Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In Character: Melanie Lynskey

I’m not sure when my profound fascination with Melanie Lynskey took hold. But right around the time I saw her dance on stage with perfect sadness in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go, I knew this was an actress worth seeking out. Since that film, I’ve made it a point to see anything Lynskey appears in. And here’s what I’ve learned: no matter how small the performance, there’s no film Lynskey cannot elevate. No script she cannot heighten. No role she cannot perfect. I truly think she’s one of the best, most underrated talents working in movies today. Here’s why.

Five Essential Roles
Away We Go (2009)
Munch Garnett
It isn’t too often you can say an actor’s best moment in a film is achieved while spinning around a stripper’s pole, but such is the power of Melanie Lynskey. Late in Away We Go, Burt and Maya (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) travel to Montreal to visit college friends, Munch and Tom (Chris Messina). Soon into catching up, Burt and Maya realize that Munch and Tom’s life is one they want to emulate. Munch and Tom are so clearly happy with their lives – they love their many adopted children, they love each other – they simply love to love. But there’s more.

When the group ends up at a bar that encourages clothed audience pole dancing, Munch takes to the stage and delivers a melancholic dance of pure devastation. While she dances, Tom explains to Burt than Munch has just suffered her fifth miscarriage, and will likely never be able to give birth. Lynskey’s work in this film is given a heavy assist by Messina (another actor I need to feature in this column), but it’s her face that kills me.

The Informant! (2009)
Ginger Whitacre
There’s a moment late in Steven Soderbergh’s perfect black comedy, The Informant! in which Ginger Whitacre figures it all out. She finally realizes that her charming, affable husband, Mark, has lied and cheated himself into a corner. His whistleblowing, his embezzlement scheme, his bipolar disorder – it’s all brought to fruition in irrefutable ways, and Ginger can’t believe she’s been duped so convincingly.

Ginger is the type of character that the audience wants to shake and scream in an effort to open her eyes. But she’s blinded. She’s blinded by her husband’s wealth, his kindness, his deceit, and watching her discover the truth proves to be one of the film’s most heart wrenching moments.

Up in the Air (2009)
Julie Bingham
Popping up briefly as George Clooney’s soon-to-be-wed sister in Up in the Air, Lynskey does what all great character actors do with the time they’re given: steal the scene and move on.

Two moments of Lynskey’s work as Julie speak to me. I love the genuine tenderness Julie has toward Clooney’s elusive character, Ryan, when they are reunited at Julie’s rehearsal dinner. Ryan appears thrilled to see her, of which Julie’s warm embrace speaks similarly. Secondly is the scene when Ryan asks Julie if she’d like him to walk her down the aisle. The look on Lynskey’s face just destroys me. She wants to say yes, but has promised the duty to someone else. She wants to cry, but fights to stay strong. She wants to lash out, but acknowledges that it’s a kind gesture. Although this all happens in five seconds, it stays with me much longer.

Win Win (2011)
Cindy
Cindy is a damn tough character to play. We hear a lot about her before we actually see her. We hear of her drug dependency, we hear about how she abandoned her son, we hear any number of negative things, and when we finally meet her, we’re prepared not to like her. When she shows up, it’s clear that she has little interest in reconnecting with her teenage son, and every interest in cashing in on her father’s generous estate.

She’s a woman motivated by greed, clouded by the timid charm Lynskey has long since perfected. What makes this performance such a difficult one is that, by the end, director Tom McCarthy wants you to sympathize with Cindy. He wants you to understand and see it from her side. In lesser hands, that’d be near impossible, but with Lynskey’s remorseful face guiding the way, sympathize do we ever.

Hello I Must Be Going (2012)
Amy
The roles I’ve already discussed in this post make mention of Lynskey’s uncannily ability to steal a scene. Hello I Must Be Going is different. Because Lynskey is the star of this indie gem, she literally carries the movie throughout its duration. Amy is a middle-aged woman down and out by her divorce, living expense-free in the home of her rich parents. She’s the kind of character who eats chips for breakfast, watches TV all day, never removes her sweatpants, refuses to leave the house, and so on. But once a (much) younger man helps her get her groove back, Amy convincingly evolves into a confident woman. Until, of course, she falls down again. Back up. Down. Repeat.

