This post is going to be slightly off-subject, so be warned. But, indirectly, it’s connected to the theme of writing’s power. In this case, about the power of the written word to incense...
This morning, while reading the New York Times arts section about the Oscars, I was delighted to see an article by Constance Rosenblum forecasting that Annette Bening’s performance in Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are Alright" might finally earn Bening an oscar. Having just recently seen movie, and been pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it, and being an avid admirer of Ms Bening, I read on.
The essay covered a brief history of Bening’s acting career—from his “first love”—the stage—to her most recent films. Then, it turned more directly to Ms. Bening’s performance in “The Kids.” Rosenblum interviewed Bening about her role, something that Bening declared she “just enjoyed the hell out of.” Although in her article Ms. Rosenblum represented “Nic,” the character Bening played, as a “sharp-edged micro-manager” Ms. Bening contended that Nic's not being idealized was what made the role interesting to play: “To me idealized characters are so boring to play, especially having grown up in the classical theater. That’s a great experience, but as a woman especially, you’ve played a lot of idealized characters. So when you’ve got someone who has weaknesses as well as strengths, that’s interesting.” In other words, Nic is portrayed realistically, a point apparently lost on Ms. Rosenblum, who falls back onto some tired idealism of her own.
“Slightly less realistic,” Ms. Rosenblum opines, “was the way Ms. Bening appeared on screen. Thanks to the ministrations of stylists and makeup artists, she looked far more haggard and surely less glamorous than the woman lunching this day on the Bowery... In “Kids” she doesn’t make 52 look so wonderful. In real life, she makes 52 look terrific.”
Who’s confused by realism here? When will we get past identifying “haggard” with “wrinkled” or “wearing little makeup” and “glamorous” with looking “terrific”? And would the characterization of Nic been better served if she had been portrayed as someone who spent hours primping in front of a mirror?
I, for one, appreciated the beauty of Annettte's/Nic's wrinkles. (Were they really all created with makeup and magic?? Apparently not, Ms. Rosenblum. See Sharon Waxman's interview with Cholodenko on The Huffington Post) Besides, Bening made Nic "look" terrific, and made fifty-two look wonderful, precisely because the “look” she created for her character was more than skin or outfit deep. Her beauty and truth shown forth in her willingness, as a 52-year old woman, to pick up the pieces of her life and start all over again. And she does this not by running screaming from her relationship or grabbing for the Botox, but by trying to begin again within the same context in a renewed way, not knowing if she'll succeed.
At the end of Rosenblum’s essay, Bening herself returns us to reality in all its messiness by explaining what she found so moving about reading the letters of Saul Bellow: “[H]e’s basically talking about the theme that I’ve always loved in his work...there’s a pulse of life, life is painful and complicated, but ultimately there’s a joy and an optimism and a kind of thirst for life that he’s always managed to maintain, despite all the reality.”
That pulse of life, its painfulness and complications and wrinkles, is what is intimately tie us to life’s joys and optimism. That is realism, something lost when you view the face of a fifty-two year old woman through a Hollywood glass, darkly.