Thursday, September 19, 2013

In Character: Hope Davis

One of the best ways to judge an actor’s talent is to watch them in a really bad movie. If they can outshine the material and deliver a solid performance in an otherwise lame film, then they are well on their way to having something special. I’ve seen Hope Davis in a number of films and TV shows, some of which are, sadly, quite bad. Yet I’ve never seen anything less than a stellar Hope Davis performance. Known primary as a darling of American independent films, Davis’ talent is as solid as a rock, no matter the content she’s given.

Five Essential Roles
Next Stop Wonderland (1998)
Erin Castleton
As a relationship-challenged nurse living in Boston, Erin Castleton has let her unlucky dealings with love turn her into a bitter old dame. Which is a shame, given that she has many decades to go before being old.

Upon watching Next Stop Wonderland, I couldn’t help but compare it to the fantastic French delight, Amélie. Both lead characters are longing for love, desperate to find it by any means possible. Thing is, Erin Castleton is the antithesis of Amélie Poulain. Instead of hoping to find love through kindness, Erin spends her day angry at the world. Angry at her mother, her ex boyfriend, her awful dates, and, most importantly, angry at herself. Don’t get me wrong, Next Stop Wonderland isn’t a bummer of a film. Instead, it’s a mostly pessimistic take on fate, which, somehow, Davis manages to make wildly enjoyable.

About Schmidt (2002)
Jeannie Schmidt
My favorite thing about Davis’ work in About Schmidt is that she’s not afraid to be a bitch. Jeannie is a simple woman of simple tastes. Having recently lost her mother, Jeannie is forced to deal with her annoying but loveable dad, and her kind but aloof fiancé, all while planning her wedding. Jeannie’s brief and intense outbursts make for some of the most honest moments in the film. Whether she’s screaming at her husband-to-be out of frustration, or kindly telling her father to stay as far away for as long as possible, Jeannie is a woman easily rattled, and I absolutely love her.

The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002)
Dana Hurst
Early in the criminally underseen indie gem, The Secret Lives of Dentists, David Hurst (a perfect Campbell Scott) catches his wife, Dana in the all-too-comfortable embrace of another man. Instead of saying anything, David conceals what he knows, and, like a boxer waiting to throw one final punch, waits for the perfect time to knock Dana out with her infidelity. The Secret Lives of Dentists is a domestic dramedy that perfectly encapsulates the frustrations of marriage. The believability of Scott and Davis as a couple makes me wish they made (many) more films together.

American Splendor (2003)
Joyce Brabner
How does one exactly love Harvey Pekar? He’s unkempt, direct, aloof, he’s… Pekar. It certainly couldn’t have been easy for Joyce Brabner to choose Pekar as her life partner, but damn if Davis doesn’t bring Joyce to life with effortless, awkward charm. And with countless priceless lines like: “I guess I have a lot of borderline health disorders that limit me politically when it comes to eating,” what’s not to love?

Joyce is the perfect person for Harvey. Their salt and vinegar attraction has an instant cinematic appeal that’s a joy to watch.

In Treatment (2009)
In Treatment was a perfect showcase for the best that television has to offer. Incredible, stage play-like writing, tight direction, and, of course, flawless acting. Everyone who graced the frames of this show delivered a solid performance, of which Hope Davis is certainly no exception.

In Season 2, renowned therapist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne, never better) treated Mia for the second time in his career. When he saw her 20 years ago, he helped guide her through several life-changing decisions. Today, Mia blames Paul for those decisions, and cites him as the main reason why she’s so unhappy. Davis only had seven episodes to flesh Mia out, but my God, what a quietly vengeful woman she turned out to be.

The Best of the Best
Proof (2005)
Claire is the daughter who got away. She was able to escape her brilliant but insane father (Anthony Hopkins), leaving her younger sister, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) to care for him alone. But Claire wasn’t running just to avoid her duty as a daughter. She’s far more complex than that. She ran because she knew she never shared the scholastic intellect that Catherine did with their father. She left because she wanted a life elsewhere. She wanted to be free and proud and in control.

