Monday, March 01, 2010

The Content of Their Character Actors: Alfre Woodard

By Odienator
(for all posts, click here)

20 years ago, I went to see a movie with Holly Hunter and Mary Steenburgen, two quirky actors I liked. Steenburgen was great in Melvin and Howard, and Hunter had won me over in Raising Arizona and Broadcast News. Also in the cast was Alfre Woodard, with whom I was familiar from my days as a St. Elsewhere junkie, and also from a haunting TV movie she made with John Ritter. The movie that joined all these wonderful female actresses was called Miss Firecracker, and was written by Pulitzer prize winning playwright, Beth Henley. It sounded like a can’t miss. In actuality, it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I hated the characters in this movie; they were full of that Southern Fried bullshit that must only be endearing to people who think the South should rise again. Tennessee Williams somehow made this type of thing fascinating—probably because everybody in Tennessee Williams’ plays is a big ol’ drag queen—but Pulitzer or not, Beth Henley ain’t no Tennessee Williams.

Perhaps I wasn’t the target audience for this movie; The Washington Post’s review begins “Set in Yazoo City, Mississippi, "Miss Firecracker" burbles with the music of crazy white people -- it's alive with glorious cracker talk.” I get giddy just thinking how the movie poster could have misrepresented that quote. I’d kill for a Miss Firecracker poster that turned that quote into “It’s Alive With Glorious Crackas!”

The one good thing about Miss Firecracker is Alfre Woodard, who plays a bug-eyed seamstress named Popeye who makes outfits for bullfrogs. I hated her character too—every time I saw her my brain kept flashing DANGER: COON!!!—but somehow Woodard made me change my mind about that classification by the film’s end. She was just as weird as everyone else in the picture, but I never saw the actress lose her dignity, and believe me, I kept waiting for that moment as she’s the only Black person in this Southern Gothic mess. There’s even a little sweetness to her delivery of the line “he makes my heart hot.” When you see the “he” in question, you’ll probably think this is the moment Woodard’s dignity goes down the toilet.

Like many great actors, Alfre Woodard has been in material that was far beneath her talents. It seems she’s done that a lot more than I’d like, and it occasionally becomes repetitious, but when she’s given a complex character to sink her teeth into, she’s one of the best actresses around. She can play almost any role--she once even played Winnie Mandela--but she excels in character-driven pieces about conflicted, struggling people. Caregivers show up several times her repertoire; she’s been doctors, nurses and Veterans Administration counselors. But she can also play selfish bitches, occasionally drug or alcohol addicted and always less than pleasant, as in Holiday Heart and Down in the Delta.

The Emmy Awards love her, as she’s been nominated 15 times, winning four of the dangerous looking statuettes. Oscar’s love for her was more fleeting—one nomination for Cross Creek back in 1983. I didn’t see that movie until after Miss Firecracker, but I almost didn’t as it paired her with Firecracker co-star Mary Steenburgen. Cross Creek is actually good, featuring Rip Torn in an Oscar nominated performance he could have played in his sleep: a drunk.

Woodard has been in so many movies and TV shows that a simple piece here won’t do her justice. Instead, I thought I’d pick a few of her choice performances and talk about them.

John Sayles’ Double Feature: John Sayles wrote for Woodard twice, once on the big screen and once on TV. The TV movie, Unnatural Causes, was jarring to me in that it featured John Ritter in a dramatic role. This was the first time I’d seen him outside his goofy, Jack Tripper performance, and he’s excellent as a Vietnam vet dying of cancer from Agent Orange exposure. Woodard plays his VA counselor, a cancer survivor who helps him fight a losing battle to sue the gov’ment for basically killing him. Both actors are great (though the real surprise is an acting appearance by Miss Patti) and Woodard has a line of dialogue that shocked me in 1986. After revealing to Ritter that she battled cancer via the item she uses to hide her mastectomy, she says “now give me my tit back.” Apparently NBC was less skittish about titties than CBS, even back then.

On the big screen, Sayles directed Woodard in Passion Fish, a sort of Driving Miss Daisy Meets Chick Flick that’s far less embarrassing and cringe-worthy than DMD. Mary McDonnell received an Oscar nod for playing a pain-in-the-ass soap star named May-Alice who’s been crippled in a car crash. Woodard plays Chantelle, the latest nurse to fall victim to May-Alice’s mean streak toward her caregivers. Unlike the others, Chantelle is determined not to let May-Alice make her quit. She stands up to her, something Hoke couldn’t do to Miss Daisy, but her actions hide the real reasons why she needs the money May-Alice is paying her. Sayles writes fully developed characters for each woman, and the interaction between McDonnell and Woodard should have been enough to get Woodard a Supporting Actress nod (it didn’t).

Miss Evers’ Boys- Woodard’s most famous role is a fictionalized version of Eunice Rivers, the nurse who, for 40 years, assisted the government with the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiments. Nurse Evers joins the team at the beginning of the experiment, and willingly allows these men to suffer even after a cure became available. Woodard has a very tricky role to play here. She’s the main character and she has to evoke some semblance of sympathy to keep you with her even as she’s lying to characters we grow to like during the film, including Obba Babatunde and Laurence Fishburne. I couldn’t get with Miss Evers, though, and this is why I think Woodard is so good here. I was so conflicted and angry that, for this piece, I couldn’t even watch the movie again. My reaction to her character, and her performance, stuck with me all these years. I understood Miss Evers’ reasons, but I couldn’t accept them under any circumstance. Director Joe Sargeant would fuck with me in a similar fashion a few years later with Something the Lord Made, but he and his cast got to me here first. Babatunde and Fishburne (who also produced the picture) got Emmy nominations but Woodard took home the prize, and deservedly so. This is a rich, complex performance.

Crooklyn- I’ve talked about this movie enough already here at BHM @ BMV, but I wanted to throw it in here because Woodard reminded me of my own mother, with her hairstyle and her multiple kids and her line “I can't even take a piss without six people hanging off my tits!” There were seven people in my household growing up, so it sounds like something my mother would have said.


Hal said...

My favorite actress working today and probably of all time, and my thoughts exactly: what sets her apart is her versatility. Meryl Streep is the only actress in the same ballpark in terms of range IMO.

Even though the film has its flaws, I'm partial to her performance in DOWN IN THE DELTA, my second favorite Alfre Woodard performance (behind the shoulda been Oscar nominated CROOKLYN performance). She was also outstanding in LOVE & BASKETBALL, particularly in her showcase scene with Sanaa near the end.

Brings a question to mind:
I wonder which mother/child combo popped up in more films: Madge Sinclair/Levar Burton, or Alfre Woodard/Sanaa Lathan? I bet it's close.

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