Margo Martindale’s Texas birthright is as much to thank for her career as anything else. This truly phenomenal actress has been featured in countless films and television shows, won a Primetime Emmy, stolen my heart, and beaten me down, all thanks to two things: southern charm mixed with country angst.
When Martindale plays kind, she can give a look that will bring tears to your eyes. But when she plays mean, she plays mean. I love her honesty, am drawn to her sensitivity, and am continually wowed by her malice. Simply put: Margo Martindale is one of the finest character actors we have working today.
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
Lorenzo’s Oil is a devastating film about the true efforts of Augusto and Michaela Odone (Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) who searched tirelessly for a cure for their son’s extremely rare disease. They fight bureaucratic battles, sift through indecipherable medical data, and nearly ruin their marriage, all in hopes of prolonging their child’s life.
Martindale plays a proud and outspoken mother going through a similar situation with her son, who offers a kind hand to Nolte and Sarandon. There’s a scene when good old girl Wendy Gimble stops by the Odone house and says she’s here to help. Michaela asks where Wendy’s sick child is, and Wendy calmly says that “I lost him.” It’s a matter of fact delivery of acceptance through understanding (with a dash of humor).
Still relatively new to the film game at the time of the movie’s release, through Wendy, Martindale asserted herself as subtle wonder, eager and willing to do more.
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Dead Man Walking tells the true story of a man (Sean Penn) on death row seeking the help of a heartfelt nun (Susan Sarandon). He wants her to help him with his next appeal, to help him seek absolution, to help him fully live the final days of his life. The film contains rhetoric both for and against the death penalty, gruesome flashbacks to the crime at hand – so, yeah, heavy shit here.
Thankfully, Martindale pops up occasionally as Sarandon’s colleague, and adds a little levity to the intense drama. She acts as her Sarandon’s rock, while never afraid to mix a little humor into things. In one scene, Martindale says that if Penn’s character is executed, a local funeral home is willing to donate a plot for his body. Problem is, his plot will be right next to a recently deceased nun, who once vowed to never have anything to do with a man. And now, it appears she’ll be lying next to one until the end of time. How can you not laugh at that?
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
And here, we switch from two roles of incomparable earnestness to, perhaps, one of the vilest mothers ever depicted on screen. After Maggie Fitzgerald quickly makes a name for herself as a fierce boxer, she pulls together some money and buys her Missouri mother a quaint little home. And what does Ms. Fitzgerald do upon seeing the house? Chastises her daughter for senselessly spending the money.
Any actor will tell you that acting is all about reacting. Noting that, watch Margo Martindale in the scene where Hilary Swank gives her the keys to her new home. Watch Martindale, but study Swank. Martindale isn’t reacting to the other actors in the scene; she is dominating the scene with her anger. Swank, on the other hand, is reacting to Martindale in a way that, well, is cause for an Oscar. The way Maggie just stands there, knowing better than to argue with her momma… ah, it’s just devastating. Much has been made about Swank’s physical transformation and mental conviction in bringing Maggie to life. Those are impressive feats, certainly, but I firmly believe Hilary Swank would not have won an Oscar for this film if she hadn’t had Margo Martindale to play off of.
Martindale’s reoccurring role on Dexter is best epitomized by her final episode of the show. Slowly and torturously dying of lung cancer, Camilla is often visited in the hospital by her old friend, Dexter, who stands dutifully by her side. He listens as she recounts memories past, plans for her own funeral and most curiously, begs Dexter to find her a perfect slice of key lime pie
Prior to her illness, Camilla acted as one of the very few voices of reason for the show’s titular character. She was one of his few pleasant gateways to the past, and now, when she’s lying halfway to dead, pleading to be pushed over the edge, Dexter finds himself in a moral dilemma. For once. Although Martindale’s arc on the show was brief, there’s simply no forgetting her final scene. She got her pie, all right, and then some.
What a juicy, perfectly realized villain Mags Bennett was. Again, through Mags, Martindale was able to flex her charm while magically morphing it into dread. She was the type of woman who would kill someone in cold blood, but never forget to smile while doing it.
There’s a rather interesting argument that gets brought up now and again: is contemporary television better than contemporary film? I’m not entirely sure. Is it fair to say that 60 hours of The Wire are better than two hours of any given film? Similarly, is it fair to compare a performance that is fleshed out over 13 hours, to one that’s encapsulated in just seven minutes? My point is, through Mags, Martindale had more time than she usually does to bring a character to fruition. Fair to judge against her more minor work? Who knows. Brilliant all the same? You’re damn right.
The Best of the Best
Paris je t’aime (2006)
I suppose I’m answering my previous question here, because Margo Martindale’s role as Carol, which lasts for all of seven minutes, is one of my favorite acting performances of the 2000s. Her segment, directed by Alexander Payne, concludes an anthology film that contains many whimsical and heartfelt shorts. But nothing comes remotely close to matching the subtle power of Martindale’s time on screen.
In this segment, Martindale plays a kind, lonely woman who has taken a few weeks off from her job as a mail carrier to enjoy a holiday in Paris. The segment features Martindale narrating her vacation after the fact (in purposefully crude French) in which she recounts the food, the beauty and the overall wonderment of The City of Love. And there’s something so wholesome and… American about a white, middle-aged woman, sporting a fanny pack, touring Paris by herself. At this point, we’re laughing at Carol as much as with her, but not in a vindictive way.
And then things change.
Carol walks to a park, takes a seat on a bench, and is overcome by a feeling. A feeling that was new, yet familiar. Welcomed, yet unanticipated. And here, Payne makes what may very well be the smartest directing decision of his career. He slowly pushes in on Martindale’s face, without cutting away, leaving us with a study. A study of a woman going through most every major emotion in the span of 60 seconds. It’s all right there, written on Martindale’s tired, scared, saddened, and alive face. Oui, vivant.
Other Notable Roles
|In The Riches (a show I have yet to see)|
Days of Thunder (1990)
The Firm (1993)
Nobody’s Fool (1994)
Marvin’s Room (1996)
28 Days (2000)
The Hours (2002)
It’s All About Love (2003)
The Human Stain (2003)
Rails & Ties (2007)
The Savages (2007)
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Feast of Love (2007)
The Riches (2007-2008)
Win Win (2011)
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly