Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Bold, Fearless, and Utterly Inconsequential Prediction

For all of my supposed self-deprecation, I actually pride myself on quite a few things in life. I’m unbelievably quick utilizing the keystrokes in Microsoft Excel. I instinctively know how to wire a TV set without reading a manual. I can play shortstop successfully in softball despite being left-handed. I can recite the entire offensive starting lineup of the 1992 Houston Oilers from memory, as well as most of the defense. And of course, I’m an unstoppable weapon in certain trivia subjects, particularly Harry Potter, Star Wars, and softcore porn.

In addition to these worthy talents, I like to think I’m a successful prognosticator. Not in terms of predicting the results of sporting events, mind you (boy, these NBA Playoffs sure are tricky), or even in prophesying Oscar winners, my supposed area of expertise (don’t get me started on Trash). I do believe, however, that I have the sight when it comes to forecasting future stardom for upcoming actors and actresses, as I’ve accurately heralded success for a variety of aspiring actors when their fame was in its relative infancy. These include – but are not limited to – Tobey Maguire (after Pleasantville but before Cider House Rules and way before Spider-man), Charlize Theron (after her pantheon nude scene in 2 Days in the Valley, before her pantheon nude scene in The Devil’s Advocate), and, of course, Keira Knightley (after Bend It Like Beckham, before Pirates of the Caribbean). The latter remains one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, along with guiding Warren Moon to an 8,500-yard passing season in Tecmo Bowl and leading the league in infield hits last softball season.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I also predicted stardom for Jena Malone (not quite there yet), Elisha Cuthbert (ditto), and Casey Fossum (whoops). So I’m not perfect. Sue me.)

Sadly, I don’t have any proof of these prescient prognostications, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Now, however, this whole blog thing gives me the (slightly scary) power to publish my predictions before they become true, thus lending credence to any “I fucking told you so!” outbursts I may have in the future. (And if they don’t come true, well, that’s the advantage of not having any readers.) To that end, I hereby offer you the next future star in a long line of (mostly) successful predictions: Emily Mortimer.

If you’ve never heard of Miss Mortimer, well, that’s sort of the point. She’s a slightly anomalous choice for this sort of thing – at 36 years old, she’s hardly a newcomer (she’s appeared in roughly 40 different films and television productions), and she has been recognized for her work by a number of lower-tier awards outfits, mostly in the UK. That said, I’d wager that if I walked around my office tomorrow morning and asked everyone if they’ve heard of Emily Mortimer, the response would be either “No” or “Do I care?”. So I think it’s a safe bet that Miss Mortimer isn’t a household name. But she will be.

(Note: We’re calling her “Miss Mortimer” because just saying “Mortimer” sounds too brusque, and I don’t feel that I know her intimately enough just to call her “Emily”. Maybe after a few more movies.)

I’m citing three recent performances from Miss Mortimer as proof that she’s a marvelously talented actress (in this, I’m neglecting her affecting work in 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, only because I haven’t seen it in years). In all three roles, she showcases a singularly appealing trait, and that is a profound capacity for emotional sincerity. The women she portrays are generally tenderhearted, but if the goal of acting is to inhabit characters and make an audience believe your feelings are theirs, then as a performer Miss Mortimer is frighteningly capable.

In Woody Allen’s exemplary Match Point, Miss Mortimer plays Chloe, a mild-mannered aristocrat who falls for the film’s leading man, a humble but dashing tennis pro named Chris (the incomparably dreamy Jonathan Rhys Meyers). After their marriage, the movie centers around Chris’ obsessive, destructive affair with Nola, played by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson. A lesser picture (and a lesser actress) would have fashioned Chloe as an archetypal plot device, the pleasant-but-boring housewife who represents a lifetime security but a lack of passion. Miss Mortimer, however, brings true poignancy to Chloe’s persona, by turns illuminating her warmth, loneliness, anxiety, fear, and above all her decency. The scene in which Chloe confronts her husband about whether or not he’s cheating could have functioned as a mere plot point, but the melancholy in Miss Mortimer’s voice and the wounded look in her eyes immediately engender our sympathy for her. This depth of feeling is critical to the movie’s success, as Chloe’s fragility adds further weight to Chris’ ultimate decision to disengage from his affair.

Last year’s Lars and the Real Girl again finds Miss Mortimer playing the devoted wife, only this time her attentions are focused on her husband’s withdrawn younger brother (a stoic Ryan Gosling in the title role). Ever the humanitarian, her character of Karin is desperate to impart some of her own personal happiness to Lars, so much so that in an early comedic scene, she literally tackles him in an effort to make him join her and her husband for dinner. That levity is starkly contrasted later, after Lars grouses sullenly about his community’s lack of care for him; at this point, Miss Mortimer takes the heretofore composed Karin to the emotional brink, supplying a furious, anguished rebuttal. “None of this is easy,” she exclaims in conclusion – tears streaming down her face, her voice cracking in sadness and frustration – “but we do it – oh! – we do it for you!” It’s an astonishingly powerful moment, one that left me in tears myself, and Miss Mortimer’s mixture of agonized heartbreak and unyielding love resonates long after.

This year’s Redbelt is a bit of a departure for Miss Mortimer. As Laura, her soulful nature remains, but the easier circumstances of her prior films have been replaced here with desperation. The opening scenes of the David Mamet drama strangely intercut instruction in a martial arts studio with Laura driving frantically in rain-soaked streets, shouting helplessly in a cell phone, something about not being able to find a pharmacy. Mamet structures the studio to be a place of peaceful tranquility, but when Miss Mortimer enters it looking for directions, she brings with her a palpable sense of panic and fear, thus lending credibility to an odd occurrence in which she accidentally breaks the studio’s plate-glass window.

We later learn that Laura is a rape victim, and her enrollment in a self-defense class leads to the film’s most harrowing scene, in which the protagonist of Redbelt (an excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) abruptly reconstructs the moment of her rape, complete with a plastic knife held to her throat, only this time illustrating the possibility of her escape. “Stab me with the knife!” he commands, and she obliges, over and over again ramming the toy knife into his chest, shrieking and screaming and unleashing what can only be years of buried fury. It’s a moment oddly akin to her signature scene in Lars and the Real Girl – the love and tenderness may have been replaced by anger and suffering, but they are no less forceful, and no less real.

So these are the bases of my claim – three powerhouse supporting performances of genuine emotional intensity. Are they enough to propel to stardom a British lass who, while appealing, isn’t overwhelmingly hot? Time will tell. But fuck it, I’m feeling optimistic. See you in the Big Time, Emily Mortimer.

(And if not, well, at least I still have Keira Knightley.)

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