When we first meet Claire, she has flown in from New York City for her father’s funeral, and she’s doing five things at once. Talking on the phone, arranging the funeral, planning her wedding, catching her limo, grabbing her luggage, and so on. Claire is the type of weak creature who so desperately gives the impression that she has it all together, but so obviously does not.

In addition, Hope Davis and Gwyneth Paltrow actually act how sisters really act, which is becoming all too rare in films. Their banter, spite and acceptance are all remarkably accurate. They may be polar opposites, but the bond of sisterhood trumps all. By the time I saw Proof, I was already very aware of Hope Davis’ skill. Claire put her range over the top for me, in the best possible way.

Other Notable Roles
In The Weather Man
Flatliners (1990)
The Daytrippers (1996)
The Impostors (1998)
Arlington Road (1999)
Mumford (1999)
Deadline (2000-2001)
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
The Matador (2005)
The Weather Man (2005)
Infamous (2006)
The Hoax (2006)
Six Degrees (2006-2007)
The Nines (2007)
Charlie Bartlett (2007)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The Special Relationship (2010)
Mildred Pierce (2011)
Disconnect (2012)
The Newsroom (2012-2013)


  1. If I've said it once, I've said it 57 times - if I ran Hollywood, Hope Davis would be Julia Roberts (even if I'm not entirely sure what that means). Thank you for shining the spotlight on her.

    I wrote this post quite awhile back that I never actually put up about her in "About Schmidt" and specifically about her mom jeans. I always thought those mom jeans were indicative of her bravery, her willingness to do whatever she needs to do and to let herself look out however needs to look to sell the role.

    Also, that's a really interesting comparison between "Next Stop Wonderland" and "Amelie." That had never crossed my mind. I still remember the first time I saw "Next Stop Wonderland." Love with an actress at first sight.

    1. Had no idea you were such a Hope Davis fan. That is great man. I really value her work as an actress. You are so right about her appearance in About Schmidt. Beyond her incredible acting, she sells that role with clothes and hair/make-up. She looks so average, and it feels so authentic.

  2. I love Hope Davis. The list you put in is amazing as my favorite performance of hers is American Splendor. I just love every moment she's in as she is really funny and makes some great faces. I also love the clothes she wears in the film as it's nerdy but also ragged. She should've been nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year. No... I take that back, she should've won the Oscar for that. Not fucking chipmunk face.

    I also liked her in The Daytrippers which I think is under-seen unless you're familiar with the indies of the mid-90s. It's an amazing performance as this woman who is trying to find out where her husband is as she takes her parents, her sister, and her sister's boyfriend on a journey all over New York City. A true indie classic.

    1. "Not fucking chipmunk face." bahahhaa shit man, that was fucking hysterical. I agree, an Oscar nomination (or win) should've happened there. In fact, I can't believe she's never been nominated for an Oscar. Goddamn shame.

      The Daytrippers... I'm all over it. Thanks for the reco.

    2. Yes! I second The Daytrippers recommendation! In the late nineties I more or less saw Next Stop Wonderland, The Daytrippers and The Myth Of Fingerprints (which she's also in and which is one of my three favorite movies) in a row. That's what made me a devotee.

    3. Nice. I'm seeking both of those out asap. Great stuff.

  3. American Splendor is actually one of my favorite movies and this is going to be embarrassing to admit but until now I never knew Hope Davis was blonde. Thanks for shining a light on me!

    1. Actually, I love hearing stuff like that. Means you bought into the performance 100% which is perfect!

  4. Yet another vote for American Splendor here. I really liked that movie and Davis' performance in it. I was also glad to see Next Stop Wonderland on your list.

    I actually like Proof quite a bit, too, but I'm ashamed to say that I had not remembered that Davis played Paltrow's sister in it. Maybe it's time for another watch.

    1. She's so good in American Splendor, isn't she?

      Her work in Proof has always really struck me, for whatever reason. Her relationship with Paltrow reminds me of a pair of sisters I know. So accurate.

