Wednesday, January 12, 2005

PUTTING ON MY (SANDRA) OH FACE


Sideways has been garnering almost unprecedented attention among critics groups as the march toward the Oscar nominations grinds on, and just this past week the movie took home several more awards for its actors, writers and director from the Broadcast Film Critics Association. BFCA member David Poland may have been overstating his case when he proclaimed that the career of director Alexander Payne could stop now and he’d still, with this movie and Election, be responsible for two of the best comedies of all time. But Payne’s work is extraordinary, no less so for being far less self-conscious than his previous films (including Election, which I, along with Poland, love). Then there’s Paul Giamatti, glimpsed onstage basking in some more well-deserved glory, as well as Virginia Madsen, for whom Sideways represents a career revitalization out of the dregs of straight-to-video purgatory, and Thomas Haden Church, for whom this may be his first real taste of respect from peers and observers, as well as the best material with which he’s ever been associated.

But somewhat lost in the Sideways juggernaut is the fact that its acting ensemble is a four-person gathering, not just the celebrated three. Therefore, I feel compelled to throw a shout out to the witty and sexy Sandra Oh, who has the misfortune (at least as far as folks who hand out awards are concerned) to be cast in the film’s least showy role—she’s Stephanie, the restless wine pourer who falls for Church’s rutting actor Jack and gets snared (or allows herself to be snared) in his seemingly harmless deceptions. Oh can’t lay claim, as her cast mates can, to any Oscar clip-ready scenes—her “big” moment comes when she busts someone’s nose open with a motorcycle helmet in a fit of unleashed anger. Instead, she’s almost solely responsible for the degree of impish sensuality to which the film can lay claim, and I suspect there are a huge percentage of the movie’s fans that are more than just a little appreciative of that fact.

Jack’s an insufferable poon hound, as would be Giamatti’s Miles, if he could only roust himself out of his depressively romanticized remembrances of his past marriage. And Madsen’s Maya is the attractive ideal which Miles, and to an uncomfortable degree the movie, hesitates to sully with base suggestions of carnality. But if Oh’s part is the most underwritten, she more than compensates with an insouciance that hits the viewer like the first buzz from a good pinot noir, and a natural, untamable sexiness that informs her character from the inside out. She does wonders with a casual glance, and she has that rare quality in an actor, the ability to convey the sense that she’s actually listening to what’s going on in a scene, reaching out telepathically, feeling the contours of the situation and the actors (and, of course, their characters), and spinning a startling response out of often very thin air. It amounts, in large part, to generosity, to giving her colleagues their due, and causing them to respond in kind, and it’s why the scene where she first meets Jack and Miles is charged with so much inexplicable electricity.

The buzz is set off when Stephanie launches into what is probably the company line pimping her winery’s cabernet franc, only to have Miles reveal, with a casual bluntness, that he’s never come to expect greatness from that particular varietal, nor has he found it with this one. There’s barely a flutter of her facial muscles as Jack jumps in to try to ease any potential tension with some small talk, which Stephanie herself defuses with an offhand admission that she agrees with Miles about the cab franc. The crackling in the air intensifies when Stephanie, increasingly disarmed by Miles’ honesty and Jack’s pheromones, and perhaps overstepping her professional bounds, refills their glasses to the rim. Jack takes this as a very good sign and chuckles, “Stephanie, you are a bad, bad girl,” to which she replies, with timing worthy of Katherine Hepburn and body language by way of Bette Davis as she begins to turn away, “I know—I need to be spanked.” Without another word she completes the turn and saunters away, and the camera stays with her as she approaches some other customers with the same kind of prepared friendliness we’ve just seen get peeled away for Jack and Miles. I’d like to think that the camera follows her walk down the bar because it just can’t turn away, and we in the audience, similarly seduced, wouldn’t want it to either, not for all of the top-drawer cab franc in the room.

Oh, a terrific comedienne who first crossed my radar in Audrey Wells’ curious romantic comedy-drama Guinivere, may be familiar to viewers of HBO’s Arli$$ who stuck with that series and found it far less insufferable than I did. But I’m always happy to see her name in the opening credits, even though she has, to this point, largely been relegated to minor roles that usually zero in on her off-kilter comedic timing. (In some ways her career is analogous to that of Allison Janney’s, before The West Wing homogenized that actress’s similarly quirky instincts and subsumed them under the revival tent of Aaron Sorkin’s self-righteous political agenda). I hold out hope that her unprepossessing turn in Sideways might open doors for her to step out of sidekick roles, like that of the pregnant lesbian best friend to Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun, and into parts that can really showcase her talent. This is, after all, an actress who could effortlessly outshine the likes of Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Naomi Watts in the roles those highly paid stars are routinely offered.

