In blissful ignorance I hold in my mind what I prefer to think of as a private truth: that Annette Bening is lovely because she brushed, ever so lightly, against the soft cheek of Gloria Grahame, whose eyes flashed just a moment before returning the caress, a softly shadowed almost-wave as the past took her in black and white. I have no critical faculties--OK, maybe hardly ever, but never with Grahame, from It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Crossfire (1947) to In a Lonely Place (1950) and, of course, The Big Heat (1953), in which Lee Marvin--such perfect casting; point blank, if I may indulge--swept up the boiling carafe in his long meaty hands and splashed rough pleats into her lovely cheek. And somehow Annette Bening (actually two years younger than me, but always seeming all grown up) smoothed that cheek, and wears it as her own.
You can see Grahame's bequest to Bening all over in the latter's work, especially in the wide-eyed outbursts of Neil Jordan's* In Dreams (1999), where Bening's hysteria seems as big-heat raw as Grahame's. Her daughter has been killed, and her dreams lead her to the murderer, played by Robert Downey Jr. with lips as pursed as Lee Marvin's--not, though, in snarls but kisses, each rotten-sweet, like the apples piled high in which he hides. It is in fact one squashed mess of a movie, beautiful and dumb--but never sitting still long enough to let you go. And while Downey, as usual, demands my attention, it is Bening I lean toward--tentatively, because her sometimes-nasty panic is dangerous, more than an echo all the way back to the late '40s, when her long-gone twin receded into the shadows, ashamed of what's happened to her face, but refusing to leave. Bening re-invents that tendency in Grahame, but adds a less jaundiced eye, and in doing so becomes not so much Grahame's savvy dame as her agitated double, vibrating with violence. It's odd, in a way: Despite her vigorous performance, Bening seems less capable than Grahame--and I do not mean as an actor, but in her character's response to evil: She scraps with it, topples over the edge with it, makes it happen. Grahame seemed to flow more, sometimes right into the rocks, but never openly rushing toward the growl of the rapids. In fact, in her headlong plunges, Bening often seems scarier than Downey.
I am not sure where the seam shows between the two, but it might be in Bening's aggressive posture, convincing and uncontrolled. She may, then, be giving us both Grahame and her nemeses, rough men who hardly ever stop to see if she's going to get up, but shoulder past her down the hall, slamming the door shut--all, of course, except George Bailey, who saw she needed attention. And in such a "protected station" she was able to find the breathing room to give us Annette Bening, a Hollywood pro-/re-creation that urges me to keep my eye on that soft cheek, unwilling though I may be now to raise my hand to it, because Bening might slap it away; and that too draws my gaze, a little afraid but thankful that I can see the shadow of her twin, lonely but not forgotten.
*This is a director whose "body" of work is a sprawling--mercurial? chimerical?--hybrid, all jammed onto the screen with a spliced-diced sensibility, including Breakfast on Pluto (2005), The Good Thief (2002), The End of the Affair (1999), The Butcher Boy (1997), Michael Collins (1996), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Crying Game (1992), Mona Lisa (1986), and The Company of Wolves (1984). All of them up to something or other.
Monday, November 27, 2006
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