Getting Reel: Best Actress, Gillian Anderson in Bleak House
Posted at 9:30 AM (PST) on Monday, February 6, 2006

Getting Reel

Best Actress: Gillian Anderson in Bleak House
The best performance of the year wasn't nominated. In fact, it wasn't even in the theater...

By Russell Brown
Feb 6, 2006
The Simon

Did anyone catch 60 Minutes a few weeks ago? The one where Felicity Huffman showed us all the depth and brilliance of her technique, how she stretched her acting chops to walk like a man trying to walk like a woman? Leslie Stahl was so impressed, her jaw almost hit the ground. “That’s Bree!” she shrieked with schoolgirl-ish delight. “Yes it is,” replied the grinning thespian Huffman, quite happy to have satisfied another customer.

Like Leslie, everyone’s crazy about Felicity in Transamerica. (Except my friend who’s convinced that she actually is a transsexual, but that’s a different story.) And so, again, we go through the motions of celebrating yet another performance that is mostly style and flash. As Kate Winslet joked in an episode of Extras, playing a character “with an accent or a retard” will always win you an award. (Huffman’s not playing either, but the sentiment applies.) The reason? Most people don’t like to think too hard about what makes a performance satisfying. If there’s a quick and easy feature -- a glaringly obvious behavioral effect -- then you don’t have to tax the brain too hard trying to decipher what makes it “good.” Another friend once encouraged me to define precisely the qualities that I enjoy -- if I listen to a singer and think she has a "great" voice, what are the attributes that make it so? If food is tasty, how do you describe what that flavor is that brings pleasure? This specificity is difficult, and when it comes to awards, the voters likely check their ballots between the front door and the mailbox. So we get the most quickly identified, quickly recognizable winning “performance”: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote impersonation, Heath Ledger’s grunt, Huffman’s trick stride. But really, is this what acting is all about? The tightrope walker at the circus? The stunt?

Interestingly enough, just one Sunday after the Felicity/Leslie lovefest, PBS premiered what I think features the real best performance of the year, one that is mysterious and untouchable, and has that difficult-to-define aspect that makes it remarkable. In Bleak House, the six-part miniseries imported from the BBC, Gillian Anderson plays Lady Dedlock, a woman whose life has passed her by, and as a result, has become bitter and controlling, yet vulnerable, yet strong, yet hoping, longing, sad and cruel and probably a dozen or so other qualities. In every scene, Anderson plays multiples of these emotions simultaneously, switching from one to the other in a heartbeat, or showing a quality in her eyes that contradicts the words coming from her mouth. It’s a fascinating experience and, I think, blows all those other Oscar contenders out of the water.

Take, for instance, the first time we meet Lady Dedlock. Looking out the window of her mansion over the property she owns, she tells us how utterly bored she is with her life. Filled with contempt and venom, you sense she is ready to burst with rage at the husband she’s married (presumably for money) but keeps it in check. It’s not boredom so much as hatred -- for herself, for fate, for her money -- and yet, she’s wary of the social consequences that might come should she show any crack in the facade. All this emotion stirs underneath, boiling but never overflowing, and in just a few words, we learn so much about this character in just her first scene.

But as the series continues, the fissures begin to show, and Dedlock must deal with the past she both rejects and longs for, a love she wishes never happened, but would trade everything to have back again. A key scene comes when she must visit the apartment of the man she loved many years ago in a desperate attempt to find the letters that might ruin her. In these frantic moments, the passion she still feels for him threatens to erupt -- she’s clearly devastated that this man died in such a wretched place. Both filled with pain yet utterly determined, she is able to grieve and pursue her goal simultaneously, as if her heart and brain operate independently of each other in the same shell. In her face we see both the tautness of control and the weariness of suffering, as if the skin itself droops with sadness and holds itself up with purpose as she performs her task; her shoulders want to slump but the tightness of the dress holds them up; she moves with the grace of a lady but her legs might buckle at any moment. All of this is conveyed in body language and without words, as Anderson plays out the inner turmoil of desires that conflict: passion versus social obligation, unwillingness to lose control versus a desire to release herself to abandon and the frightening prospect of what those emotions might be like.

But let us not simply paint Lady Dedlock as a repressed housewife who doesn’t want to submit to her urges. Butting against Mr. Tulkinghorn, the lawyer who seeks to uncover and reveal her secrets, she is a most formidable enemy. In few recent performances has an actress been able to play such a cold, calculating creature without going overboard into the land of camp. When Dedlock dismisses her longtime maid, she does so with such brutal indifference, such ice-pick precision, the frost seems to leak through the television and chill the room where you’re watching. When she questions her servants for information about Mrs. Summerson, she chooses her words like a cat stalks its prey: slowly, delicately, and with intense concentration. In diverting her husband’s attention or formulating a response to the prying lawyer, she’s the most effective politician -- not attracting any attention but getting exactly what she wants. (She reminds me of Sian Phillips playing Livia in I, Claudius -- of the great performances in television history.) Yet every time she bares her claws, you still sense the fear and desperation underneath. Anderson never does one thing at a time, and so, even in her worst moments, she evokes pathos -- cruelty or manipulation isn’t that simple in her world, for it’s all designed as a cover to the river of emotions flowing underneath.

And guess what? Bleak House has just begun! There are many weeks yet to come, so you can still catch up and be part of the experience. And if Anderson isn’t enough, the rest of the show is incredibly well-done -- the deliberate writing, the exciting direction, the timely themes -- there’s so much to recommend this series. And so, ironically enough, I believe it will be around mid-run when Oscar Sunday rolls around. And at approximately 9:30 p.m., if Felicity Huffman accepts the trophy, a far greater performance will be taking place, just a few stations away.

Getting Reel is a biweekly commentary about movies and the world.