Sunday, June 1, 2014

Top 10 Unsung Female Roles in Steven Soderbergh Films

I’ve been on a bit of a Soderbergh kick lately, and one thing I noticed is that so many of his films contain fantastic performances by women that are hardly ever discussed. We’re all familiar with the names who appear above the title in Soderbergh’s films, and even lead female performances in some of his smaller movies (Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience; Debbie Doebereiner in Bubble) dominated the conversation surrounding those films. But this list concerns itself with splendid performances that never got the play they deserved.

10. Catherine Keener – Out of Sight (1998)
as Adele


Heyyyy, bank robber.” Catherine Keener isn’t in Out of Sight for very long, but she is absolutely priceless as Adele. It’s hilarious to watch Keener talk on the phone to George Clooney while smoking a cigarette and holding a fluffy white rabbit, actively debating which duty to give her full attention to. Adele is Catherine Keener before she was Catherine Keener, and she completely owns her precious seconds of screentime.

9. Catalina Sandino Moreno – Che (2008)
as Aleida March

Save her flawless work in Maria Full of Grace, Catalina Sandino Moreno is pretty much unsung in every film she’s in. A shame, considering she’s one of the most natural actresses of recent memory. In Che, she plays Che Guevara’s determined and supportive wife, Aleida. She’s literally there for her husband in every way – from supporting his cause at the dinner table with their children to standing next to him on the unforgiving streets of battle. It’s a nuanced performance that deserved far more attention than it received.

8. Melissa George – The Limey (1999)
as Jenny Wilson

We are only privy to glimpses of Jenny throughout The Limey. Soderbergh implores visual distortions whenever Jenny is on screen, never giving us a literal picture of who this woman was. The difficulty of the role is that, with mere seconds of screentime, Melissa George has to make us care about her character. Terence Stamp’s fiery vengeance helps, certainly, but George sells us with love, anger, and emotional desire, all without saying a clear work.

7. Melanie Lynskey – The Informant! (2009)
as Ginger Whitacre

One of my favorite moments from any Soderbergh film is watching Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) realize that he has finally lied himself into a corner. Whitacre’s stream of consciousness narration attempts to feed him new lies, but he knows he can’t win. Not this time. By his side is his lovely, devoted wife, Ginger, who is just now figuring out that her husband is a fraud. The look on Lynskey’s face says more than any collection of words possibly could.

6. Mary McCormack – Full Frontal (2002)
as Linda

Mary McCormack is one of those actresses who, despite being great in everything, isn’t nearly as popular as she should be. Linda is a hopeless L.A. type –  slightly neurotic, puzzlingly philosophical, and desperately romantic. Her frequent conversations/arguments with her on-screen sister (Catherine Keener), not to mention her brief time with a massage client (David Duchovny), are the funniest moments of the film. That’s assuming, of course, that you can actually tolerate Full Frontal. Which, granted, many cannot.

5. Marg Helgenberger – Erin Brockovich (2000)
as Donna Jensen

My favorite scene from Erin Brockovich? That’s easy. The moment Erin tells Donna Jensen how much money she’s won in a lawsuit against PG&E. In 45 seconds, Helgenberger expertly displays shock, joy, sadness and appreciation in a way that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It’s a truly magical moment

4. Amy Irving – Traffic (2000)
as Barbara Wakefield
One of the many fascinating things about Traffic is the dichotomy of the Wakefield family. There’s Robert (Michael Douglas), who promotes a very strict no-drug policy in life and work, Barbara, whose experimental years in college make her lax on the subject of drugs, and their drug-addicted daughter, Caroline. Only we know how bad Caroline’s disease is, which makes it all the more devastating to watch Robert and Barbara battle about something they clearly do not understand. The argument Irving and Douglas have in the car is one of the most realistic movie arguments I’ve ever seen. Barbara is a woman who fails to see what all the fuss is about, until it’s thrown right in her face.

3. Jennifer Ehle – Contagion (2012)
as Dr. Ally Hextall

Cotillard, Cranston, Damon, Law, Paltrow, Winslet – all big names that deliver solid performances in the medical disaster thriller, Contagion. Funny then, that whenever I watch this film, the person I’m most drawn to is Jennifer Ehle, an actress I frankly wasn’t very familiar with when Contagion was released. As the headstrong doctor who singlehandedly finds a cure for the disease plaguing the world, Ehle delivered a performance of commanding restraint. A tell-it-like-it-is, no-time-for-bullshit kind of gal. Sure, Ehle’s name may not be as well known as some of the other members on Contagion’s call sheet, but she deserves endless praise for her work in this film.

