Sunday, July 19, 2009

Amy Madigan

Amy Madigan has been one of my favorite actresses for twenty-five years now. She's maintained her place in the rotation even though I've managed to see less and less of her as the years go by. A quick peek at IMDB confirms that she's never stopped working for very long, but it became clear pretty fast in the 1980s that she wasn't going to become a movie star, partly because she's never done "kittenish", and she's spent an awful lot of the past ten years working in movies that nobody saw and in TV shows about doctors that I didn't see. (I'm a hypochondriac. The last thing I need is to spend my down time learning about new symptoms.) Her last good role in a movie worthy of her time was in Gone Baby Gone, and it's probably not a coincidence that the picture also featured Ed Harris--her husband, who she met on the set of Places in the Heart and with whom she also co-starred in Louis Malle's Alamo Bay, Winter Passing, the TV film Riders of the Purple Sage, and Harris's own directorial debut, Pollack. One interesting aspect of her having been married to Harris for most of both their film careers may be that Madigan always has an easy reminder of how much easier it is for men to slide back and forth between a (relatively) great variety supporting and ensemble roles and character leads than it is for a woman.

Madigan has always had such strength and power onscreen that it must have cost her some roles--big roles that were being cast by people who find such power in a woman intimidating (and who extrapolate from that that folks in the audience will have trouble "relating" to her) and also small roles where the worry is that she'll stand out too much, as if it's supposed to be a bad thing when an actress is cursed with having such an effect on audiences that they can't take their eyes off her. This may be something that Madigan can't do much about, since she doesn't seem to be one of those performers who disappear into the woodwork when they're not acting. At the 2001 Academy Awards, when Elia Kazan tottered out to collect his Lifetime Achievement Oscar, the camera picked her out, sitting in the audience, next to her husband, not clapping. I mean, she was not clapping up a goddamn storm, and glowering silently at the spectacle onstage. I remember the sight of her better than I remember most of the movies that were nominated that year. (I also remember looking at Harris and thinking, My God, son, if you know what's good for you, you'd better not clap!)

Where to see Amy Madigan at her best:

LOVE CHILD (1982):

This "true" story about a woman who entered prison at 19, had an affair with a guard, got pregnant, and fought for the right to hold onto her baby while in prison was directed by the infamous Larry Peerce, and in most respects, it's a like a Lifetime movie on hillbilly heroin. (Mackenzie Phillips failed to stage a comeback through her role as the prison's ducktailed head bull dyke.) But it was Madigan's first starring role, and those of us who saw it when it came out--on HBO, I mean, nobody saw this thing when it was in theaters--really knew we were seeing something. Madigan carries the movie to the movie on her back. She was in her early thirties but looked much younger, and uses her fireplug quality--the short frame seemingly on the verge of exploding from its own surplus of energy--very effectively to convey the David-and-Goliath side of the story, but without a trace of parthos; she's not a David you'd bet against. A year later, she got to give birth after a nuclear holocaust in the TV film The Day After, raising fears that she might be on the verge of being typecast as pregnant women carrying to term symbolic tokens of a second chance.

LOVE LETTERS (1983): This quiet, searching, imperfect yet emotionally rich film was written and directed by Amy Jones, and at the time it came out, it inspired some loose talk that it might be part of a new run of films looking at sex and love from a woman's perspective. (It wasn't, at least not from Amy Jones, whose subsequent films as writer and/or director amount to a steaming pile of junk, from Indecent Proposal and the Halle Berry vehicle The Rich Man's Wife to the Beethoven films. Earlier, she directed The Slumber Party Massacre from an original script by the novelist Rita Mae Browne. That one has a cult rep among people who want to believe that it must be intended as some kind of parody. People will always be kind...) The movie stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a single woman who, having found a cache of old letters written to her late mother by a man not her father, is compelled to jump into an affair with a married photographer (James Keach). Curtis is brilliant, and her scenes with Keach are fine, but it's the scenes she has with Madigan, playing her best friend, that set a new standard for capturing the distinctive rhythm of two intelligent women who care a lot about each other talking around the fact that one of them is doing something very, very stupid.


Madigan has spent so much time playing rural and country women of good peasant stock that it's a real kick getting to see her as an urban action warrior. In Walter Hill's deranged "rock & roll fable", she plays McCoy, a two-fisted, pistol-packing super-mechanic with a tough-gal catch phrase: "Are we gonna talk about it, or are we gonna do it?" If Hill has employed her to hang around him when he was working on his scripts and bark that line out whenever his mind started to wander, he might have had more of a career since Ronald Reagan's first term. The movie stars Michael Pare, once a highly touted star of tomorrow who might as well have had "Where Are They Now?" scrawled across his birth certificate, as a pretty-boy bad-ass who's on a rescue mission to save his ex-girlfriend (Diane Lane) from the clutches of Willem Dafoe and his band of toughs. (They're so bad, they force the Blasters to perform for Jennifer Beals's body double in Flashdance.) When Pare and Madigan join forces, the movie seems to think that now she's his sidekick. It's so cute! Legend has it that Hill originally asked Madigan to read for the part of Pare's sister, and that after she'd done so, she pointed out to him that McCoy (who was originally written as a man) was the only part in the script worth a damn and, you know, what have done for me lately, Walter? Maybe if she's tried that line on her husband, she would have gotten to play Jackson Pollack.

CARNIVALE (2003--2005)

This HBO series would probably be finishing up its run right about now if the network had committed to the six-year plan that the producers intended. Instead, they cut it off after two seasons--and few who saw the second-season finale walked away thinking they had reason to complain, because the show seemed already to be doing a thorough job of swallowing its own tail. The show, about occult hocus-pocus set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, was a murky stab at an instant Twin Peaks-style cult hit, but it did provide you with a way to check in on Madigan week after week. She played the formidable sister of the scary preacher man played by Clancy "voice of Lex Luthor" Brown, and she always improved the show's focus, even when she couldn't even pretend that her character has a better idea than you did of what the hell was supposed to be going on.

No comments:

Post a Comment