I’m hard-pressed to think of a less glamorous role for a high-profile actor in a recent mainstream movie than the one taken on by Naomi Watts in The Impossible. The last time I saw a character so thoroughly bruised, lacerated, and pummelled almost to death, I was watching Jim Caviezel suffer for my sins in The Passion of the Christ. In this film, Watts plays María Belón (her name Briticised to Maria Bennett) who, along with her husband (played by Ewan McGregor) and three sons, was caught up in the 2004 Indian earthquake and tsunami while on a Christmas holiday in Thailand. Following the devastating wave that rips apart their resort, the two parents are separated and spend the rest of the film trying to reunite the family. Maria is critically injured, and spends most of the film’s second half on a hospital bed, slowly dying from her wounds.
This week, the first pictures of Naomi Watts as Princess Diana were made public. As with the first pictures of Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, or Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor, or Toby Jones as a different Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, or Malin Akerman as Linda Lovelace, or Amanda Seyfried as another Linda Lovelace, we’re invited to marvel at the close physical resemblance between actor and subject, to infer that the casting has been validated, and thus to begin anticipating the arrival of the movie, safe in the knowledge that it is being well-handled; the validating resemblance is designed to prove that the film is respectfully attuned to the legacy concerns of the beloved subject. Continue reading
These days, each new Woody Allen film offers me only the dispiriting sight of a once volcanically creative artist continually raking over the same old ground, barely challenging himself, and dragging his esteemed cast of actors into his circle of stifling complacency. I say “these days”, but I haven’t seen a satsifying new Allen film since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. It must be difficult to make a full-blooded character out of such schematic raw material as Allen gives to his leads here. In this case, Watts plays a woman who has subordinated her own ambitions (she wants to be a mother, and an art dealer – Allenesque shorthand for a character who is intellectually able and culturally curious) to her husband’s attempts at reviving his stalled writing career (writing block being Allenesque shorthand for a character who is … well, it’s hardly a shorthand – he’s just preoccupied, ironically, with intellectual creatives who can’t produce creative work any more). Continue reading
It’s only a few years on from King Kong, and Naomi Watts is back up a tall building in New York, in this case the District Attorney’s office, and this time she is far more constrained by the limitations of the role offered to her. It’s difficult to see what might have inspired her to take this part, except that her scenes were shot just three months after giving birth to her second son (all her scenes were saved until last), and it must have seemed like an undemanding gig to ease herself back into the job; all of her scenes were shot late in the schedule to allow her a longer post-natal break. There’s not a lot for her to be doing, but that’s not necessarily the result of recent motherhood: it’s a neat summary of the differences between the treatment of actors and actresses in Hollywood.
While Clive Owen gets to do all the running and interrogating, the shooting and the agonising (including an astounding gun battle in New York’s Guggenheim museum, which director Tom Tykwer shot in a warehouse-reconstruction of the building’s famous orange-peel spiral), Naomi gets to speak authoritatively in fluent legalese. This is a departure from the nervy meekness of her speech patterns in some of her other roles, but it does sap her character from the opportunity to express a fully-rounded personality. Clive Owen gets to bear the weight of the film’s thematic heft – he is the one we get to see punishing himself and feeling tormented by difficult decisions and the entrenched power of the conspiracy he is uncovering. Watts is given no scenes of private pain (we see Owen dunking his own head into icy water, as if to shock it clear of its troubles) that might show her to be similarly invested in the attempt to expose corrupt banking practices and arms deals. He gets to strain at the limits of the law (“There’s nothing complex about cold-blooded murder!”), while she meticulously upholds it. He exhibits increasing dishevelment as the plot thickens and tension builds – she is always smartly turned out (I can’t help noticing that Watts now looks a lot like Nicole Kidman might look if she hadn’t had so much work done on her face). This is not a simple sartorial note – the film is built around his subjectivity, and his appearance matches the progress of the narrative while hers remains fixed and decorative, even incidental. It is his impetuousness and chaos that break the case open and penetrate the banks’ ruthless walls of pragmatism. Now, imagine a gender-flipped scenario in which your lead actor is a new father. Do you postpone all his scenes to the end of shooting, redesign his character, or do you just postpone the entire film until he’s ready, or get a different lead actor? There are certainly no charity points for giving your action hero time off for paternalism. The solution would never be to keep the lead actor indoors away from the action: by the end of The International, Watts is effectively told to go home to her family and spare her delicate sensibilities the ugly facts of what it takes to wrap up the case.
