature. Harry Shearer has a similar problem, as if he was under a time limit to come up with something funny and can’t fix on either character or schtick. Bob Balaban had a triumph as the silently contemptuous music master in Guffman, but his opportunities have been limited since. And Eugene Levy has struggled on in a much broader style than that of the other performers—this was especially apparent when he was asked to do a more serious portrait of a damaged singer in A Mighty Wind, perhaps the weakest film of the series, a movie about folk music that skewered Peter, Paul and Mary without touching on the glories of Phil Ochs, early Dylan and Judy Collins. But in the same film, Catherine O’Hara built on the terror of her Sheila Albertson. Sheila was a provincial woman of no talent who had odd ideas about what acting and a show business career might mean. O’Hara’s Mickey in A Mighty Wind is a talented singer so damaged by a blow-up with her former lover and partner (Levy) that she has retreated into a clearly unsatisfactory marriage. But when she is called back to perform, we can see her performer’s hauteur and expressiveness gradually return, only to be jettisoned again when she retreats back into anonymity.

For Your Consideration’s lackluster reception should not let us miss the fact that O’Hara has taken themes she has worked on all through the series and refined them into a kind of touchy, dangerous apotheosis of loserdom (thankfully, the National Board of Review recently gave her their Best Supporting Actress prize). This is very much O’Hara’s movie, even to the extent of it being book ended with scenes she carries entirely alone. It’s as if Guest finally realized that what O’Hara has been doing is so fundamentally different from the sketch comedy hit-or-miss efforts of his other performers that he’d damn well better let her dictate where the film should be going.

O’Hara’s Marilyn Hack (her name a seemingly easy joke that begins to seem sadder as the film goes on) is an actress who has been in the business for thirty-two years. She has long blonde hippie-style hair and an age-ripened face; in the first scene, she watches Bette Davis on TV in Jezebel and mouths some of the dialogue with her. Interestingly, the Davis scene is a passionate but restrained bit of acting—surely a more hysterical Davis clip could have been chosen to get an easy laugh. O’Hara’s Hack is deadly serious as she tries to match her idol word for word. Then her face drops, and she seems to remember her failure to really make a name for herself. The screen fades to black for the credit sequence.

This scene, which isn’t funny at all and is actually pretty uncomfortable, heralds the fact O’Hara is in charge here, and she really delivers, on several levels. On the set of Home For Purim, the film she’s shooting, as Marilyn acts out some sentimental moments, we can see that she’s working from an idea in her head of what acting should be (old school black-and-white Bette Davis). Her performance has a “grand manner,” imitative quality, and this slight amateurishness might be one of the reason’s why she’s never quite made it in her profession (though she caused a stir in 1989 as a blind prostitute… perhaps it was a companion piece to Pretty Woman). It’s Hack’s showy self-consciousness, ironically, that probably accounts for the reason Oscar buzz starts up about her performance.

O’Hara masterfully delineates the stages of Marilyn’s excitement over the buzz: in a car coming home from work, we see an older woman who’s suffered plenty of hard knocks, and this life experience tells her that the Oscar talk can’t possibly be for real. Briefly, she thinks that it’s really the work that counts. Then, horribly, moment by moment and scene by scene, she starts to believe the hype. When she goes on a talk show (for the first time ever?) she’s so nervous she can barely speak, and her younger co-star in Purim, Parker Posey, looks on sympathetically, saying that Marilyn shouldn’t be doing this publicity, that she’s too “sensitive” for it.

This complicity between the women extends even further out into the film, with Jane Lynch’s formidable Mary Hart-like hostess taking a few sharp pot shots at her co-anchor Willard’s nasty insensitivity. Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge work in a different vein than O’Hara and the problematic Posey: they’re on screen to get laughs. Lynch gets most of her laughs with her body language, especially when she strides “powerfully” towards the camera at the start of her show. Coolidge gets all of her laughs with her voice and her certifiably crazy verbal inventiveness. In these last three Guest movies, Coolidge scores laughs from the audience on almost everything she says: as a re-inventor of the dumb blonde type, she has no peer. There hasn’t been a comedienne who worked so well in this vein since Judy Holliday, and Coolidge is wilder than the more technical Holliday—you never know where she’s going to take you, and you always feel the vague panic behind her non-sequiturs, which is part of what makes them so hilarious.

