Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In Character: Patricia Clarkson

This is by far the most difficult In Character I’ve done. Not because there weren’t many good performances to choose from, quite the opposite – it is because Patricia Clarkson has such a vast, flawless body of work that it makes it basically impossible to pick her top five performances, let alone a surefire best.

I am truly hard-pressed to think of a Clarkson performance that I have not enjoyed. Whether she’s starring or supporting, you can always expect her subtlety to shine through.  After spending a few days working on this, I have but just one question concerning Clarkson’s career: Where is this woman’s Oscar? Here are a few performances that should've garnered an award (or two) by now.

Five Essential Roles
High Art (1998)
Nearly unrecognizable as a red haired German lesbian with a wicked dependence to heroin, Clarkson’s role as Greta, while lauded with critical praise, often falls through the cracks for admirers of her work. Why? Because she’s just that good. She is so hidden in Greta that there appears to be no Patricia Clarkson within the character. At least not the actress I’ve grown to love over the past decade.

To be clear, her role as Greta is flawless, but there is a good chance that the unaware film watcher may not have a clue who they are watching. Clarkson is so immersed in Greta – in her sadness, her kindness, her pity and doubt – that she utterly disappears.

Far from Heaven (2002)
As Eleanor, Clarkson is the perfect personification of American ‘50s suburban repression. Wealthy, miserable, bigoted – an immaculate façade concealing the fact that she’s nothing more than a suppressed winch. Eleanor is the kind of woman that refers to gay men as “one of those,” and has little to zero regard for people of color.

So when Eleanor discovers that her best friend, Cathy (Julianne Moore) has befriended a black gardener, she’s ungodly embarrassed. Embarrassed to be associated with Cathy, but also embarrassed for Cathy. Mind you, director Todd Haynes is far to brilliant to paint Cathy as a stereotypical villain, instead, Clarkson portrays Eleanor as a modern woman in modern times. Cathy, with her liberal, progressive tendencies, is the abnormal one, not Eleanor. A brilliant, deceptive performance.

Dogville (2003)
Although Clarkson’s Vera is a brief, critically ignored performance, the impact she has while on screen is as significant as any other actor in the film (which is saying a lot). Take, for instance, the scene in which Vera, along with other women from Dogville, accuse Grace of heinous acts that Grace did not commit. Vera berates and physically abuses Grace before ultimately cutting her a deal: Vera will break two of Grace’s prized porcelain figurines, and if Grace can keep herself from crying, Vera will end the punishment and not break anymore.

There’s something I’ve never been able to shake about Clarkson's unrecognizable Vera. If you haven’t seen Dogville, this scene may sound pithily and insignificant, but, considering the similar method in which Grace seeks her revenge on Vera, “insignificant” couldn’t be more far off.

Pieces of April (2003)
Joy Burns
For the most acclaimed role of her career, Clarkson plays a tired, sarcastic, spiteful mother who is losing a battle to breast cancer. While Joy and the rest of her immediate family travel to New York City for her fuck-up of a daughter’s impromptu Thanksgiving dinner, Joy has time to reflect on why she is the way she is, which spawns frighteningly honest results.

It’s rare that a mother in a film can ponder aloud how much she hates her own daughter without coming off as a vengeful bitch. But Clarkson gives Joy a particularly fascinating amount of humility. She may indeed loathe her own daughter, but isn’t her daughter almost exactly like her? Questions like these plague Joy, and when she’s not getting high with her teenage son in rest stop bathrooms, or playing cancer-fueled jokes on her family, she’s debating if the trip is worth it. The trip to New York, sure, but also the trips to reclaim motherhood and life.

Leave it up to Clarkson to find this much depth within the throes of a self-admitted bitch.

Elegy (2008)
In Isabel Coixet’s little-seen, remarkably tender romance, Clarkson has a brief role as Carolyn, a successful, unmarried business owner who occasionally sneaks away for intimate trysts with her old college professor, David (Ben Kingsley). The two meet, sleep together, eat something, then go about their business. It’s just for sex, as Carolyn frequently reminds David.

Why then does Carolyn become furious when she discovers that David is sleeping with a current student behind her back? After finding a tampon in David’s bathroom, Carolyn, in a brilliant moment of articulate anger, unleashes her life’s fury on David, explaining that they had the perfect relationship, and he threw it all away.  Although that isn’t the last time Carolyn and David meet, that scene represents one of best, most daring moments of Clarkson’s career.

The Best of the Best
The Station Agent (2003)
The year 2003 really was Patricia Clarkson’s year. Her Pieces of April performance merited an Oscar nomination, she showed us something new in Dogville, she stole scenes in Six Feet Under, had a small but memorable role on All the Real Girls, and, perhaps most significantly, delivered a performance of restrained turmoil and comic wit in Tom McCarthy’s tender little film, The Station Agent.

There’s something beautiful about the odd friendship and mutual understanding that takes hold between Clarkson’s Olivia and Peter Dinklage’s Fin. Fin, stuck in a lifetime of regret for being born a dwarf, and Olivia, stuck in a lifetime of regret for losing her young son, understand each other’s pain so well, that when they spend time together, there isn’t a lot that needs to be said to convey the dread they both feel.

Olivia is a bruised and battered woman who spends much of the film trying to convince herself that the pain she feels isn’t as strong as it truly is. Take, for example, the scene in which her and Fin watch their friend Joe play soccer with two young boys. Olivia’s face has a slight smile of admiration. “He sure does enjoy life,” she says to Fin. But watch as that proud smile subtly evolves into a sorrowful grimace. Her boy should be playing soccer with Joe. He should be here.

