Monday, March 8, 2010
Who's Afraid of Veronica Lake?
In the last 20 years of acting Oscar wins, perhaps none have been more savagely misunderstood than Kim Basinger's 1997 Best Supporting Actress win for LA Confidential. While Basinger's performance is not hated, per se, those who watch the movie can never seem to pinpoint why she won it, and the general consensus today is that Julianne Moore should've won for Boogie Nights. I'm not out to take down Julianne Moore (on the contrary, she is one of the greatest working actresses and one of my personal favorites, the same of which cannot be said for Basinger), but her performance is one full of numerous BIG emotional scenes--some crying scenes, many containing nudity, and one particularly memorable scene of intentional bad acting. In other words, it's certainly a movie where one can look back at any of Moore's emotional scenes and remember when the audience fell in love with her, and her character's troubles as she fights for custody of her son even while she remains a pornography actress is also one of contradictions which allow the audience to first be wary of her, then feel emotional towards her plight, something many people mistake for genuine complexity--for what other reason did Crash win Best Picture?
And then there is Basinger's interpretation of Lynn Bracken. From the first moment we see her on that fateful, character-defining Christmas Eve, she's elegantly dressed in a black cape covering her blonde waves. She's beautiful, enchanting, mysterious and she's all too aware of her effect on men, perhaps reluctantly so. When she accurately states the profession of hot-blooded police officer Bud White (Russell Crowe in a phenomenal performance of masculine prowess), he looks a bit shocked and exposed--he has a soft spot for victimized women, and he's not used to a woman who's this smart, nor this independent. When he asks, "That obvious, huh?", she tilts her head with a look of near pity, "It's practically stamped on your forehead."
We don't even know her name, yet this scene so perfectly establishes Lynn Bracken's seen-it-all before attitude, to the point where it's nearly impossible to surprise her. She knows her place as a woman, and what's more, as a prostitute, she's all too aware of her trapped place in the lonely place that is Los Angeles, and Basinger's sympathetic face is the perfect palette to paint the stoic yet hopeful plight of a woman who's seen so many men and still felt loneliness for far too long. Like Lynn, Basinger knows that she's beautiful, but she's never entirely sure if there's much importance to it.
Lynn is made to look like Veronica Lake, but Basinger's performance is, if anything, an incredible reinterpretation of Gloria Grahame, the great noir actress of the 1950s. Grahame's sexuality oozed with every line she purred (her off-screen conquests are also the stuff of Hollywood legend), yet it's her performance in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place which revealed a vulnerability under the cool-as-a-cucumber facade she only thought she could hide. In a Lonely Place is a unique film which is damn near impossible to forget once seen, and one of its many admirers is LA Confidential's director Curtis Hanson, who actually hosted a making-of documentary on the film's DVD release. In an article for the New York Times*, Hanson admitted to showing it to his cast and crew among a myriad of other 50's-set Hollywood films to demonstrate the mood he was attempting to evoke. He reportedly chose Ray's film because of the wounded masculinity he felt was perfect for Russell Crowe's conflicted bad-cop with a moral code, yet it's the central romance of Ray's film which most obviously makes its way into Hanson's incredible neo-noir (I wouldn't raise an eyebrow if told Basinger had jotted down a few notes from the film, either). Both films concern a violent yet romantic post-war man and a cool, failed actress who fall in love with each other, even though they probably shouldn't. The women of both films are alluded to having a history with men which have lead only to dead ends, and the best evidence is the pain in their eyes--Lynn and Laurel have seen men come home from war (one kind or another), battle-scared and unsure of where their loyalties really lie, and likewise neither women are sure how to allow themselves to feel loved because they don't know how to trust it anymore. In many ways, both characters are the archetypes for the silent, subtle pain of women who had no idea how to understand a new generation of masculinity, whose inability to adapt to a changing world was a defining theme of American melodramas in the 1950s.
Both films contain a scene where the not-yet lovers are able to enter the others' place of residence (which is never quite home to either character), where a exquisitely choreographed song and dance battle of the wits emerge, and before they realize it, they've already begun to fall in love.
L.A. Confidential: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nf9F8EFoVwg (dissembled upon request)
In a Lonely Place:
There's an incredible scene in L.A. Confidential which serves as a huge turning point in Lynn's exposure of herself, perhaps for the first time in years. It's dawn. Bud White watches from his car as she kisses her last customer, a long-time customer, goodbye. Her curls have fallen flat, her make-up is fading but Bud would still think she looked better than the real Veronica Lake. She tidies up her grand, big bed open to both her living room, and all the customers who can pay. He knocks on her door, and she opens it, having been waiting hopefully for him. She wordlessly guides him to a small room hidden from that grand but hallow boudoir. Bud and Lynn are too tired to speak, but the camera does all the talking, acting as Bud's eyes and our guide to Lynn's secrets: It's a small room with a small bed frame and embroidered pillows pointing to Bisbee, Arizona, made for a small girl with big dreams. The cacti and books on the bedside table, the floral pictures on the walls, all give the room a personality not seen for everyone. This is her real bedroom, where the real Lynn Bracken sleeps, not "some Veronica Lake look-alike who fucks for money." The look on her face reveals that she's never shown this part of the house to any man before. Bud asks, as any man this privileged would, "Why me?" Tired and vulnerable, she answers truthfully, "I don't know," then walks wordlessly to the bed, shutting away eye contact. He comes over, kisses her forehead, which she replies with her hands pulling his face closer to her own, and they make love for the first time. Neither may not know why she chooses to show this to him, but both know she wanted to, that she needed to. The same could be said about love, I suppose.
This pinnacle scene is the meatiest scene of unraveling the beautiful enigma that is Lynn Bracken, and maybe because much of the scene relies on the camera to tell her story instead of Basinger's face or dialogue, it fooled the audience into thinking Basinger didn't do much other than look beautiful on-screen. For reasons stated previously, it's not a performance to rely on histrionics or make-up jobs (Basinger never looked more beautiful on camera, and this is easily one of the most "beautiful" Oscar wins in history, a rarity when a laughable and nearly sexist emphasis is placed on taking women down a notch in the beauty department when it comes to making faces), for to do so would be a betrayal to the women of that era and the excellent film making by Curtis Hanson, not to mention Lynn Bracken.
After the violence of the film escalates in its climax, there is still Lynn Bracken, the film's sturdiest survivor. Chopping off her beautiful locks of hair as a sign of independence, she takes one last look at the corrupt, lonely world she inhabits before leaving it forever with her lover in tow. She looks self-deprecatingly at cop Ed Exley and says with a hint of irony, "Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona."
Yeah, but wouldn't it be nice to be Bud White for one day?
*New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/15/movies/a-dark-lesson-in-trust.html