This is a formula we’ve seen plenty of times, but I don’t recall having as much fun with it as I did here. Melanie Lynskey has been acting steadily for nearly 20 years, but damn if Hello I Must Be Going doesn’t feature a true breakthrough performance.

The Best of the Best
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Pauline Parker
Although I am a great admirer of all of Melanie Lynskey’s work, for me, picking her best performance was a no brainer. For her first performance on screen, Lynskey played the real life Pauline Parker with such intensity, that I am still unsettled by it. As Pauline, there’s a blankness to Lynskey’s eyes that is utterly horrifying. And when her blankness is absent, it is replaced by manic joy, which is equally eerie.

In 1950s New Zealand, Pauline forged an obsessive friendship with Juliet Hulme, which resulted in the two of them planning and executing the murder of Pauline’s mother. Now, much like Lynskey’s portrayal of a woman rediscovering life via a younger man in Hello I Must Be Going, the Evil Child role is something we’ve all seen before. The beauty (and profound dread) of Lynskey’s work in Heavenly Creatures is rooted in how deceptive Pauline is. Masked almost unrecognizably by youth (Lynskey was 16 years old when the movie was filmed), the actress plays the doomed Pauline as a young woman with no outs. In her warped world, the only way to keep the dream alive is to do something awful. We shouldn’t want to follow her, but are compelled to all the same.

“It’s a three-act story with a tragic end,” Pauline describes of her desire to commit matricide.

Yeah, you can say that again.

Other Notable Roles
As Aunt Helen in Perks of Being a Wallflower
Detroit Rock City (1999)
Coyote Ugly (2000)
Abandon (2002)
Sweet Home Alabama (2003)
The Shield (2003)
Two and a Half Men (2003-present)
Shattered Glass (2003)
Flags of our Fathers (2006)
Leaves of Grass (2009)
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

26 comments:

  1. Great piece, I think she is one of the most underrated actresses working today. I love her performance in The Informant! which I think was overlooked. Especially late in the film.

    Her work in Up in the Air, Win Win, Shattered Glass, and Heavenly Creatures are essential. She took a while to finally get some attention but it's paying off finally. Hopefully, a reunion w/ Kate Winslet would be great. I also love her small role in Ever After as the good stepsister.

    Oh, how excited are you to see Behind the Candelabra?

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    1. Thanks man. I agree that she is criminally underrated. And I definitely hope all of her solid work merits more leading roles for her.

      Dude, I am beyond pumped for Behind the Candelabra. It's bitter sweet, you know? But I'm still excited.

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  2. Oh, she and Kate Winslet were great in Heavenly Creatures. You'd think it'd be a more well-known film considering whom its director is.

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    1. I do think it's odd that no Jackson film pre-LOtR has ever received much acclaim. I really enjoy Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. But either way, Winslet and Lynskey are remarkable in Creatures.

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  3. It's weird that I know her face so well.. I can even imagine her voice.. and yet the only role I remember clearly is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. She had a really tiny role and yet.. it was kind of awesome.

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    1. She was perfect in that movie, wasn't she? Above all, Lynskey's performance is the one I remember most from that film.

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  4. I'm glad you mentioned Hello I Must Be Going. She was superb in that. I've never actually seen Away We Go, I should check it out. I think she's very underrated, I'd love for her to get a role that earns her an Oscar nom. She deserves it.

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    1. So happy to find another Hello I Must Be Going fan. I watched that movie for this post and man, am I glad I did. She was sensational in that film.

      I really hope she gets some Oscar noms soon. So deserving.

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  5. Great choice, Alex. Lynskey has such a signature style that her characters are never boring. The one that really sticks with me is from The Shield. The way that she totally manipulates Dutch while he thinks that he has the upper hand is just brilliant. It's one of the great guest roles from that show, which had a ton of amazing performances.

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    1. Thanks Dan! I had no idea you were a fan of The Shield. I LOVED that show and I loved her brief arc in it. I really wanted to include that in her best roles, because she is so memorable there. Ah, I need to watch that again ASAP.

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  6. I couldn't agree more about Heavenly Creatures. Very powerful and disturbing performance.

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    1. For sure! So young, so raw, so good.

