Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Some observations on Laura Linney

by Professor Wagstaff

I’ve been a fan of Linney’s for several years, going back to when I first saw her I first over a decade ago in the original ‘Tales of the City’ TV series. For a then 15 year-old kid who’d only experienced suburban Melbourne, this series really stood for me as being massively liberating and appealing for the society it portrayed. I recall feeling great empathy for Linney’s character who was an outsider who became part of this exciting new lifestyle. Undoubtedly Linney’s appealing and charming performance as Mary Ann Singleton was a great help in this regard and ever since I’ve followed her career and performances closely.

Then in films like ‘The Truman Show’, ‘Primal Fear’ and ‘You Can Count on Me’ she demonstrated that she was not only a quality and substantial acting talent, one almost had the faith that if she was in the film, then the film was almost automatically going to be worth a look.

But in recent films I’ve seen her in, my enjoyment and appreciation of her performances has been waning, especially in the Australian film ‘Jindabyne’ I saw her in a few weeks back. The film got a fair bit of critical praise here but in Australia while I appreciated some aspects of it, overall it was much ado about nothing and mildly tedious. And one of the most tedious aspects of the film was Laura Linney’s performance. Certainly her character – an emotionally disturbed mother in a rocky marriage – was a complex one to play. But I felt that Linney turned her into an monotonous, alienating character that prevented the audience from garnering any genuine insight or empathy for this character’s plight.

By itself, this performance wouldn’t really be worth getting in concerned about Linney’s career trajectory but in light of other recent performances I’ve seen of her, something more significant begins to emerge. But I began to notice this especially in ‘The Squid and the Whale’ – it was a film I liked overall and it had several good performances but Linney, while adequate, wasn’t one of the standout ones. And I think after seeing ‘Jindabyne’ its becoming clearer. I think she’s treading water in her career.

This may seem like an unfair call compared to other hack actors out there who will never amount to much but I think it’s notable because she is so talented that therefore she deserves to be judged more harshly. Through her capabilities, she’s reached a certain level of skill and excellence but seems to have plateaued at this level and gotten to the stage where she’s playing the same type of characters with same acting reflexes over and over again. In short, she’s playing it safe.

The last three films I’ve seen her in (Kinsey/Squid/Jindabyne) have her playing similar characters – too similar. I suspect she’s infused too much of herself and her own persona into her recent characterizations so that they lacked the standout features one expects from her performances

Linney’s situation got me thinking of the career of Jack Lemmon. Already established as a comic persona in the 1960s, he could’ve rested on his laurels and gone for the safety of playing easy comedies with Walter Matthau much earlier then he did in the 1990s. Instead, during the latter stages of his career he reached out and took risks with challenging dramatic roles. I recently rewatched ‘The China Syndrome’ not that long ago. It’s still a good film although it does seem a bit old-hat and melodramatic but the real standout feature is Lemmon’s performance. He is totally and utterly convincing in his role as the person who turns from the ever-reliable nuclear plant worker to a crazed hostage-taker. Even better is his performance in Costa-Gravas’ ‘Missing’ a few years later. His scene where he’s desperately pleading to the American embassy officials about the fate of his son is a brilliant piece of acting, the highlight of a fine film.

I’m not trying to argue that Lemmon is a better actor then Linney (or vice-versa). My point is that Lemmon had reached a certain level where he could’ve coasted along for the rest of his career but he chose at various stages to go beyond. Linney is now in a similar situation where she’s reached a certain level where she can probably get by for several decades to come but I think it would be to her detriment.

I hope over the next future that we get the unexpected from Laura Linney as she adds new features to her acting skills. She’s certainly capable of it.


Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I had no problem with her in Squid, even though she was overshadowed by Jeff Daniels. I see what you mean, though. Her next film appears to be as the "girlfiend" in the Robin Williams comedy, Man of the Year. She is also fresh off a lousy horror film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I did think she was quite good in a film called P.S.

But I try to avoid condemning actors for the choice of roles. It's their livelihood, after all. I don't begrudge them the quick pay-day. Linney also has done a lot of TV work in the past few years, guest-starring on Frasier, among other things, but she still does plenty of interesting low budget work. I think you are a little harsh in your assessment.

10/04/2006 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I liked her a lot in Primal Fear and Absolute Power, but I don't think she's really developed as an actress since then. She's a good actress, but with pretty limited range, and I think her career has followed the expected trajectory for someone like that.

10/04/2006 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

It is really really really hard for actresses to continue to get good roles as they age. The film industry seems determined to herd them into the supporting girlfriend and wife roles as soon as possible. It's really sad. Even though it wasn't a particularly good movie, I recall being excited for Meryl Streep when she was in The River Wild--wow, she's getting the lead in an action movie and she's over 40! That would be no big deal to a male actor of her caliber.

10/04/2006 03:44:00 PM  

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