Whether in leading roles or cameos, it is always a pleasure to see Patricia Clarkson on screen. This remarkable character actress adds class and feistiness to every film she makes. Between 1998 and 2001, Clarkson appeared in a series of several great American independent films: High Art, Playing By Heart, Joe Gould’s Secret, Wendigo, and The Safety of Objects. Like her raspy voice, she was at once gritty and sweet, projecting both a fierce intelligence and a sense of vulnerability, often at the same time. She did what character actresses like Thelma Ritter and Eve Arden exceled at: She creates a desire to know more about the characters she plays. She leaves audiences wanting more.
Clarkson generated considerable critical buzz with her sly turn as a wasted German film actress in High Art, but it was her supporting role in Todd Haynes’ 2002 drama Far From Heaven that really put her on most audiences’ radar. Following that film’s success, Clarkson delivered a pair of terrific performances in The Station Agent and Pieces of April (both 2003), the latter netting her an Oscar nomination. The Station Agent is a modest gem; a charming little character study about Finn (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who slowly befriends the motor-mouth Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and sad divorcee Olivia (Clarkson). Olivia has a “meet-cute” with Finn when she accidentally runs him off the road—twice. Visiting the train depot he inherited and now calls home, Olivia offers Finn a bottle of whiskey and more apologies. In this scene, Clarkson reveals the reason behind Olivia’s palpable despair: She lost her son. Finn (and viewers) take in this information, but Clarkson’s body language, sitting on Finn’s couch, with her head back and her eyes closed, coupled with her request, “Would you mind not looking at me now?,” indicates that she does not want to discuss her situation further. Her burden, along with the anxiety and sorrow, still percolates underneath her composed demeanour.
In Clarkson’s most impressive moments in The Station Agent, that demeanour cracks. Sitting with Finn, watching Joe play soccer with a young man and a few kids, Olivia’s relaxed and happy smile takes just a few indelible seconds to crumble. Then, after Olivia excuses herself, she is seen at home, sitting in her underwear, looking off into the distance. A mirror reflects her image—forlorn, like a woman in an Edward Hopper painting—and Clarkson’s silence speaks volumes. As Olivia becomes more troubled over the course of The Station Agent, Clarkson allows her fragility and pain to come closer and closer to the surface. Yet she imbues Olivia with dignity and strength that masks her deeper pain. The actress shrewdly never over-emotes.
Clarkson’s performance in Pieces of April proves not only why she excels at playing tough cookies, but also just how damn funny she is. As Joy, the dying matriarch of a dysfunctional family, she has a cavalier attitude. Her delivery drips with delicious sarcasm. She generates a nice laugh as she smokes a joint her son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) gives her. Picking a bit of weed off her tongue, she scolds, “Honey, roll it tighter next time.” Joy’s sense of humour is as cockeyed as her smile and her wig. En route with her family to spend what may be her last Thanksgiving with her estranged and troublesome daughter April (Katie Holmes), Joy forces her husband Jim (Oliver Platt) to stop the car. Pausing for dramatic effect, she starts to raise a difficult subject, only to cackle wildly when she shifts gears and delivers a big joke.
Clarkson is magnetic in Pieces of April. Her most hilarious moment maybe a stoned but from-the-heart monologue that begins, “The thing about Smack Daddy is…” It’s a nice counterpoint to a more serious meltdown Joy has later in the film while trying to recall a nice memory of April. Joy can be cruel, like when she asks her daughter Beth (Alison Pill) not to sing. But in a moment, Clarkson effectively expresses her character’s regret; the actress never loses sight of her character’s humanity. Viewers want her to reconnect with April before the film is over because Joy’s energy, humour, and strength are reflected in April.
Fast forward to the present and Clarkson’s versatility is on display in two very different films now out in theatres: the Hollywood franchise movie, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, and Sally Potter’s latest comedy-drama, The Party. In The Party, Clarkson’s character, April, tosses off droll witticisms and piquant zingers with noticeable aplomb. She’s the surefire comic relief as her best friend Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) hosts a party to commemorate becoming Health Minister. But it’s not long until a series of emotional bombshells detonate, threatening to derail the would-be-celebration. Clarkson delivers withering put-downs with the dryness of a good martini. She is a cynic—a former idealist turned realist—who is full of attitude and believes the worst about people. April often sizes things up with an eye roll so loud you can hear it, and dismisses her possibly soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) with a shrug.
It’s a canny performance. Clarkson carries herself with assurance, and becomes The Party’s moral center, telling truths and handling the dramatics that arises with a no-nonsense sensibility. Moreover, the actress is radiant in her black dress (which shines in Potter’s black-and-white cinematography). Watching Clarkson swagger through The Party, one wishes she could get a chance at playing a noir femme fatale. Such a role would perfectly suit an actress as mercurial and as magical as Patricia Clarkson.
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