Thursday, July 16, 2015

In Character: Rebecca Pidgeon

David Mamet’s films are a drug. I watch one and the synapses in my brain start firing, demanding only one thing: more, more, more. Genuinely, I can’t remember ever watching just one Mamet film and letting that be that. I watch one, and a week later, I’ve rewatched them all.

Upon binging Mamet’s films for the past week, I took particular notice of one of Mamet’s staple actors, the great Rebecca Pidgeon. Pidgeon and Mamet have been married since 1991 and their fruitful collaboration has produced some truly excellent work. So, for the first time in In Character (125 posts and counting!), every role I’ll be discussing was directed and/or created by the same filmmaker, which is really a testament to the work Pidgeon and Mamet have made together.

Five Essential Roles
Homicide (1991)
Miss Klein
Acting is all about listening. Even in a David Mamet film, where the words are treated with senior priority, listening is key. Take, for instance, a terrific scene from Homicide. Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is on the phone with one of his cop buddies, verbally berating the well-to-do Jewish family he’s supposed to be protecting. An older female member of the family was killed a few days earlier, and the family now demands that Gold investigate the case. This angers Gold. He’d rather be tracking down the notorious drug dealer he’s been chasing for months. So, in a moment of frustration, Gold lashes out with a profane, anti-Semitic, and just downright nasty tirade. The fact that Gold himself is Jewish is of little concern to him.

When Gold hangs up the phone, he turns around and sees that Miss Klein, the granddaughter of the slain woman, is sitting right behind him, having heard every ugly word. Her calm yet confident retort to a stunned Gold is remarkable. Most writers would have the Miss Klein character scream to be heard, but Pidgeon’s silence is astounding. It’s the highlight of the film – an epic rant followed by an even more powerful stillness.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Susan Ricci
Susan Ricci is the only person Joe Ross can trust. Due much in part to his need to be proper (which manifests itself as naïveté), Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) falls victim to an elaborate con he cannot escape from. The only person who maintains his innocence, and is actively willing to help him, is the kind woman from his office, Susan Ricci. Susan fancies Joe and hopes that when they clear his name, he’ll fancy her too.

Susan’s constant politeness is what makes her such a fun character. She’s chipper but not dumb, persistent but never annoying. She also has many of the best lines in the film – “Shows to go ya, you never know who anybody is,” “I’m a hell of a person. I’m loyal and true and I’m not too hard to look at, what do you think?” I risk writing more, in fear of exposing The Spanish Prisoner’s many hidden wonders, but know that I was this close to calling Susan Ricci Pidgeon’s finest performance. Not a false note to be found in her layered work here.

The Winslow Boy (1999)
Catherine Winslow
The Winslow Boy is Mamet’s most audacious film. It’s a G-rated picture about British manners that strips itself of any actors within Mamet’s familiar troupe, save Rebecca Pidgeon, of course. Catherine Winslow is the older sister of Ronnie, a young boy who is thrown out of the Royal Naval College because he apparently stole. The shame of this alleged crime, in pre-WWI London, is enough to ruin the Winslow family, but Catherine is an unwavering supporter of her brother. She’s the type of live wire “radical” not suited for the time period, one who publicly proclaims, among other things, the right for women’s suffrage. She’s strong, independent, and fiercely determined to speak for those who have a quiet voice. A fine performance of subtle intensity.

Heist (2001)
Fran Moore
Ahh, Fran Moore. The cold, calculating, chain smoking wife of Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), an expert thief looking to get out of the game. In an interesting turn for the heist film, Joe’s right hand man is actually his wife, who is on board for any task Joe assigns. This includes seducing the nephew of Joe’s fence, Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito). In Joe’s eyes, if the nephew (a slimy Sam Rockwell) has his judgment clouded by Fran, then Joe can screw Mickey over. Heist is a complex game. A web spun around another web, entangled with yet another. But I love the way Pidgeon plays Fran; just when you think you have her figured out, she throws a curveball to remind the audience that we know nothing about her. It can be a look, a smile, a glance, a word. “She could talk her way out of a sunburn,” Joe says of Fran at one point. Boy, could she ever.

The Unit (2006-2009)
Charlotte Ryan
The Unit was the network show Mamet created with Shawn Ryan, about an elite group of career soldiers who execute classified and dangerous missions. Interestingly, the show was as much about the soldiers’ wives as it was about the soldiers themselves. And because Charlotte Ryan was married to the unit’s highest ranking officer, Thomas Ryan (Robert Patrick), there was an unspoken understanding that she had the most power among the wives. Whenever Charlotte appeared, the rest of the wives had to watch their every move, which shattered their trustful dynamic. Charlotte was troubled (her hit-and-run arc in Season 2 gave Pidgeon some of her juiciest scenes on the show), but her constant pretense of courtesy was what made her so memorable. When Charlotte walked into a room, everything changed. She would always just smile, acting like she doesn’t run shit, even though everyone knew she did.

The Best of the Best
State and Main (2000)
Annie Black
When a big budget Hollywood production called The Old Mill invades a quaint New England town, both parties struggle to deal with the lifestyles of the other group. One of State and Main’s greatest pleasures is the relationship between the screenwriter of The Old Mill and a book store worker from the town. The screenwriter, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), feels like he belongs in the town, whereas the bookstore worker, Annie Black (Pidgeon), feels perfectly suited to mix it up with the Hollywood crowd. Annie is definitely a small town gal, but her rat-a-tat-tat way of speaking fits right in with the production crew. The fact that she’s engaged to the town douche, the would-be politician Doug (Clark Gregg), presents a whole host of hilarious problems for Annie and Joseph, on top of what the production is already doing to both of them.