For the next of these Naomi Watts Watch posts, I’ll tackle something juicier. Which of the following would you like: Strange Planet, King Kong, Mulholland Drive, The Painted Veil?
In David Cronenberg’s most recent films, there is an eerie deliberation over dialogue. It might well be that this is just stilted direction, cutting by rote between speakers and holding the camera on a face for the duration of a line reading. But it creates an undeniable tension that the careful placement of shot next to shot, action followed by action will be interrupted by something terrible. It’s the montage equivalent of a game of Jenga – it’s intriguing to watch the build-up, but it can’t go on indefinitely. This is most obvious in the languid, quiet opening of A History of Violence, where the aftermath of a massacre is played out like a lazy Sunday afternoon. The same eggshell-treading editing characterises Eastern Promises, Cronenberg’s nasty leer inside the Russian mafia in London. Continue reading
You’ve probably forgotten Tank Girl, buried it beneath the subsequent deluge of increasingly tiresome and tired comic book adaptations that followed. It was an early attempt to incorporate a “cartoony” style (inserts of colourful artwork, hyperbolic dialogue, big gestures) into an adaptation – i.e. to adapt with minimum loss of medium specificity – but it illustrates some of the enduring problems Hollywood has in this area, acquiring a hot property and then ironing out the outrageousness (not to mention the Britishness) that made Jamie Hewlett and ALan Martin’s comic books special in the first place. I wish I could say that, now that some time has passed, Tank Girl deserves reappraisal, but I’m afraid it’s still a damp mess of half-measures, compromises, its tiresome ebullience made even more slovenly by the traces of studio interference at every level. The best I can say is that, because it’s shot by Gale Tattersall, who worked with Bill Douglas on the supreme Comrades, it looks great, perhaps better, more polished, than it needs to, or that it represents the look of a big budget blockbuster before the effects of CGI had really taken hold in Hollywood, meaning that it relies almost entirely on vehicular stunts, miniatures and pyrotechnics (the Mad Max echoes can’t be coincidental) that must already have given it a pleasingly old-fashioned feel.
Recently, my blog has been enjoying increased traffic thanks to a short, elderly post I made about Naomi Watts, who had been identified as the best value-for-money of all Hollywood actresses. It was just a brief mark of my appreciation, but garnered a lot of hits, probably in no small part due to the inclusion of large, glamourous publicity photographs. Now I feel that I should pay Naomi some proper attention, since I noticed that she enjoys very little critical analysis of her work, and because I’ve never really written about movie stars (or performers) very much around here, and it would be a good opportunity to try out something different, inspired at least in part by the recent Screen Studies conference in Glasgow, which focused on performance. So, here begins a series of occasional posts (and these may be very far apart) about performances by Naomi Watts, in no particular order, starting with Ellie Parker from 2005.
[This article, and the slideshow itself, contains spoilers about both versions of Funny Games.]
When Michael Haneke said he was going to remake Funny Games in English shot by shot, you knew he was going to keep his promise, but you might have been surprised at exactly how closely he stuck to his original storyboards. This week I watched them both together, i.e. one on the TV, one on the laptop, and some of the matches between shots in each are quite remarkable. On the one hand, this is a diverting little exercise that proves (as if such proof were necessary) the strict control that Haneke maintains over his mise-en-scene and editing, almost to the point of constricting his actors within rigid frameworks.
