Friday, March 21, 2014

In Character: Beth Grant

For the most part, th­e best of Beth Grant’s work is measured by the single scenes she’s featured within entire films. Grant has made a career out of popping up in notable films for a scene or two, leaving her mark, and getting out. She’s made us laugh, and she’s made us angry; she’s frustrated us with the hyper conservative tendencies of her characters, and piqued our curiosity about the odd women she so often inhabits. Every time she arrives on screen, you know you’re in for something special.

Five Essential Roles
Speed (1994)
Helen
Ahh poor Helen. Arguably the most kind and unassuming woman to occupy a seat on bus 2525. In Speed’s early bus moments, Grant does what she does best: acts natural. An ordinary gal; little lady lost in a big city. But when terror takes over, Helen simply can’t stomach it. Overcome with a need for freedom after watching the bus driver being escorted off the bus, Helen boldly approaches the bus door and… boom. Not to sound crass, but isn’t this just an amazing death scene? The anguished look on Helen’s face right before she decides to go for it, her outstretched hands mere centimeters from safety, and then, of course, that fatal plunge to the pavement. As iconic a death scene as you’ll find in a ‘90s action flick.

Sordid Lives (2000)
Sissy Hickey
I hadn’t heard of Sordid Lives before researching this post. But in investigating Grant’s work, I discovered that her performance as Sissy Hickey was one of her personal favorites, so I decided to give the film a spin.

As the film’s poster instructs us, Sordid Lives is a black comedy about white trash. It was first released as a play in the mid-‘90s, and subsequently adapted for the screen (and later developed into a short-lived TV series). Since its release, the film has acquired a small but loyal cult following, and it’s easy to see why. Sordid Lives is an absurdist look at family drama in the wake of death. As friends and family members attempt to prepare the funeral of their dearly departed Peggy, they bitch and moan and fight about how the services should be executed. One of the film’s most colorful characters (of which there are many) is Peggy’s younger sister, Sissy, a chain smoking moderator of the family’s insane domestic battles. Watching this film, you just tell that Grant is having a blast throughout. It’s one of the more substantial roles of her career, and she has a ball hamming it up.

Matchstick Men (2003)
Laundry Lady
A great example of Grant’s knack for being a one scene wonder is her brief turn as a mark in Matchstick Men. Angela (Alison Lohman) and her father, Roy (Nicolas Cage), set out to con an innocent person out of a few hundred bucks using a simple lottery scheme. Their mark is an unsuspecting middle aged woman (Grant) in a laundromat. Angela makes small talk with the woman, then drops an old lottery ticket on the ground. The woman asks Angela if it’s hers, and Angela says no. The lady brushes it off as if it’s no big deal, but then it kicks in. That sense of mystery and greed. What if it hit? The camera cuts to a low angle and we focus on Grant’s expressive face. From then on, the innocent little fish is hooked.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Pageant Official Jenkins
I can think of no better actress to convincingly crush a little girl’s dreams than Beth Grant. As the Hoover’s frantically arrive to register for a beauty pageant, the official that greets them, played by Grant, won’t let them sign in. Why? Because they’re late. But it’s only by five minutes. Doesn’t matter. To a woman like Pageant Official Jenkins, deciding who does and does not get to register for the pageant is her life. That’s her world, and she can’t fathom breaking the rules for one family and not all others. It’s such a hilariously entitled performance. We’ve all encountered people like this before, and Grant plays it up wonderfully.

No Country for Old Men (2007)
Carla Jean’s Mother
The Coen brothers can cast whomever they’d like in any movie. Most every actor would jump at the chance to be featured in one of their films. For example, they could’ve easily cast an elderly Texas woman to play the part of Carla Jean’s mother in No Country for Old Men. But instead, they cast Grant, put a white wig on her and told her to talk like a Texan. The result? An unlikely source of humor in an otherwise consistently melodramatic crime thriller. Grant isn’t in No Country for very long, but she makes the best possible use of her time on screen.

Who can forget Carla Jean’s mother, sitting in the back of a taxi, bellowing things like: “Here we are, 90 degree heat, I got the cancer, and look at this, not even a home to go to.” I adore Grant in this film, and I so appreciate the Coen brothers for casting her.

The Best of the Best
Donnie Darko (2001)
Kitty Farmer
There’s this thing certain people do that I find utterly fascinating. When faced with confrontation, they cry. They don’t have to be sad or angry; the mere fact that they are even in a confrontation provokes an instinctual reaction to cry. I used to live with a guy who did this. Whether you confronted him about his late payment for the electricity bill, or told him he had way too much to drink the night before, he would immediately clam up and try to fight back tears. And I never knew why. Maybe he was insecure or guilty or afraid, but of what, I hadn’t a clue.

My point is, despite the many hilarious things Kitty Farmer says and does throughout Donnie Darko, my favorite moment of Beth Grant’s career is the scene when Kitty instructs Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) to complete an assignment in front of the class. Kitty gives Donnie a hypothetical situation (finding and returning a wallet, but keeping the money from it) and asks Donnie to determine whether this is a Fear-based or Love-based reaction. Donnie objects, calling the assignment too simplistic. And it is here that I want you to pay attention to Grant. Listen how her voice cracks as she tries to diplomatically force out, “If you don’t complete the assignment, you’ll get a zero for the day.” She’s so afraid of Donnie, but why? He isn’t physically imposing, nor does he seem all that threatening. He’s just a smart kid refusing a lame assignment. There’s a fear within Kitty that forces her to tense up and get scared. Donnie isn’t the issue, it’s all within Kitty. Why? Who knows. Exactly.