2. Cody Horn – Magic Mike (2012)
as Brooke

I’ve written extensively about Steven Soderbergh’s insistence on naturalism. Many have, and will continue to, disagree with me about this, but when I watch Debbie Doebereiner in Bubble or Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience or Gina Carano in Haywire or, especially, Cody Horn in Magic Mike, I’m not watching actors, I’m watching people. They stammer over their words, they cough, they scoff – they do everything that people in real life do. No artifice, no acting – only being. Many people took Horn to task for delivering a hilariously off-key, false performance in Magic Mike. I couldn’t disagree more. Her work as Brooke is one of the most realistic performances I’ve seen in years. When we watch a film (any film), we expect to see acting. That’s one of the reasons we like movies. But as I said on my essay about this topic, pure naturalism isn’t something I want to see in every film, but something that is indeed good for films.

1. Vinessa Shaw – Side Effects (2013)
as Deirdre Banks

Similar to Jennifer Ehle’s work in Contagion, whenever I watch Side Effects, the person I find most mesmerizing is an actress I’ve seen very little of. Like her husband, Jonathan (Jude Law), Deirdre Banks spends much of Side Effects playing catch up. She has no idea why Jonathan is under attack, but when she receives photos of Jonathan and his patient (Rooney Mara) sharing an apparent intimate moment, Deirdre reacts viciously. In the film’s best, most visceral moment, Jonathan comes home and attempts to greet his wife with a kiss. When she slaps him across the face, a brief and hysterical argument ensues, one that displays the best of Shaw and Law’s respective talents. It isn’t a fault of the film that Shaw isn’t in Side Effects more. It’s a supporting performance, and she does a tremendous job doing just that: supporting the main players involved. But goddamn if Deirdre Banks didn’t make me seek out more of Shaw’s work. Give the woman her own movie. Period.

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28 comments:

  1. Fantastic list! I completely agree with all of your choices, my favourites being Melanie Lynskey, Jennifer Ehle & Cody Horn. Funnily enough, even though Ehle isn't well known in the film industry, she is one of the most respected actresses on the stage (two-time Tony Award winner and daughter of legend Rosemary Harris). All of the fine actresses on your list should definitely be in more movies, and as central characters!!

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    1. Thanks Aditya! I had no idea Ehle was such a renowned theater actress (OR that she was Rosemary's daughter)! I've seen most all of her film work now, but Contagion is responsible for me checking out her stuff. Loved her in Zero Dark Thirty.

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  2. I need to see more of his films, apparently.

    And I LOVED Shaw in Two Lovers, so I'm all for checking her out in Side Effects. I still need to see that one. Great and intriguing, as always, top ten.

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    1. I've found that you can NEVER watch too much Soderbergh. Love his films.

      Shaw was perfect in Two Lovers - a seriously unsung film in its own right. Thanks so much for the comment buddy!

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  3. An interesting selection. I think the only person I've actually seen right now is the one from Contagion, which I seem to recall was a pretty good performance. I would have probably mentioned Natascha McElhone in Solaris, but that one might have a bit more recognition.

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    1. Thanks John, glad you dig the picks. I adore Solaris so much, and McElhone is perfect in it. But yeah, I didn't include her here because I felt like she got a fair amount of play when the movie was released. Still, that's not to take away from her work at all. Love her.

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  4. This is a great list as it showcases not just Soderbergh's genius in finding gems in the smallest forms but also how he can take an ordinary character and make it so much more. As of today, I only have 5 more Soderbergh films to see as The Good German is the film I'm going to watch next month and then I have Bubble, King of the Hill, Haywire, and Kafka to watch before I can go full-on for my Auteurs piece on him for November.

    I think the person that should get some commendation for Soderbergh's casting is Carmen Cuba as she was Soderbergh's casting director for his recent films. Her work should be rewarded as well as the fact that there should be an Oscar for casting. If it wasn't for her, probably a lot of these great performances wouldn't be discovered.

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    1. Thanks man, glad you like the list. There really does need to be an Oscar for Best Casting. That is such an essential part of the process, and it deserves to be recognized. Cuba knew what she was doing when she cast his films, no doubt. I can't wait to check out your Auteurs piece on him.

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  5. Great picks all around (of the ones I've seen). What always strikes me when looking over Soderbergh's filmography is just how underrated a number of his individual films are. In particular I'm referring to The Informant !, Side Effects, Haywire, and Contagion which I think is a masterpiece.

