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.