But that’s why all the attention paid to Giamatti, Madsen and Church, to Oh’s exclusion, makes me nervous—it’s almost as if she’s viewed as the replaceable element by all the attention lavished upon these other (very worthy) actors, when, in fact, Sideways would be only three-fourths the movie it is, despite the thinness of her role as written, without her contributions. Sideways’ director, Alexander Payne, who is Oh’s husband, is unlikely to have fretted over potential accusations of nepotism by casting her. She’s far too smart and energetic and generous an actress for charges like that to be believable—it’s hard to imagine any director not wanting her in their movies. Nevertheless, I’d love to see Payne use his current cachet to craft a vehicle for her, another deep-dish comedy, perhaps, that might give her the chance to send signals to the film industry, and to those who would still tend to marginalize Asians in anything other than period martial-arts extravaganzas, that here lies a major, unpredictable talent in waiting. In the right role, Oh could bridge the gap between classic screwball comedy and more modern “dramedies” like Sideways with enough saucy exuberance and sheer talent to make swooning viewers think Carole Lombard had come back in a vibrant new shell and whispered sweet nothings (or perhaps a little barbed innuendo) in their ear, just before pivoting on a heel and walking slowly away. There’d be no need for her to look back either, because she’d know we were still watching, waiting to see what comes next.

11 comments:

Sharon said...

Hey, it's Sharon here. I was having trouble setting up an account, so I gave up!

Anyhoo, I couldn't agree with you more about Sandra Oh. I'm not as big a fan of the film as most seem to be, but I truly feel that the cast is stellar. And as more and more accolades pour in, I've felt increasingly miffed on her behalf. She was just as integral to the movie's success as Paul Giamatti, Virgina Madsen and Thomas Haden Church. Oh, and in case you're not aware, she's one of the stars of an upcomming ABC series called GREY'S ANATOMY. I've seen it and she's really great in it.

But, hey, step away from the Aaron Sorkin smack talk! The day he departed WEST WING In my humble opinion, WEST WING is the best television drama EVER. The last two Sorkinless seasons have been so unbearable that I have removed the WEST WING Season Passes both of my TiVos. I can no longer bear to watch the mess that it has become. As for Alison Janney, the show has done wonders for her career and her reputation. Yes, she brings the quirky comedy and Sorkin gave her ample opportunity to showcase that particular talent, but now she's also seen as sexy and brilliant. Not bad for a 6ft-plus, 40-plus actress!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I'm glad for any benefit someone like Alison Janney takes away from a show like "The West Wing," and I'm not talking about Emmys and the like, because she's a terrific actress who deserves good material. But it seems to me like if she's doing other stuff outside of that show I'm just not aware of it. She seemed downright ubiquitous before it, and now the last thing of hers I can recall seeing her in (without resorting to IMDb)was "American Beauty," where I felt she was essentially wasted (her talent, not the character). I can't comment on the last two seasons of Sorkin-less "Wing" as I gave up on it long ago. And thanks for the heads-up on "Grey's Anatomy." Is it another "E.R."-type deal? I hope she gets to do plenty of good work in it, but I also hope her feature work doesn't dry up as a result. (Speaking of good medical drama, have you seen "House"? I got a free DVD of the first episode in some magazine a while back and have yet to watch it, but the premise sounds intriguingly cranky and I've heard mutterings of good things. If it really is good, that probably just mean that no one's watching it and it'll soon be cancelled, and then I can catch up with the whole aborted run on DVD...! Good to hear from you, SJ. Please keep reading! And tell a friend! (How much closer am I to a carnival barker than I was a month or so ago? RHETORICAL QUESTION, thank you.) Top Ten list coming up next (I think!)

Thom McGregor said...

I say who cares about West Wing and Sorkin? Simply put, Asians rock!!!!! (By the way, if you're reading this, Sharon, it's me, Patty.)

Anonymous said...

Sharon again. Don't know what I did to make my name appear in the last post, but I can't figure out how to do it again, so I'm anonymous!

The main character in Grey's Anatomy (can't remember he name so let's call her Betty) is a medical intern who is the daughter of a legendary female doctor. Sandra Oh plays another intern who is resentful/suspicious/pissy about Betty’s presence in the intern program, believing that Betty has had everything handed to her while Sandra has worked her ass off to get where she is. As I said, the pilot was great. Haven't heard how the subsequent episodes have progressed.

