Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Character: Joan Allen

There’s a popular critique that many women share about the American film industry. Females play characters whose only purpose is to enhance the lead actor’s motivations. Female characters exist as exaggerated background, act as aimless creatures unequipped without original thoughts or intentions. And while that certainly isn’t true of all films, it’s an argument we hear often.

So then I look at Joan Allen. Joan Allen, a woman who, on the surface, has made a career out of playing such women. Women who exist to propel whatever narrative their husbands are offering. Wives who sit in the corner, saying little. But look closer. Watch what Allen does. With a sharp stare, convincing line delivery and a trademark look of utter devastation, Allen has managed to make all the women she plays matter. She makes every character essential, and every role greater.

Five Essential Roles
Nixon (1995)
Pat Nixon
Oliver Stone’s epic retelling of Richard Nixon’s life is a vast story purposefully structured with little conscience. While most of the men in the movie think to tell Nixon how mad he’s being (and some, rather boldly, even do) the only person he listens to is his patient and beloved wife, Pat.

As Pat, Allen has the difficult job of being the sole person who can get through to this impossibly stubborn man. And does she ever. Through subtle threats of divorce, Pat has the keen ability to make Nixon fall to his knees and beg forgiveness, or, adversely, buck up and force him to fight. In one of Nixon’s most compelling moments, Pat has a little too much to drink and gives Tricky Dick the verbal thrashing of his life, demanding that he burn his Oval Office recordings. It’s a fierce scene, made great by an actress who is a sheer force of nature.

The Crucible (1996)
Elizabeth Proctor
Ever notice how everyone in this film adaptation of The Crucible screams? It’s as if the actors are incapable of getting their point across, unless they’re the loudest one in the room. And then there’s Joan Allen, who welcomingly plays the quiet, reserved Elizabeth Proctor. Once the Salem Witch Trials take hold, Elizabeth is forced to do many things against her will, including testifying in front of her husband as to whether or not her husband cheated on her. It’s a gut wrenching moment of near silence. Allen only needs a petrified look and a few broken words to get her point across.

The Ice Storm (1997)
Elena Hood
The beauty of Allen’s work as suspicious housewife Elena Hood in The Ice Storm can be found in the scenes surrounding the film’s infamous Key Party sequence. The set-up is simple: Elena attends a party with her husband, Ben (Kevin Kline). At the party, all couples have the choice to put their keys in a large bowl. At the end of the night, the wives choose a set of keys from the bowl, and go home with whatever male the keys belong to. But Elena knows something is up. She knows Ben’s lover, Janey (Sigourney Weaver) is going to somehow choose Ben’s key. Ben denies this, and even suggests that they leave the party.

Elena darts a look his way, and with perfect spite says, “Oh, we’re not leaving.”

Two can play at this game.

Pleasantville (1998)
Betty Parker
Poor Betty Parker. The woman is so stuck in her black and white world that she has no idea what to do when she inadvertently lets a little color into her life. In Pleasantville’s most heartbreaking scene, we watch as Betty, now fully realized in bright color, cries tears of shame as her son, David (Tobey Maguire) covers her back to monochrome with make-up.

But one of the things I like most about Pleasantville is that director Gary Ross doesn’t let that be the end of Betty. Instead, he lets her spread her wings and fly as one of the town’s most subtly rebellious citizens. She gets off, leaves her husband, falls for another man, poses nude for a painting… there’s fire in Betty, and no one could bring that to light quite as well as Allen.

The Upside of Anger (2005)
Terry Ann Wolfmeyer
I mention this a lot in my In Character posts, but I am really drawn to movie actors (particularly females) who embrace playing a character their age. They don’t hide behind heavy make-up or giant wigs, they simply stand in front of the camera and say Go. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if Allen has shied away from playing women her age, but there’s something about Terry Wolfmeyer that seems distinctly un-Joan Allen. Admittedly, this is more than age. Through Terry, Allen gets to play mean, harsh, and vindictive. She’s a middle-aged woman who’s pissed about being a middle-aged woman. She’s pissed that her husband ran out on her, pissed her daughter is dating a much older guy, pissed that her neighbor won’t stop hitting on her. Terry Wolfmeyer is Joan Allen at his most unforgiving, and I absolutely adore it.

The Best of the Best
The Contender (2000)
Senator Laine Hanson
I’ve always considered Rod Lurie’s The Contender one of the best, most criminally overlooked films of this century. It is a ballsy, ingenious and immensely entertaining political thriller anchored by as audacious a performance as Joan Allen has ever given.