It says something rather grand of the writing and the actors involved that many of State and Main’s best scenes are nothing more than extended conversations between Annie and Joseph. Later in the film, Mamet pulls off a bit of a one-two con (how can he not?), that involves Annie’s kindness and Joseph’s morality. I won’t spoil it here, but it carries the film into a dramatic realm we didn’t know it needed. But there’s Rebecca Pidgeon, in all her effortless charm (her constant chant of “Go You Huskies!” is perfect), watching as a man she cares about struggles to do the right thing. It’s a great performance I can watch again and again, backed with a face of such strong emotion, and a vernacular second to none.

Other Notable Roles
in RED
The Dawning (1988)
Edmond (2005)
The Shield (2004-2005)
Shopgirl (2005)
How to Be (2008)
Redbelt (2008)
The Lodger (2009)
RED (2010)
Phil Spector (2013)


  1. I love Pidgeon in State and Main. It fells almost as he wrote specifically for her.

    "So, for the first time in In Character (125 posts and counting!), every role I’ll be discussing was directed and/or created by the same filmmaker"
    Dude, the films that you discuss in your In Character: Erland Josephson are all directed by Ingmar Bergman.

    1. I wonder if he did write it for her. He had to of, right?

      And man, how is it that you sometimes know my own blog better than I do. Can't believe you caught that Josephson thing!

  2. I love State and Main. I hardly ever see it mentioned, though. "Do we really need an old mill?" (And in the credits): "A complete list of this film's associate producers is available by contacting us at....." I loved Julia Stiles' character in the film, too, even though she didn't have much screen time. If you haven't seen it, and you want to watch Clark Gregg chew some serious scenery, check out Slither sometime. (Note: if you don't like gore this film has some in it.)

    I'm afraid The Spanish Prisoner didn't hold up for me. Going into it knowing it was a movie about a con and critics claiming "you'll never guess the reveal" pretty much put a pointing neon arrow at the "bad guy" for me. It probably wasn't more than 2 minutes after that character appeared on screen that I correctly pegged them.

    1. I've always appreciated that you love State and Main. I haven't seen Slither but Gregg chewing scenery is definitely my bag, so I'll track that one down right away. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Knowing a movie is going to end with a big con reveal can ruin the film for me as well. So I get where you're coming from there. Still adore that film though.

    2. Oops. I got that wrong. I read and wrote "Clark Gregg", but I was thinking "Gregg Henry". Sorry about that.

      A good movie with Clark Gregg in it, in my opinion, is Much Ado About Nothing, if you haven't seen it.

    3. Ahh gotcha. Love Gregg Henry. He can play a ham so well.

  3. I haven't seen a lot of her work but she is always great to watch. Especially in Heist which I think is one of Mamet's finest films.

  4. Unfortunately, I haven't seen many David Mamet films, but what might be worse is that I haven't even heard of two of these films. Still, I thought she made a striking presence in Redbelt, and I adore her work in The Spanish Prisoner. I'll make sure to keep my eye out for her when I watch Mamet's other films.

    1. Which ones hadn't you heard of? They're all soooo good. But I'm glad you're interested in checking out more!

  5. Speaking of Mamet, I finally saw Glengary Glenn Ross yesterday and you were right Alex- its fucking great

    One of the two films I actually like Al Pacino in, and Lemmon? Fantastic. All of them were. What a script. Big Chill next :D

    1. Awesome man! Love hearing that. One of the all-time great scripts right there. The Big Chill...that one kills me. So real.

  6. When I saw this title, my first thought was State & Main. Rebecca Pigeon is so good in all her Mamet movies, but that one stands out. There's one scene in particular where she catches Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in what looks like a compromising position. A lesser movie would have used this to create a rift between the characters. Instead, the way she trusts him is something we rarely see. Great choice, Alex!

    1. Thanks Dan! I love that you're such a State and Main fan. And I adore that scene you're talking about, precisely because the characters do what we don't expect.

  7. I've only seen Rebecca Pidgeon in The Spanish Prisoner (1997). On IMDb's message board she got some flak for that performance, but I personally thought she was alluring and memorable in that role. The Spanish Prisoner impressed me, love the twists and turns.

    1. IMDb message boards are so silly to me. But I can see why her work would get some flak. She has a very stoic, cold delivery of her husband's lines. I absolutely love it, but can see why people wouldn't.

  8. Wow! I haven't seen ANY of these. I really need to check out her work, it seems. Great work man. And sorry I haven't been around lately. I didn't realize it'd been so long since I'd dropped by.

    1. All good man! I think our blogging community in general is slowing down. We're getting older, developing more responsibilities, and so on. But I highly recommend all these films!

    2. I've noticed that too. So many of the bloggers I've known for the last 4-5 years are slowing down: Dan Heaton at ptsnob, Dan from top 10films, Eric from The Warning Sign, Bonjour Tritesse, Tyler from Southern Vision, Mette at Lime reviews, 3guys1movie, Ruth from Let's be splendid about this, David at Taste of Cinema, Cherokee at Can you dig it, SDG from U, Me and Films, Robert from To the Escape Hatch, Diana from AzizasPicks, Jessica from the Velvet Cafe, Andrew Buckle from the Film Emporium.
      Can't blame them for moving on or taking a hiatus, but it is quite sad.. I'll miss their sites being updated. Good to know a few of us are still hanging around!

    3. Man, a few years ago, that list WAS my list for go-to blogs to read. I'm guilty of this too. I used to average 22 posts a month, now it's 6. So many other things take precedence for me over this blog, you know? I still enjoy engaging with the community, but with older age and (finally!) living in an exciting city, this blog is low on my priority list. But it's all good, I'm glad a few of us are still here!