As for Alison J, you're right that TWW has sucked up all her time and obviously made it hard for her to do other work. The curse of the one-hour drama strikes again!

I, too, watched the pilot of House thanks to a DVD I got in a magazine (in my case, Entertainment Weekly). Liked it but haven’t had occasion to watch it since.

Dennis’ top ten list! Whoo-hoo! Can’t wait!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Sharon/Anonymous: Yeah, as much as I long for Sandra Oh to get more recognition/attention/bigger parts, I also long for Alison Janney to get the chance to be as funny (and strangely sexy) on screen again as she was in "Ten Things I Hate About Her," in which she played the beleagured principal of Julia Stiles' high school, who hinted rather hilariously at some odd sexual proclivities throughout the course of her (naturally) small role. Oh did a similar turn, though without the curdled innuendo, in "The Princess Diaries," so the parallels may be even more than I at first recalled. The danger with someone like Oh getting the bigger parts is that the larger the role, the more homogenized the Holywood system is likely to insist it/she becomes, so she runs the risk of becoming a higher-profile, less-interesting actress. But just as I couldn't imagine any director not wanting her in his/her movie, I have a hard time imagining that vibrant sensibility being so easily tamped down. I wish her well with "Grey's Anatomy."

Also: Did you encounter anything strange in accessing my blog this morning? Sometime yesterday afternoon I, and several others, noticed that each time we clicked on the address to go to the site, we were denied access and instead directed to a pop-up window that asked if we cared to download a file which had the blog address as its name. The IT guy here at the office was able to determine that the file is not a virus, but we remain unsure as to exactly what it is. My Blogger support staff have been notified, and I'm assuming that, if you posted today, you had no trouble logging on. I hope this is true, and maybe that means my problems are being fixed. Throughout the troubles I've been able to log on to post comments, but each time I try to view the blog I'm blocked out by that damned pop-up. I'll e-mail you and see if you had any trouble. For anyone else who happens to be reading this, I'd be interested to know if you had any trouble logging onto the site yesterday (Thursday 1/13) or today (Friday 1/14). Thanks!

stooge1970 said...

I had my first sexual encounter with an Asian. They do rock.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thank you, Mr. Stoogeking, for your bracing boiling-down of my article to its most salient point. I couldn't agree more. (I'm going to refrain from commenting on yoru sexual history, though...)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"Yoru" equals "your," wise-ass. There! I got to it before you did!

Yoru buddy, Dennis

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding like my father-in-law, what if the Sandra Oh character had been a man who screwed a woman the first day he met her, although the woman was clearly a player, and the man fell totally in love with the woman in the course of a few days, only to find out that his new love was actually about to get married at the end of the week? I wonder how satisfied we'd all feel when the wronged man showed up and beat the woman to a bloody pulp with his motorcycle helmet. I know well that men much more often beat (and kill) women than the other way around, and so of course things are not at all equal--nonetheless it bothered me that I was initially satisfied with her vengeance. Anyway, Sandra Oh did a smashing job, so to speak, in the role, and she has star quality if ever I've seen it. --Bruce

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bruce: I think an ambiguous response to Oh's character's outrage is appropriate, given that she's basically not used a lot of common sense up to that point in assessing just how much she's being played by this guy. She's horny, so is he, and given the brief glimpses we get into her parenting philosophy (pot smoking with strangers in the living room while the child is left to her own devices) it's not too much to imagine that, regardless of the quality of the rest of her character, her judgment may not be the best when sex is thrown into the mix. So yeah, we know that Church's Jack is a softie who's trying to talk himself out of a looming major commitment that he's completely unsure of, and he's a shithead to boot whose mainly out to, as he puts it, get his bone smooched, so that gets us on her side and lets those feelings of righteous fury play a lot better than they would if, as you say, the roles were reversed. But it's simpleminded and wrong to think of this situation as simply an innocent woman wronged and how she stands up for herself, and I appreciate your bringing up a slightly different angle on the scene that my Sandra Oh love may have let me gloss over. That slight shadow on the scene makes the movie richer, I think.

Anonymous said...

Ah! I had forgotten about her parenting skills...you are right, the movie is rich. One thing I'm grateful for is that here's a female Asian character who's a complex human being, not a noble stereotype or any kind of stereotype. Remembering how multidimensional the character is puts the beating-up scene in perspective for me a bit; they haven't tried to make her completely likable, after all. It does make me uncomfortable when I think how many people in the theatre expressed happiness when she beat the daylights out of him, and I can't say I wasn't one of them. Thanks for furthering this interesting conversation! Mr. Bay Area P.C. (AKA Bruce).