In the film, Allen plays a liberal senator who the President (Jeff Bridges, playing my all time favorite movie President) nominates for Vice President, following the current VP’s untimely death. The President anticipates a smooth conformation for Hanson, but things go very wrong, very quickly. The chairman of Hanson’s confirmation committee is Congressman Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman, better than he’s ever been), a vile creature of a man who doesn’t care much for Hanson. I risk divulging further details, in fear of giving too much away, but just know that Hanson’s fight for Vice President is a brutal one at best. Runyon and his goons stop at nothing to steer her away, if for no other reason than because she’s a woman.

The Contender is a strong film with a strong script, but much of its intensity should be credited to its cast. Laine Hanson is the type of strong-willed, independent woman that, quite frankly, more movies need. She proves that she doesn’t need a man to help tell her story, nor is she only capable of acting as background decoration. Laine Hanson is a woman all her own, and I can watch her fight for justice repeatedly. Everything about Joan Allen’s work in this film hits in the best, most exceptional way possible.

Other Notable Roles
In Face/Off
Manhunter (1986)
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
In Country (1989)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Mad Love (1995)
Face/Off (1997)
Off the Map (2003)
The Notebook (2004)
The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Yes (2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Georgia O’Keeffe (2009)
Luck (2012)
The Bourne Legacy (2012)

41 comments:

  1. Joan Allen rocks! I have yet to see her do a bad performance. She's that fucking good.

    The Ice Storm is my favorite film that she's been in. I love the way her character is just there underneath the surface while wanting to relive some element of her own childhood like riding a bike down the hill.

    I think The Crucible is my favorite performance of hers. What you said is dead-on. Everyone is shouting and doing all of that but she's the one that really engaged me throughout.

    I did like her in The Upside of Anger but I think the film isn't very good largely because of the twist at the end. I was insulted as I was really enjoying the film and such.

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    1. She's amazing. Glad you're a fan.

      Oh God, I completely forgot about that twist in Upside of Anger. Yeah... that is wildly unnecessary. Like, why even go there? But still, Allen is great in it.

      Her work in The Crucible really blew me away this past time I watched it. Hadn't seen it since high school. She's so powerful.

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  2. Nice picks! I'm not sure which performance I'd call her best. Maybe The Ice Storm? Tough call.

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    1. Thanks man! She's perfect in The Ice Storm. Seen The Contender?

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    2. Yeah, she's wonderful in that too, but I'd probably stick with The Ice Storm at the moment.

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    3. Good stuff. The Ice Storm would probably come in second for me. She's perfect there.

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  3. I've only seen Pleasantville among these picks and I think I've spoken about how much I adore that movie and Allen's character is probably my most favourite in it. It's not just her beauty but like you said, the way she rebels against all the pleasantness.

    I could have sworn I've seen her in more things. Weird...

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    1. She's excellent in Pleasantville. I really love how she rebels against the pleasantness of the town as well.

      I'm sure you've seen her in more... Rachel McAdams' bitch mom in The Notebook. The stone cold CIA operative in The Bourne Supremacy-Legacy. Travolta's wife in Face/Off.

      She's around, yo.

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  4. The Upside of Anger gets my vote for favorite Joan Allen performance.

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    1. She's so good in that. So angry.

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    2. i agree with you

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  5. The Ice Storm is definitely my favorite Joan Allen film. Although I do like to occasionally yell "I saw Goody Proctor with the devil!"

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    1. Ha, I mean jesus... I forgot how LOUD Winona Ryder is in that damn movie.

      Allen rocks in The Ice Storm. So very cold.

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  6. Joan Allen is a remarkable actress. My favorite role of hers is probably Pleasantville. She was as good in The Upside of Anger. Her work in the first three Bourne movies is underappreciated.

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    1. Yeah, she's one of my absolute favorites. She has a keen ability to elevate Hollywood blockbusters. The Bourne films, Face/Off...

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  7. I thought The Contender was a great film...until the ending. I felt they completely undid the entire point Joan's character was making - that that incident had nothing to do with her ability to serve. I felt it was a copout. Sorry.

    My favorite performance from your list is Pleasantville. Searching for Bobby Fischer is a good little movie, but she doesn't get to do much in it.

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    1. I see what you mean about The Contender. I might even like that movie more if we didn't know if that was her in those pictures or not. Interesting thought.

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  8. Great post, I love how she manages to convey so much emotion without saying anything in The Crucible.

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    1. Thanks man. I agree, she really displays the power of silence in that film.