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    1. Thanks man. So many of his films are underrated. It's insane. You know, I thought Contagion was just okay when I first saw it (and trust me, I love his films). But it comes on TV all the time, and I think by the fourth time I watched it all the way through, I realized, Yeah, this movie is great. Haywire... man, that film got so shit on when it was released, but I've always thought it was badass.

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  6. I have to say my favorite on the list was Jennifer Ehle. She stole every scene she was in. Her delivery was just flawless in that film. I knew Ehle before this film. She was in a version of 'Pride and Prejudice' in the 90s with Colin Firth. It also happens to be my favorite version of Pride and Prejudice.

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    1. I haven't seen that version of P&P, but I love hearing that she's good in it. She's such a talented actress - easily my favorite part of Contagion.

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  7. Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace was perfection and deserving of all the attention she got. Her performance and the film were terrific. What has happened to Josh Marston? And Benecio Del Toro deservedly got a lot of attention for Che but she was as you said, terrific. She needs more roles.

    Ehle is another unsung hero and I don't think I have ever seen her in a bad performance. She's a highly acclaimed stage actor, with 2 Tony awards, one in which she won over her mother, Rosemary Harris and also Cherry Jones, the renown stage actress. Ehle outshined all those brilliant actors in Contagion in my opinion. Another actress who is due far more acclaim than she's received.

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    1. Marston made a film called The Forgiveness of Blood a few years ago, but I haven't seen it yet. Given the strength of Maria, I thought he would be making a lot more films. But he seems to be doing well directing TV.

      I really wish I had seen some of Ehle's earlier stage work. She sounds so great. And I agree she stole the show in Contagion. No easy feat given the talent involved. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  8. Really cool picks here. I was surprised by a lot of these. You might have actually made me reconsider Horn's performance in Magic Mike. I didn't hate her in the part but I wasn't sold. Olivia Munn also does a great job with little in that.

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    1. Glad you like the picks! Munn would definitely come in at 11 on this list. I love her in that film as well. But Horn... she floored me with her naturalism. It's tough to weigh, because Channing Tatum is not a natural actor. That's not a criticism, he just acts like most actors act, if that makes sense. So their two styles were jarring at times. But, like the differing personalities of would-be lovers in real life, I totally bought it in the movie.

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  9. You really have seen all of them films, huh? Great, great list and a lot of watching inspiration -- seems like I'm going to have to see Side Effects after all. Loved Ehle in Contagion!

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    1. Oh I've seen all of Soderbergh's films many, many times. Hugely inspirational to my own filmmaking career. His films are like text books to me. Side Effects is killer!

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  10. Love the spirit of this list! It's so true, and all these performances are spot-on. (Well, I haven't seen Che, but that's neither here nor there.) Irving especially. And Cody Horn. I'm completely on your side with Cody Horn. I don't know how well she could work outside that part but I totally bought into her naturalism. Her cadence was everything.

    Also, could I toss out Cherry Jones in Ocean's Twelve as an honorable mention? Just because.

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    1. So happy to hear you're a fan of Horn's work in that film. Cherry Jones! Oh man, I LOVE her in that movie. That is a great, great call.

      "Think about it, Linus. For a moment there, I was already forgetting your name."

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  11. I have such a weird liking for Magic Mike, it just felt so real for me. Cody Horn is probably my favorite part of that film and I just loved her relationship with Channing.

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    1. YES! Love this comment. I couldn't agree more with you. I love Soderbergh, but I had no idea I would love that movie so much.

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  12. Oh I had no idea George was in Soderbergh movie. I am so puzzled when it comes to her - she is so gorgeous and she can be really good but she also occasionally comes of as either she is sleepwalking in the role or she is just so bad.

    So glad to see Ehle here. For me she was the best thing about Contagion and Zero Dark Thirty.

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    1. You know, looking at George's IMDb page, she's clearly been in some bad films/TV shows, but I don't think I've seen any of them. So it's a bummer to hear that she's delivered some bad performances. But still, when she's great, she's great.

      I recently rewatched ZD30 and love what Ehle did with her role.

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  13. Does Soderbergh get enough credit for his female characters? I'm not sure he does. Great top 10 Alex!

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    1. He definitely doesn't, which is such a shame. Thanks for the comment, Dan!

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  14. I totally forgot about some of these, but YES to Ehle and Shaw. They're so effective in their minor roles. Another favorite would be Vincent Cassel in Ocean's Twelve, which I know we both feel is underrated.

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    1. Nice man, love the praise for Ehle and Shaw. Cassel is so good in that film, if he was a chick I would've added him to this list ;-)

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