Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wicked Witch

Frances McDormand plays the title character in Olive Kitteridge, an HBO miniseries that debuted earlier this month, and she is more than remarkable, so remarkable it's hard to explain.  Directed by Lisa Cholodenko and based on a novel by Elizabeth Strout, Olive is the story of a middle-class family in Maine who make ends meets stoically but also with a passive-aggressive sense of humor and a grim sense of irony.  McDormand plays the matriarch with an uncanny lived-in charisma that is never displayed, only smoldered, delivered through her eyes, the way her mouth is shaped into staccato sentences, the way she picks up and puts down dinner plates and garden gloves and greeting cards.  A dour school-teacher with a lust for life that somehow gets translated into meanness and rudeness, Olive is someone who is never satisfied but also never figures out why.  She just continues moving forward, making what she can of what she has, either as a wicked witch, a put-upon spouse, a Madame-Bovary wannabe, or a down-to-earth champion of people most people want to ignore.  Olive surveys 25 years of Olive's life with her sweet, doting husband (played to innocent perfection by Richard Jenkins), their confused, pissed-off son, and an assortment of sad, sometimes suicidal friends and family who pass through. 

Cholodenko and screenwriter June Anderson convey all of that time and incident through a poetry steeped in banality and yet intensified by melodrama and violence.  It's a blissful mix of soap-opera and character-study, without losing the juicy texture of either.  Cholodenko has a Douglas-Sirk sense of heightened stylized scene-making, but also a melancholy Emily-Dickinson sense of cut-to-the-chase pathos.  It's a large movie really, expansive and yet completely whittled down to essences, which describes McDormand's performance too.  Both director and actor seem to share the same sense of aesthetic connection.  But it's McDormand's sensibility that somehow sends it all over into a territory of pure greatness.   She blurs together really horrible personality traits with genuineness and kindness, a mix-and-match humanity that allows Olive to glow incandescently without losing her acidic center.  She never changes, barking out rude orders, saying whatever comes to her mind, harboring deep-seated hatreds and jealousies and yet also so close to real you can see yourself in almost every move she makes.

The penultimate scene, the one McDormand grabs onto with so much quiet gusto it's breathtaking, is during the marriage of her son to a woman from an uptight California family.  The wedding is taking place at her son's house near the Maine coast.   Right after the nuptials, exhausted by all the phoniness, Olive in wonderful Olive fashion, decides to take a nap in her son and new wife's bedroom.  Through a constant slew of interruptions Olive stubbornly tries to sleep away the consternation, and at one point, the bedroom door slightly ajar, she overhears her new daughter-in-law gossiping about her, saying how strange and bitchy she is, and even mocking the dress Olive made for herself, a floral sweet homemade-looking frock that kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in the array of California-lady fashions at the ceremony.  As soon as the daughter-in-law finishes, Olive juts up and seems to be in a fever-state of despair/anger/regret.  There happens to be a notebook with a yellow highlighter on it next to the bed.  She grabs the marker and opens the closet door.  She grabs one of her daughter-in-law's beautiful silk blouses, unfolds it, takes the marker and draws a long fluorescent line on the sleeve.  She folds the blouse and replaces it.  Then she sees on top of the dresser a pair of earrings.  She steals one, placing it into her pocket.  She returns to the bed and naps.

McDormand does something in this scene you can't really convey in words.  She's a zombie, she's a hurt animal, she's a pissed-off middleaged lady tired of being treated like shit -- she's all of that at once through her gestures, her seemingly blank facial expressions filled with a million emotions, her rigid yet somehow fluid moves through that bedroom.  She is claiming her dignity, but also somehow giving up on herself. 

It's one of those moments you won't ever forget.