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)
“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)
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)
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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