That element of control may be part of the point, racking up considerable tension by emphasising not the random terrors of violent assault, but its careful and manipulative deployment by a non-interventionist film-maker. Haneke’s portrayal of the escalation of a murderous home invasion is as calm and indefatigable as the young men who carry it out, and this is clearly demonstrated by his ability to stick to the script and produce the same effects in both films. When asked why he decided to repeat every single shot of his 1997 Funny Games for an American remake, Haneke replied:
Because I have nothing to add. I already did the first film for an American audience, for an audience consuming violence. And it only didn’t reach that audience because it was in German. And so when I got the offer of the remake I said sure. After all, the subject became only more up to date. I mean, the world is only more violent. I wanted to give myself a certain challenge, I wanted to make it a little bit more demanding for myself. And so, I decided to do it shot-by-shot again.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the didactic nature of the film, but I admire its commitment to unsettling its viewer. It’s still possible, if so inclined, to enjoy it as another extreme thrill ride (I’m often amazed by the ability of horror fans to shrug off even the most gruelling of movies or to compartmentalise them as compendia of bodily destruction in all its variations), though you can see Haneke trying to thwart such attempts at complacency. Funny Games doesn’t play fair – the divisive moment where one of the killers uses a remote control to rewind the film to make it replay in his favour breaks a contract with the spectator that their involvement in the fiction can have an influence on it. We like to believe that because we’re on the side of the innocents, the filmmaker will at least reward us with some relief, some catharsis or vengeance, but there is no comfort here: in this place of carefully applied violence, dogs and children die first. Why? Because they’re not supposed to, and thus is highlighted the artifice of the conventions that usually govern film violence.
This slideshow makes pairs of shots from the 1997 and 2007 versions. Feel free to scroll through and fastforward, because the full version might take a long time to view. Alternatively, you can see the whole set here:
In putting together a slide show of comparisons of shots from both versions of Funny Games, I was struck by how, in combination, the pair of films show how reliant the film is, in either version, on repeated shots of its own. The recurrence of a golf ball as an object of menace, close-ups of knives, eggs, golf clubs, and the remote control itself – the family use a remote to open and close the gates to their property, and one of the killers uses a remote to resurrect his friend. The gates are shown closing all the way behind the family (the gates in the 2007 version move much more slowly, but the shot carries on nevertheless), completing the symbolic image of the security system that is both a protection and a threat: the family effectively incarcerate themselves as they seek isolation and separation from other people inside their holiday retreat. All of those implements of their leisure and domesticity (sports equipment, kitchen knives, the boat, television) are used against them. Even the codes of polite society are turned into an aggravating weapon – the attackers initially pass off their assault as a failure of manners on the part of a family who refuse to share their space or pay them proper respect.
There are differences between the two versions. Anne’s dress and make-up in 1997 mark her out as a little more tight and prim than Naomi Watts’ warmer, smilier version, and the colour palette in 2007 is darker, more muted. But when Haneke even goes to the trouble of ensuring that the same subjects are playing on the bloodstained TV (and one of the thugs is seen channel-hopping through footage of hurricane destruction to alight on racing cars in both versions, too), you know that he’s serious about each and every component of his work, and that you’ve already lost this particular game: you have no say in how things are going to turn out. Unless, of course, you switch it off.
[See more of my posts about Naomi Watts here.]
Forbes magazine, who we are expected to presume know about these things (they can’t be worse at doing sums than me) have published a list of the top ten “actresses in Hollywood who offer studios the best return on investment”. You may or may not be surprised to see that the list stacks up as follows, beginning with the best value actress in town: Naomi Watts, Jennifer Connelly, Rachel McAdams, Natalie Portman, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Hilary Swank. No sign of Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz? Of course not – their asking prices are way too high. Now, I’ve never seen a film with Rachel McAdams in it, and I’m indifferent to many of the others, but I’m glad to see Naomi Watts, who has, without playing the tabloid publicity system, quietly gone about her business of providing remarkably nuanced, emotionally delicate performances in a wide range of films. She made the preposterous Ring remakes seem a bit frightening after all, and she singlehandedly stopped Peter Jackson’s King Kong from sliding into nostalgic boysy pastiche by anchoring a believable character at its core and refusing to sexualise a role that his traditionally been invested with crude innuendo.
Read more about the Forbes list here. The list seems a little arbitrary, with some entrants boosted by a single film (who knew that He’s Not that Into You had made enough impact to push Jennifer Connelly to second place?), or still hanging on despite few recent successes (when did Halle Berry last have a hit?), but it’s nice to see Naomi’s hard graft and low low prices getting recognition. There’s a bit of a fix going on, though. To qualify, the films considered have to have been seen on more than 500 screens, excluding performers who might be doing valuable work in much smaller films. Tilda Swinton and Samantha Morton must be offering good returns on their modest fees, I bet. Can anyone think of others who might make a list expanded to produce films without the widest releases?
The male stars’ list, published in August, is just as surprising, but I didn’t feel so warmly towards Shia LeBeouf today. Instead, I nobly took the rare opportunity to post some pictures of one of my favourite actresses. Hope you don’t mind.