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  7. I love this woman. And she's one of the few actors that I don't totally mind not having bigger roles because what she does with her limited screen time is nothing short of brilliant. Not many can do it like her. She was great in Up In The Air and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (sadly the only two films I've seen her in, well besides Coyote Ugly which I don't remember that well). She really won me over in Two And A Half Men. Best actor and character on that show.
    She needs to be in more films. In the meantime, I need to get around to checking out the rest of her filmography.
    Great write-up on an underrated actress, even by me!

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    1. So glad you like her, she's just the best. I've never given Two and Half Men a chance, but it is very tempting considering she's a major player on the show.

      What she did in Perks is just astonishing. And in what... 2 minutes of screentime? Amazing.

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    2. Right? And I still feel for her character even after the revelation. The scene that stands out the most in the film is when she comes to the house and says "Look at you guys, dressed so nice". So much pain, sorrow and heartbreak hidden in those simple and unrelated words. Gosh, she's good.

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    3. Yes! Exactly. What a buried line that is.

      She was actually kind enough to tweet me a few days ago, thanking me for writing this. I mean, really... how cool is that? Just shows she's a genuinely nice, down to earth person.

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  8. Yay! I've actually seen most of these. ;) I forgot she was in Up in the Air and Win Win, but she was fantastic in both. Really surprised that she slipped my mind. Also, I really need to see Hello I Must Be Going and Heavenly Creatures.

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    1. Heavenly Creatures is shocking, and shockingly good. I was amazed by it. Hello I Must Be Going is that kind of hail mary indie that tries something new by going for broke. I really loved her in it. Nearly her best performance.

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  9. An excellent view of her American films, but you have to remember that Melanie is an international star. Her Kiwi releases of the outstanding psycological thriller Snakeskin in 2001 and Show of Hands in 2008 show she has no problem carrying a lead. You could go back to the 1999 film Foreign Correspondents and see it even then. Her role in the two vignette film made the second part of the film dull and tedious to watch next to the first part she was the lead in. I'd also like to mention the British film Shooters where she played a complex character torn between a hope for a new life and her dedication to her boyfriend in the crime filled life she has. I also want to mention Touchback where she rules as well. It has just hit the video stores. Check it out. I had to get my DVD copy from Denmark over a year ago. Now if only the 2011 film Eye of the Hurricane would get released, I would be happy. Previews on YouTube look great. She is truly an outstanding actress, and sadly, overlooked by major studios as a leading lady.

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    1. Thank you so much for this comment. Genuinely. I have a very, admittedly limited knowledge of Melanie's non-American films (if for no other reason than they are rather difficult to track down here in the states). But I am going to search high and low for all of the titles you mentioned.

      Thanks again for such a complimentary comment - I'm all over the films of hers that I've missed.

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  10. She actually have a good impression on mine too, but yeah I guess she's quite underrated. I remembered her in Away We Go, and her pole dance was one of the most sad and touching scene in the movie.

    And of course, in Up in The Air, I remembered her sharing a meaningful look with the older sister after Ryan Bingham suddenly showed up. She looks generic, but actually talented.

    Thanks for bringing her to my attention!

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    1. Really happy to hear that you were as drawn to those two moments as much as I was. She can do so much with a glance. Really blows me away.

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  11. She was way too good for Two and a Half Men. I have only seen a little bit of it while channel surfing and the only times it made me chuckle a little was when she was on. I'm glad she is gonna be on a new show by the Duplass brothers now. I think their style is gonna be more fitting for her. She is always good in whatever she pops up in, but Win Win has to be my favorite performance that i have seen from her. I have not seen Heavenly Creatures though, but it's definitely on my to watch list.

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    1. I saw about 10 minutes of one episode of Two and a Half Men on a plane once, and that was enough for me to know that it wasn't for me. I definitely doubted that the show could do service to her talent. She's perfect in Win Win - an even balance of shame, spite and ignorance.

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  12. Melanie Lynskey's role as Macy in Touchback stole my heart. I don't get star struck. I'm too critical. But Melanie got past my head and captured my heart. I'm a fan.

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    1. I'm going to have to check that one out right away. I haven't seen it yet, but I love your praise for her work. Thanks so much for stopping by and giving the recommendation!

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