At the end of “The Happiest Girl,” the tenth episode of Big Love’s second season, Rhonda Volmer (Daveigh Chase) sings the titular song, leading into a montage that is slightly too obvious; throughout the hour, every woman on the show has had her happiness undermined except for the ever-oblivious Rhonda. But Chase’s sad performance and the song’s untapped irony manages to put the sequence over, completing an episode that is a welcome return to form.
The most famous version of “The Happiest Girl” (performed by Donna Fargo) takes on a sheen of irony to modern audiences simply because it is so earnest and unironic: she’s in love with her husband and no one’s going to take that from her, dammit. In this day and age, that sort of thing automatically seems suspicious, and Big Love mines these moments of suggestion as persistently as it can without overplaying them. It makes sense that Rhonda would want to sing this song on local TV (and that the show’s hyper-focused producer would use her to get at bigger targets—namely, Amanda Seyfried’s Sarah). It also makes sense that Rhonda’s rather uncharismatic manner would come off as flat and mournful. It’s nice to see a musical montage done well in a medium that so often does them poorly.
But this one also works as an expression of one of the show’s central themes. Big Love is obsessed (sometimes too obsessed) with the notion that our public faces conflict with the faces we wear in in private. Even some of the non-polygamist characters are forced to live in secret, whether by choice or as a defense mechanism (for instance, Rhonda forcing Tina Majorino’s Heather into a tight spot by threatening to expose Heather’s love for Sarah).
The “faces” theme comes through especially strongly in the subplot where Bill (Bill Paxton) goes to a trade show and brings his third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), to act as his public wife (a role usually filled by Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Barb, who’s still angry about Bill’s decision to purchase a gaming company). When Bill is cornered by old acquaintances who knew him as Barb’s husband, he could lie and say that he and Barb are divorced, but he apparently finds that option so repellent that he introduces Margie as his secretary. Margie is forced back into the closet by one of Bill’s stories—and by the looming presence of Barb, who truncated Bill and Margie’s honeymoon by calling to report that one of Bill’s daughters had a fever. Margie goes from ecstatic to heartbroken in an instant. An early scene where Margie rattles on about how it feels to be the third wife is overstated (even though it works as the vocalized thoughts of a frequent divorce’s third wife—sort of an inner-monologue-made-external). But aside from that, Goodwin’s performance is perfect. She’s never played Margie as so wounded, and she transfers the character’s anger and hurt to Barb, who shows up at the trade show midway through the episode to once again act as Bill’s public wife. Barb is still struggling with her own fear of what polygamy has done to her life and her children. Last week Sarah told her she wasn’t fooling anyone; this week, Ben (Douglas Smith) tells her the same thing, more harshly. But she still sides with Margie, sharing a room with her and forcing Bill to sleep alone.
Big Love’s biggest strength is its portrait of power dynamics within the Henrickson family, which shift and change as its various members adapt to new circumstances. This episode is no exception. Margie, stunned into silence, weeps in the gaudy bathtub in the hotel’s honeymoon suite, then snipes at Barb in person and cries on the phone to Nicki (Chloë Sevigny). Ultimately, though, she heads into public with some of Bill’s new clients. In a shot where Bill and Barb flank either side of the quartet behind them, you can see Margie just out of focus, laughing raucously, her red clothes setting her apart from the other characters in their drab garb. Margie, ironically, is almost freed by telling this lie. She seems able to cut loose and have fun in a way that we’ve been told she did before she met Bill. She even extends the role of Mr. Henrickson’s dutiful secretary further, telling the clients that she’s Bill’s mistress. The embellishment is one more complication for Bill, who had sold himself to the clients as a squeaky-clean (but poker-playing) Mormon.
Bill’s solution to this problem is to tell the clients that he is the husband of both Barb and Margie. I’m not sure I buy it, but the clients’ divergent reactions to Bill’s gambit make for an interesting reading on how the show uses the three women to portray the different stages of marriage. Margie finds Bill’s defense of her to be terribly noble and chivalrous; she gushes about it to Barb as the two lie in bed that night. But Barb is less sure. After all this time, she’s gotten used to being the public wife—a role that let her lie to herself about the reality of her situation and who she was. This season, as the various facades of that public lie have crumbled down around her, Barb has been forced to confront her true self, a person who’s probably laid dormant for years.
Barb is unique among Big Love characters in that the public lie she presents is who she really wants to be; even her teenage children are more honest about their family situation and its detrimental effect on their lives. So long as Barb could convince herself that she was the person she presented herself to be, she would be able to continue that same lie in private. (Nicki doesn’t indulge her; indeed, the snide tone Nicki takes with Barb indicates that she feels Barb treats her as little more than a servant.) Barb can be eminently practical about finding ways to make the plural marriage work, but she’s also very good at finding new ways to delude herself.
Back in Sandy, Nicki is planning a party to announce that Bill’s brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) is adding a second wife to his marriage to Wanda (Melora Walters). Throughout the season, Joey has steadfastly refused to add a second wife. But he and Wanda’s attachment to Kathy, who was brought in to help Wanda recover after her stint in an institution, seems genuine. (The story sheds light on the process of bringing Nicki into Bill’s household under similar circumstances.) The strange love story of Joey and Wanda has been my favorite part of the Juniper Creek scenes this season, especially as it comments on the even stranger and more muted love story of Bill and Barb; so it is nice to see this significant shift in their relationship get the play it deserves. Nicki funds the party with some of the money she stole from the compound last week—money that puts Alby (Matt Ross), the UEB’s new head, in a bit of a bind, since it seems to confirm to many, including his mother, that he is less than capable. Alby quickly figures out her scheme and threatens her, then says that Kathy is already spoken for by Frank (Bruce Dern), Joey’s father. Alby’s not my favorite character, but it’s interesting to see his ineffectuality try on more powerful shoes. I don’t believe he’ll ever supplant the still-critically-injured Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), but his haphazard bid for more influence is fascinating to watch.
The musical montage starts with Alby and Roman watching Rhonda sing on television (Alby’s care almost seeming calculated to keep Roman dependent). From there, the camera drifts past all of the other characters, including many of the women who might once have imagined themselves the happiest girl only to end up devastated. For someone like Margie, small cuts like Bill’s rebuff can be healed with marital Band-aids. But when it comes to something like the pain Barb is feeling, the wounds go deeper, to the very heart of the marriage.
For more recaps of Big Love, click here.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.
Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.
Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.