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.
Ellie Parker started out as a 16-minute short directed by Scott Coffey, with whom Watts had become friends when they were both acting in Tank Girl. Watts plays a young woman in Los Angeles who is struggling to make her name as an actress, and to retain some dignity in the process, but disappointment, rejection, bad luck and bad memories consistently throw up obstacles. At the time of the making of the short film, Watts was about to come to international prominence with her appearance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but when the feature was finished in 2005, she was about to be seen in The Ring 2 and Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. These differences in her status give distinct inflections to each version of the film – by the time of the feature, Ellie Parker seems less like the calling card of an eager performer than an act of heroic self-debasement in tribute to the lost and ignored.
You don’t usually get this close to a movie star. And I mean really close – Watts gives the camera close-ups of herself chewing her food, bathing, sitting on the toilet, smoking, puking up green ice cream. At her first audition she is given the confusingly meaningless direction to make her acting more “raw” because the film will be shot on digital video, as if the medium automatically confers certain qualities. Indeed, it does seem that that video, with its shaky framings and tremulous auto-focus, adds a sickly hue and woozy motion to those close-ups, and strips away the grain and sheen of film that usually serve to distance us from us from film stars by veiling them behind a layer of smooth quality.
In her car, into the rear-view mirror or into the phone, Ellie practices her line readings as she ricochets from one audition to the next, transforming herself en route to fit the expectations of the various panels she has to stand before. Ellie Parker makes most of its drama out of these audition sequences, not just out of the obvious tension of whether or not she’ll get the gig, but in the layering of performances (Watts playing Parker playing whatever role she has to play). Everything for her becomes performance, especially a meeting with her therapist which descends into a jumble of chit-chat, confession, self-critique, role-play, improv and sobbing, or an acting-class regression session of primal screaming. All of this is acting, improvising, dredging up and using or commodifying one’s emotional insides. The dividing lines between true self and performed self get continually blurred, as social etiquette requires her to rein in and cover up her animosities, traumas, rages and tantrums even as she as about to release the same energies at an audition to test whether she can approximate fictional versions of the same emotions. I’m struck by how many times we’ve seen Watts playing an actress at an audition, we could fruitfully compare Ellie Parker’s auditions to the ones Watts goes through in Mulholland Drive and in King Kong, and perhaps there’s also a connection with the voyeuristic framings of the humiliations to which she is subjected in Funny Games. I’ll come back to these comparisons in later posts, but for now it’s worth noting their frequency in Watt’s work. She will again play an actress (Marilyn Monroe) in Andrew Dominik’s forthcoming adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde. (Coincidentally, Michelle Williams, like Watts an ex of Heath Ledger, is also cast to play Monroe in a parallel film about her – be prepared for the press to fabricate a meaty rivalry out of that particular factoid…)
Such meta-critical dissection of acting (i.e. we are taken behind the scenes of what acting is by actors acting the roles of actors) is perhaps best summed up in a sequence when Ellie and her friend Sam (Rebecca Rigg) argue the merits of either Method acting drawing upon personal memories (Ellie), or a more mechanical, imaginative simulation of emotion (Sam), a debate which is settled by a contest to see who can cry the quickest (see clip above). Reducing acting to a race to achieve these goals of outwardly obvious emotional signifiers is part of the film’s critique of how brittle and crushed truthful representation is under these artistic circumstances. Acting, we are so often told, is most spectacular when it involves explosions of what is usually hidden, secret, private or personal, and there must be consequences when one’s inner life is one’s product.
When Ellie finally gets the callback for a second audition, and turns up dressed as a Southern belle, complete with unconvincing accent and swooning dramatic style borrowed from Scarlett O’Hara, the scene she finds there is a Lynchian mire of non sequiturs, cackling, suspicious foreigners and sexual threat. It’s a crippling vision of Old Hollywood’s garguantuan shadow cast over its malformed, degraded descendant.