Other Notable Roles
As Peppys Maid in The Artist
Rain Man (1988)
Coach (1989-1993)
Child’s Play 2 (1990)
Love Field (1992)
City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994)
To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)
Safe (1995)
A Time to Kill (1996)
King of the Hill (1998-2010)
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Rock Star (2001)
The Rookie (2002)
Six Feet Under (2004)
Factory Girl (2006)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Southland Tales (2006)
Jericho (2006-2007)
The Office (2008-2013)
Henry Poole Is Here (2008)
Crazy Heart (2009)
Extract (2009)
Valley of the Sun (2011)
The Artist (2011)
The Mindy Project (2012-2014)

31 comments:

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    1. So true! I was surprised my essential roles didn't highlight her bitchiness more, but nevertheless, she plays a Grade-A bitch if there ever was one.

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  2. She's hilarious in Donnie Darko without a doubt.

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    1. For sure. She played it straight, which always makes for the best comedy to me.

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  3. I love her. To look at her, she could be anyone walking down the street--but when she acts, she's priceless. Sarcasm, panic, humor all just flow so naturally. Thanks for doing this In Character...an overlooked artist deserving of recognition.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Dawn! She does blend in so well, doesn't she? But when she lets it soar on screen, she can really let it fly. I just adore her!

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  4. We love you Beth Grant!!! I'm surprised nobody has mentioned her GREAT scene in the first season of "Malcolm in the Middle" as a bossy Mom who leads a group of submissive other Moms of gifted kids. It's laugh-out-loud funny as she dumps a whole pan of brownies in the trash, kindly chiding Malcolm's mother that there may be some allergen in there, but the thought was nice :)

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    1. I never got around to watching Malcolm in the Middle, but if Beth Grant is there, you can bet I'm going to check out her episodes ASAP! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I really appreciate it!

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  5. Its amazing how extensive her filmography is. I've seen her in lots of stuff without paying attention to how often she keeps popping up. When having a number of them juxtaposed like they are here I realize how much I enjoy her work. Thanks for his!

    By the way, my best of the best would be her perfect turn in Little Miss Sunshine.

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    1. My pleasure man. Thank YOU for reading. She is most definitely perfect in LMS. I honestly can't imagine anyone else nailing that specific elitist tone the way she did.

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  6. LOVE your website! And I love seeing you where ever you "pop in." xoxo Tara

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    1. Thanks Tara! I really appreciate you stopping by and commenting!

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  7. She was also great as the wheelchair riding neighbor of The Munsters (new version) and as a demented child napper on a gruesome episode of "Criminal Minds", which had her attempting to cremate a live child!

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    1. I loved her in that Criminal Minds episode. She was so perfectly evil, a trait I don't usually associate with Beth's characters.

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    2. Ohh sounds great. I'm going to track down that episode right away. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  8. Kitty Farmer... that is a performance for the ages.

    One of my favorite films ever that she has only one scene is in Safe by Todd Haynes. She appears as a motivational speaker or something yet you know she is bringing it in that one scene alone. That's the power of her work as an actress.

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    1. Man, I really need to rewatch Safe. That movie is saw raw... I just love Todd Haynes style. Really excited to see Carol.

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  9. The moment I saw the title of your post I said to myself, 'Sometimes I doubt your committment to Sparkle Motion." The poor woman's probably going to have that on her headstone, but it's such a great quote because of her delivery.

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    1. It certainly is. And hey, better to be remembered for something great than nothing at all. She completely owned that delivery.

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  10. Very surprised that her WONDERFUL performance in " Blues for Willadean" was not on the list. I have loved Beth Grant for years and think that she is such an underrated actress. But trust me... buy a copy of "Blues for Willadean" and prepare to be blown away!

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    1. Awesome man, I'm all over it. So eager to see it now, given your praise. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

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  11. Few people can play irritating characters as well as Beth Grant. That isn't a knock; she just has a way of playing a small-town woman who's a bit too nosy. At least that's the way I think of her. Donnie Darko is definitely the right choice as the top pick, but she's one of those actors who has some many memorable parts. I forget her name sometimes, but she's everywhere.

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    1. Oh I get what you mean. It isn't a knock if she's doing it well, and I have yet to see Beth Grant do anything poorly. She's so good at playing that type of character. And MANY others as well. Ah, I just adore her.

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  12. Very nice post.

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    1. Thanks Rich! Really appreciate you stopping by and commenting.

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  13. Beth is so often an actress that I recognize and I'm so often surprised by the sheer number of movies that she's made her mark. I had no idea she was in The Artist...Great actress, great post!

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    1. Thanks Katy! I had forgotten she was in The Artist as well. It's hard to fully keep up with her career because she has So. Many. great roles.

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  14. Didn't even realize that was her in No Country! She's good because I hated her guts in Donnie Darko ha.

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    1. She's so hidden behind that No Country character, isn't she? Oh, I love to hate Kitty Farmer.

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  15. Yet another reason why I need to watch Donnie Darko. I love her in No Country for Old Men, Little Miss Sunshine and Speed, though.

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    1. She's great, isn't she? So perfect in Donnie Darko.

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