  5. Just in case there haven't been enough of them, I'll cast one more vote for American Splendor.

  6. I first noticed her in Arlington Road, a little seen gem of a thriller. It's not a showy performance, but you feel her absence when she's not on screen (I won't go further at the risk of spoiling a 14-year-old film).

    She also did a pretty good Hillary Clinton in the similarly under-seen Special Relationship. Not a great film by any stretch, but she felt right in the role. And John August's The Nines (also with a pre-fame Melissa McCarthy)... and American Splendor... and The Daytrippers...

    Can someone please center an entire movie around her already/again? One (Next Stop Wonderland) is not enough.

    1. I LOVE Arlington Road. That was actually the first physical DVD I ever bought. Will never forget it. Joan Cusack is really good in that movie as well. Very against type.

      I haven't seen The Nines. Didn't really sound like my thing. Any good?

      Yes, someone, please, give Davis a starring role again.

    2. Mark Pellington is one of the under-rated directors of our time. He has a good eye for visuals -- his films look far better than their budgets should allow -- and a way of harnessing great performances even in the periphery (ditto Joan Cusack). I was impressed by his last film, I Melt with You, despite not being of that generation. It's a shame it was savaged by critics, as there are so many good elements there that rise above the clunky script.

      If you can go in with an open mind, The Nines is well worth a viewing. It's a kind of good-natured David Lynch, odd and off-kilter but with a genuine humanist slant.

    3. I saw I Melt With You reluctantly, only because, yeah, it was fucking trashed by critics. I actually enjoyed it, and only really had one qualm with it. During that party scene, one of the guys (forgive me for not remembering which one) keeps swallowing and swallowing more and more and more pills. And I'm sorry, he would not make it out alive after doing that. Or certainly not be conscious for the better part of the next 24 hours. I understand these guys partied hard, but that was a bit much. Other than that, I liked it. Lowe was the highlight for me.

      I'll give The Nines a go based on your reco. Your praise is enough of a selling point for me!

    4. Totally agree about Lowe. (He's done a ton of good work lately, including on the small screen in Parks & Rec and Behind the Candelabra.) I do think the script very nearly goes off the rails at several points and I wish they'd given Carla Gugino's cop more to do (would she really not have found more about that situation suspicious at first glance?). As a whole, however, it works beautifully as a meditation on middle age ennui.

    5. It is a fine meditation, no doubt. Like I said, I never thought that one received a fair treatment.

  7. I love her in American Splendor, but I don't even remember her in Proof. I need to give it another look.

    1. So good in both of those films. Proof, man, that one really stands out for me.

  8. Way late to the party (just discovered this great series), but i'm so glad to see this woman finally get the recognition she deserves! The Daytrippers is my all time #1 favourite movie and her soulful, extraordinary performance is a big part of why. For my money, she does melancholy better than anybody else in the game, and there's a particular party scene in that film that is a materclass in understated-yet-powerful REacting. If you're interested, it's the first time (of many) she and Campbell Scott teamed up! And there's great work from Parker Posey, Anne Meara, Liev Schrieber, and a fun cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

    Next Stop Wonderland is a beautifully unique star vehicle for her, it's a shame it (and she) didn't take off the way it was expected to, and other bigger roles like The Myth Of Fingerprints around the same period are similarly wonderful. I love all the performances you've chosen (and to re-iterate what others have said, she's quirky and brilliantine in The Nines). One that hasn't been mentioned is Synecdoche New York, in which her bizarre, detached-yet-outrageous therapist steals all her scenes. Love it!

    1. Hey there, you can show up as late to this party as you want, especially when you leave such great comments! I hadn't seen The Daytrippers when I wrote this post, but thanks to the encouragement of these comments, I watched it and LOVED it. Davis is so great in that film. It would easily make my updated list of her best performances.

      So glad to hear you're a Hope Davis fan. She's one of my favorite actresses - always sharp, always on.

  9. Oh! And I forgot to mention her role in 'Guy', an very unique piece of work and an incredibly underrated film.

    1. Oh I haven't seen that. I'm all over it. Thanks!