Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Old At Heart

The two youngest Academy Award nominees this year are two of the youngest in the Academy’s history in their respective categories. Fourteen year-old Hailee Steinfeld is incredibly only the ninth youngest nominee in the Best Supporting Actress category – in the past five years alone, Abigail Breslin and Saoirse Ronan best her for youth. Jennifer Lawrence, though, is, at twenty, the second youngest Best Actress nominee in history, following Keisha Castle Hughes’ appearance back in 2004. The occasional tendency for these fresh-faced nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category isn’t explained by cute kiddish innocence, but more often than not a hefty dose of precociousness – to land amongst all these adults, they generally have to act like adults. Tatum O’Neal – like Steinfeld, actually a lead in her film – is the youngest winner in Oscar history, and in Paper Moon, she’s daddy conman Ryan O’Neal’s crafty equal.

Comparison #1: they both wear hats. Carry on reading for more golden observations.
Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross in True Grit is a slightly different case – she acts like an adult, but no one will treat her like one, and ultimately she’s returned to childhood, where it’s been made evident she should belong. But regardless. This article isn’t about the roles, but the performances - a comparison of Steinfeld’s work to Jennifer Lawrence’s seems surprisingly valuable. Both Mattie and Lawrence’s Ree Dolly are teenagers who have grown up before their years, alone in a male-dominated world, and both betraying, at their respective story’s most dramatic points, the scared child within the tough nut they put out to the world. Not to mention the barren landscapes of Southern America we’re hanging around in both films, even if True Grit’s hills are rich and golden and Winter’s Bone’s are frosty, grey and barren. Ree’s fight against her community suggests that the area hasn’t really progressed very far from the treatment of women in Mattie’s old west.

I find myself one of the few with a thoroughly negative opinion of True Grit, and a large part of the blame has to fall onto Steinfeld – not because she is outrageously terrible, but the film’s narrative is so firmly glued to and channelled through her that subpar work isn’t going to hold the film up. Steinfeld has proved herself a charmer on the red carpet, and she’s certainly not a charmless screen presence either – I concede that with a colder teenage actress in the role, the film might have been actively unwatchable. But she’s simply not accomplished enough to overcome the huge stumbling block of the mannered dialogue – where seasoned pro Jeff Bridges runs with it, makes it unintelligible and thrusts his character’s existence into his physicality, Steinfeld can only recite it, and clearly has to think it through before she says it. There’s an already famous scene early in the film, where Mattie barters with a horse salesman – it’s funny, yes, but it feels entirely too rehearsed, an impossible premeditation that Steinfeld’s lack of vocal fluidity pokes holes in. It’s a performance of a performance. That’s altogether too many layers to deal with. It might make sense on the page, but in a world next to Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s precocity needed to extend to her body, and it sticks in her throat – or, really, further back, in Steinfeld’s mind.

If only she actually rode the horse this
would be another thing to point out.
Compare this to Jennifer Lawrence. An older actress, yes, with a bit more experience, but we are talking about acting awards here; Steinfeld is a pleasing presence who will hopefully hone her craft and return with some great work. Lawrence’s Ree Dolly is an impressively full performance. Lawrence lets tiny little flashes of emotion glint through her downbeat, practical attitude, which work in tandem with the narrative to slowly but surely deepen Ree, simultaneously embedding her in the landscape and estranging her from the people around her. Winter’s Bone is a muscular, harshly cold film, and this tangibility extends to Lawrence, who thrusts meaning into her small movements, by turns purposeful and tentative, where the reticence of speech leaves an empty space. At key moments, Ree’s emotions turn in a direction that you wouldn’t expect from most people – notably, her lack of distress at learning her father is probably dead; instead, a fierce loyalty to recover his body flares up. These don’t read as incongruous or forced, perhaps because Lawrence contains Ree so carefully, precisely modulating the natural moments where events scrape the shields Ree has to draw around herself. The script does overstate this at one point, though Lawrence’s playing in the scene where Ree pleads with her spaced-out mother is still deeply felt. Here, Ree lets everything fall away, not so much becoming a child again but wanting to be one again, and as she looks down there’s a hint of shame in her eyes. She is performing being an adult to an extent, but what we see in Ree’s more private moments is the weight of realisation that adulthood is becoming more real, more entrenched, and more inescapable.

Helpfully, they once stood next to each other...
True, Ree is much closer to being a physical adult than Mattie Ross, but it’s clear from the script that Ree was thrust into this role several years ago. And here we see the key difference not only in the performances of Lawrence and Steinfeld, or even their characters, but the films themselves. There’s a reality to Ree Dolly beyond the one we see onscreen – her growth into the girl we see now, her possibilities for her future, relationships (with her parents, for one) that are now ghostly and membranous – that owes a great deal to Lawrence’s subtle, restrained playing. But in the heightened farcicality of True Grit, do we ever feel like we’d recognise Mattie’s family if they suddenly wandered into the narrative? Do we understand why Mattie acts in the way she does? Can we make a plausible guess at what happened to Mattie between the final two sequences of the film? These failures aren’t entirely Steinfeld’s fault, but a good performance would at least make sketchy attempts at them – see, for instance, Natalie Portman’s attempts to sketch beyond the lines of insanity in Black Swan. Mattie Ross ultimately comes to little more than a plaited haircut and an oversized hat, and those don’t belong in the Kodak theatre, unless they've invited Lady GaGa this year.

If you're after more similarities between Winter's Bone and True Grit, check out this MTV Movies article.

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