Later, when Olivia’s pain manifests itself in the form of cowardly rage, we can’t help but be shaken by Clarkson. She’s an actress that can convey a multitude of emotions within a single scene. Subtlety, so it seems, may be her greatest weapon.

Other Notable Roles
In Shutter Island
The Untouchables (1987)
The Green Mile (1999)
The Pledge (2001)
The Safety of Objects (2001)
Six Feet Under (2002-2005)
All the Real Girls (2003)
Miracle (2004)
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
The Dying Gaul (2005)
Married Life (2007)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Shutter Island (2010)
Easy A (2010)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Heath Ledger
Danny Trejo
William H. Macy
Campbell Scott
Kevin Pollak
Erland Josephson
Richard Jenkins
William Fichtner
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. I think Clarkson is one of those few names who can make any movie better just for being in it.

  2. I will admit that I haven't seen any of the roles you mentioned in the post(Days of Heaven, Dogville, Pieces of April all are in my queue though), but even then I do consider Patricia Clarkson as THE Best character actor. However small her part maybe, she has a knack of leaving an unforgettable impression of herself on it. Simply Remarkable !! I am really happy that you covered her.

  3. @SDG Really glad to hear that you like her. She really is THAT good, isn't she?

  4. Definitely one of the best actresses working today. I loved her role in All the Real Girls as Paul Schneider's mom who dresses up like a clown to make a living. That scene where she berates her son for bitching about his heartbreak is a great scene. Just the way she delivers her anger scares me.

  5. @thevoid99 Oh yeah she is fantastic in that, the way she delivers her anger (just as an actress, no matter the role) is really quite unique.

    Although thinking of All the Real Girls makes me a bit sad because it's a reminder that David Gordon Green actually used to make good films.

  6. Excellent article, Alex, but where oh where is Whatever Works? :) Clarkson was the biggest source of charm and wit in this one, I absolutely adore her performance. Excellent choices here I love her work in Elegy - she was 10x more sensual and interesting in her brief appearance than Cruz in the entire movie. I love her role in Six Feet Under, whenever she appeared on screem it just came with life.

  7. Oh and I'm incredibly saddended she starred in crap like One Day and Friends With Benefits, she shouldn't waste her icredible talent and valuable time on those :/

  8. Patricia Clarkson is just so awesome. I rarely feel more genuine hatred for a character than I do for Vera in DOGVILLE, and that is all thanks to Clarkson's flawlessly evil performance. A fantastic actress.

  9. As I was reading the list I was thinking "where is The Station Agent?" then I saw you mention it. That would be my pick for her best role.

  10. @Sati. Ugh, I agree that it is such a shame that she was in garbage like One Day, what an awful, awful film that was.

    I actually hate Whatever Works. She is definitely good in it (I even enjoy much of Evan Rachel Wood's work in the film), but the movie as a whole is one of my least favorite Woody Allen flicks. Oh well, least we can agree on Clarkson's other great work!

  11. @Tyler Man, she is SO spiteful as Vera. Love every minute of it.

  12. @Chip Lary Yeah man, a flawless, excellent performance, through and through.

  13. She's without question a good actress, my only problem is (as you mention) she has been over-exposed over the years.

    I loved her performance in
    The Safety of Objects (2001), Clarkson was the best thing about that movie in my estimation.

  14. @Chris Oh yeah she is BY FAR the best thing about Safety of Objects, but yes, it is a shame that she's taking roles in very very bad movies as of late.

  15. Alex, you definitely got the top pick right. The Station Agent is a great movie, and Clarkson's performance is her best of the ones that I've seen. I do feel like sometimes she gets typecast and stuck in crappy roles, but she really shines in the right part.

  16. Very nice article!
    I've linked your url on the fansite for Patti that I run :-)
    And I have to agree; picking her top five performances isn't easy!

  17. @Dan Nice, glad to hear you like that performance as much as I do. And yeah, it does suck that she's taking roles in crappy movies, but I don't think I've ever seen HER give a crap performance, know what I mean?

  18. @Janis That's so nice of you. Thanks for the link!

  19. Fantastic post as usual, man. I have enjoyed everything I have seen Clarkson in (it all started with Six Feet Under for me), but this list has made me realize I haven't seen any of her *best* work. I must check out High Art.

  20. @Eric Thanks! Dude she is amazing in High Art. I discovered her around her Far From Heaven/Six Feet Under phase. Love her.

  21. All I can possibly add to this is a recent moment of discovery.

    I've been working my way through a favorite 80s TV show - Spenser: For Hire - painstakingly torrented over a very long time (piracy - fuck it, let them release this stuff and give me a choice about paying for it).

    Anyway, one of the first episodes had the first work by both Patricia Clarkson and Angela Bassett as well as a very early William H. Macy. There is some great stuff to be found in older TV shows!

    1. That's awesome! I want to see that now. So funny to see great actors so early in their career.

  22. Clarkson conveys such an erotic and emotional charge as Eliot Ness' wife in The Untouchables. I think it was probably 15 years later that I saw her again onscreen, but I knew immediately that she had played Ness' reservoir of sanity and protection in De Palma's gangster movie.

    1. She's so good in that film, and so underappreciated in it. Great call.

  23. I am ashamed I haven't seen any of these movies! Apart from Shutter Island and a few mentioned in the list below. I love Clarkson, its always a good sign when she appears in a film, you feel that she will bring the elegance. She even made Maze Runner slightly better.

    1. All good! The Station Agent is really a special movie. And Far From Heaven... wow, what a stunner of a film.