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  9. "I’ve always considered Rod Lurie’s The Contender one of the best, most criminally overlooked films of this century. It is a ballsy, ingenious and immensely entertaining political thriller anchored by as audacious a performance as Joan Allen has ever given." Yeah. I'm right there with you. 100%.

    At the risk of getting too political I vividly remember leaving the theater after that movie and two people behind me dismissing it because of its "liberal agenda". And I always wondered if conservatives got turned off by it. Which, of course, sort of underscores the movie's whole point, how all that personal stuff is nothing more than a means to lob political hand grenades at one another.

    Anyway, long way of saying...yes! Great list. Great actress.

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    1. Awesome man, love finding other people who love that film. I'd be curious to know if conservatives enjoy that movie at all as well. I don't know too many conservatives, so perhaps I'll never know. Ha.

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  10. Oh,I love Joan Allen! She was fantastic in Bourne trilogy, The Crucible and Pleasantville. I really need to see The Contender, sounds like something I'd love.

    Fun fact - Michelle Fairley who plays my fav character on Game of Thrones looks so much as Joan people confuse them - http://heythislookslikethat.tumblr.com/post/9155037065/michelle-fairley-actress-game-of-thrones-and

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    1. First off, thanks so much for reading and commenting. Second, that is awesome about Allen and Fairley, they do look a lot alike. Third, I just spent 30 minutes looking at that tumblr page. Love it. Thanks for the link!

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  11. I adore her! I'm actually currently playing Elizabeth Proctor in our drama production of The Crucible and thank god she plays her so well - some of the other portrayals of that character were so loud and horrible. Mind you, she's a very tough act to beat!

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    1. Whoa, that's so cool! I had no idea you were interested in acting. How are you playing her? More reserved?

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    2. Yeah, I used to really want to be an actor but then I decided I wanted to be a director, haha. Yes, she's definitely going to be as reserved as Allen played her, because even without seeing the film I pictured her as this outwardly cold woman who is unsure of how to convey her feelings all that well. Her last scene with John breaks my heart. She's such a complex character, it has been interesting trying to craft her so far!

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    3. Ahh that's so exciting. Who knows, maybe you can be in one of my movies someday :)

      ps, LOVE that you're blogging again!

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  12. I re-watched The Ice Storm after this post--such a great film and performance by Allen. The Contender is tops for me, as well, but her filmography is full of commanding performances.

    It's a shame that she doesn't seem to be getting the same kinds of roles anymore. Unfortunately, actresses of a certain age have to compete for fewer and fewer parts.

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    1. Yessss! Another fan of The Contender! Love that.

      I agree that it is a damn shame she doesn't get Contender-like roles anymore. Maybe she should try branching out to TV. All the best roles for women seem to be on TV lately. Fair enough.

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    2. She had a part on that ill-fated horse racing show Luck, but I'm not sure how substantial it was. With so many other good shows (and real life) to attend to, I probably won't ever get around to it. I'd really like to see her get meaty roles again because Pam Landy ain't cutting it.

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    3. I only made it through 2 episodes of Luck. Loved the show, but once it got cancelled, I didn't see the point in watching just one season. I think the Landy character has run its course as well. She deserves something more substantial.

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  13. Joan Allen is fantastic! i love her most in the bourne movies, she is just so good as Pamela landy not to mention beautiful! i really hope she will be in the next bourne movie!! plus im looking forward to see her in Stephen kings "A Good Marriage" this year!!!!!!

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    1. Ah, I love her too. She's always so good, in everything. She really helped make Pamela Landy a human, as opposed to a cardboard cutout character so common in those kinds of movies. I love her in the Bourne films.

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  14. I love her in"Bonneville", the "Jason Bourne" trilogy and also, "Hachi: A dogs tale". cant wait to see her in AMC's "the Killing".

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    1. She's going to be on The Killing?! Oh my god, best news I've heard today. Literally had no idea she was going to be on that. Yes!

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  15. I love Joan Allen. She's great in everything I've seen her in. My favorite performance of hers has to be Pleasantville. I love Judi Dench, but Allen should've won Best Supporting Actress that year in a cakewalk.

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    1. And she wasn't even nominated! Crazy. Think I would've given that award to Lynn Redgrave (of the nominated performances). Laura Linney should've been there for The Truman Show as well. And Bridget Fonda (A Simple Plan), and AT LEAST one of the ladies from Happiness.

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    2. Agree with you on Laura Linney. I would've nominated her for her final scene alone.

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