Posey was quite funny in Guffman (though she did get a little broad with the blank-faced monologues at Dairy Queen), and frenetically high-strung in Best in Show. She’s not a natural comic like Lynch or Coolidge, and not quite a real actress like O’Hara—she needs careful handling and usually doesn’t get it. But she does beautiful work in For Your Consideration’s most touching scene, when she encounters a changed Marilyn Hack at a glitzy party. Marilyn has transformed herself into a sadly recognizable female show biz freak: her lips are filled with collagen, her hair teased and highlighted, her breasts siloconized and pushed up high, and her face pulled back so tight that she can barely talk.

O’Hara is truly inspired in these later scenes because she does purely comic things with this changed appearance (the “always surprised” expression these ladies have), without ever losing the woman who is trapped inside this travesty. At the party, Posey doesn’t seem to even recognize Marilyn for a long time. Then, as she realizes who she’s talking to, Posey’s face reflects a gentle sadness and disappointment. It mirrors the similar disappointment for audience members when they see an actress they love on screen who has gone under the knife and ruined their face. (I got upset when I saw what Jessica Lange had done to her delicate face in Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking. When she exploded with emotion, as only she can do, the emotion could not break free of the plasticized mask she was wearing).

For Your Consideration is easy to knock, and the criticisms leveled at it are fairly unanswerable, especially regarding how out of touch it is with the new Hollywood. The film-within-a-film, Home for Purim, is a schmaltzy Jewish melodrama that’s supposed to get chuckles with every “Oy vey!”—it’s such an old-timey conception that it wouldn’t have passed muster for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. But Consideration is also filled with genuine laughs based on believable characters who are as out of touch with reality as the film itself, and the rumbling discontent of Guest’s women has come to a head with Catherine O’Hara’s Marilyn Hack. As she listens to the Oscar nominations read out and doesn’t hear her name, her panicked eyes scream out of her rigid, destroyed face. Posey, who also expected a nomination, bursts into tears (very different from her stagier tears earlier in the movie). Guest then cuts back to O’Hara, her own tears struggling out of her eyes, as she repeats her own name. “Marilyn Hack…it’s so easy to say…just say it,” she keeps repeating.

This is the breakdown that seemed inevitable for her Sheila Albertson and her Mickey in A Mighty Wind, and it works as a kind of relief after all the blows that have been landed on Guest’s delusional characters. It’s as if he was always working towards this burst of tragic emotion, and of course it’s O’Hara who finally brought him past the brink of comic cluelessness and into unadulterated pain. From this peak, O’Hara mixes in some dead-on low comedy when confronted by Willard’s camera: her hair a mess, clad in a bathrobe, she’s roaring drunk, angry and incoherent, ending her tirade against the nominees with an amiable, “Come on in, I’ve got all this food!” Such moments are a reminder of how accurately O’Hara plays drunkenness (like her ultra-confidential, “Shhh! Girl talk!” as she leans away from her husband to ask an embarrassing wifely question in Guffman). In the last scene, Marilyn is teaching an acting class, the last refuge for failures of her magnitude. She acts out the scene from Jezebel, then spouts some New Age mumbo-jumbo, her pain and her personality obliterated as her blue eyes glint with madness from behind her plastic mask.

For Your Consideration might indeed be a bridge too far for the Guest troupe, but seeing it makes you want to liberate his inventive women for other projects. Lynch and Coolidge could clean up together in a comedy of their own (just turn the cameras on and let them talk). As for O’Hara, I’d say she’s ready for Mary Tyrone, perhaps with added scenes upstairs where she can do some comic bits with the morphine needles.

Dan Callahan is a contributor to The House Next Door. His writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Senses of Cinema among other publications.