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Notes on Performance: 2/15

This is the first post in a series. It’s a sort of viewing log, reporting back on what I’ve watched recently (film, TV, theatre), with a focus on the work of individual performers.

Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar (2021), Jamie Dornan

Barb and Star, released February 12th on demand, made me laugh more than any movie I’ve seen in recent memory. Writers and stars Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig (playing Barb and Star, respectively) and director Josh Greenbaum anchor Barb and Star’s resort vacation in a delightfully wacky tone, bringing to mind Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. The trick up their sleeve, though, is Jamie Dornan, playing Edgar, the lovelorn assistant to the villain (also played by Wiig) who wants to destroy Vista del Mar. Dornan pines like nobody’s business — when he sings about seeing scores of couples in “official relationships” during a lavish group number, one expects him to melt into a puddle. He soon becomes an FWB to both Barb and Star, a plotline which gives Dornan the opportunity to both goof around and play up his movie-star sex appeal. (The perfect intersection of both: dancing to a club remix of “My Heart Will Go On.”)

Dornan’s solo number, “Edgar’s Prayer,” is one of the highlights of Barb and Star. Falling in love with Star while still holding out hope that evil Sharon Gordon Fisherman will reciprocate his affection, he breaks into a brooding electro-pop number. He literally enacts every lyric through dance — when he sings that he’s “twirling like a baby ballerina”, he does exactly that, as when he sings that he’s a “going up a palm tree like a cat up a palm tree who’s decided to go up a palm tree.” The chorus sees him begging seagulls (on the beach, on a tire, and in a group, respectively) to “hear [his] prayer.” Dornan commits to this absurd pop star moment with gusto, ripping into the silly-anguished lyrics and literally ripping his shirt. Throughout Barb and Star, Dornan excels in embracing the tone of the madcap movie he’s in, and nowhere moreso than “Edgar’s Prayer.” I could watch him climb a palm tree (like a cat) a thousand times.

Beginners (2010), Christopher Plummer

Hal Fields doesn’t want to be just theoretically gay; he wants to do something about it.

Mike Mills’s film Beginners tells the story of a young man who stumbles into love after the death of his father, who came out as gay in the final years of his life. Plummer plays Hal, the father, and won an Oscar for his performance. I watched Beginners after hearing of Plummer’s passing, and his warm, thoughtful performance has stuck with me. Hal’s scenes are all flashbacks, occurring against the present-tense narrative of his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) falling for an actress named Anna Wallace (Mélanie Laurent). Oliver’s processing of his grief is a central crux of the narrative, and the flashbacks between him and Hal tenderly sketch the contours of their relationship and what Hal meant to Oliver.

We first see Hal coming out to Oliver, the camera focused on Plummer’s face. He speaks softly, intimately, so that when he says he “wants to do something about it,” it feels like a private heart-to-heart with a loved one. McGregor, in voiceover, then explains that Hal quickly found a younger boyfriend, and we see the couple together at L.A. Pride, again looking at the camera. Plummer grins and wears a rainbow bandana tied around his neck, and when his boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) lightly explains that he’s attracted to older men because his father never accepted him, Plummer affectionately laughs, his face lighting up with care, his arm around Andy’s shoulder. These two early moments are indicative of Plummer’s whole performance. He plays Hal as a man quietly, firmly confident in his choice to live openly, who opens a long-closed door and discovers that the world is full of color.

Plummer’s performance that renders Hal’s progressive illness often difficult to watch, as we see a man who’s only recently learned to look at the world with love slowly slip away. But Plummer always keeps a little sparkle behind the eyes, and he never allows Hal to be bogged down in frustration or self-pity. He laughs, dances, drinks with friends even when his nurse forbids it. As Hal, Christopher Plummer shows a life lived with joy.

Holiday (1938), Lew Ayres

Holiday, the George Cukor-directed comedy, is one of four Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant romances (the others: The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, and Sylvia Scarlett). Johnny Case (Grant) is about to marry into a wealthy family, but realizes that his bride-to-be Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) shares her father’s pursuit of profit more than Case’s own freewheeling spirit, and ultimately falls in love with her black sheep sister, Linda (Hepburn). Floating on the periphery of the film is Ned (Ayres), Julia and Linda’s brother, a sardonic alcoholic whose dreams of being a musician were muffled by his father’s demand that he work for his company. While Julia and Linda take firm stances on who they are, straight-laced American capitalist and dreamily impractical free spirit, passive Ned sublimates any sense of self to his father’s business imperatives and a steady stream of liquor.

Lew Ayres, looking both boyish and jaded, plays Ned with a weary looseness and a perpetual smirk. He enjoys his drunkenness, while knowing its futility; when Linda asks how long the high can last, he alludes to his belief that he’ll eventually die from it. Ayres, playing Ned’s drunkenness as if it turns his body to rubber, tosses off this revelation with bemusement, taking a sip as he says that “other things are worse.” Linda and Ned become confidantes of a sort in the latter half of the film, and she decides to run off with Johnny soon after hearing Ned’s encouragement. When Linda invites him to come along with her to join Johnny on a sailing trip, Ned can’t look her in the eye. Ayres looks down and away, drink in hand, softly muttering. “Can’t. I’ll be here.” Ayres distills all of Ned’s vulnerability, his powerlessness, his shame in this brief moment, as if he’s finally realized the extent of his inability to make a choice for himself. When Linda exits, he summons a sly, sad smile to toast to her bravery.