You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

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Holly Hunter

18 April 2010

She’s appeared in film and TV for almost thirty years and has received the Academy Award for Best Actress, two Emmys, and a pile of other awards and nominations for many of her roles — yet I was surprised to find David Thomson give Hunter only a cursory, uninspired treatment in his otherwise invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).  This is my attempt to make up for it.  

One might be tempted to refer to her as “the thinking man’s [fill in blank with name of less talented starlet],” but it’s too easy.  I think Hunter is so distinctive because she has a perverse desire to be dissonant — she doesn’t play her beauty for the thinking man’s benefit (or anyone else’s); she’s wary but not fragile; she’s unexpected but not quirky.  Her characters can suddenly become sharp-edged and mean.  Holly Hunter is eminently watchable — one of the most watchable women of her generation.

Except for her intelligent beauty, nothing about Holly Hunter’s profile seems to have designed her for a career in Hollywood.  She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia (her hen won a national 4-H prize when Hunter was in high school), and to the best of my knowledge, she’s never performed without her trademark accent on display.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 before launching her professional acting career.  She’s relatively tiny (5’2″); and is so good a pianist that she performed all the music for her acclaimed role in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

She appears almost disingenuously modest about her career.  “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that’s just the way it is,” she said, according to IMDB.com.  “And in many ways, I take what I can get.  But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”  Looking at the long list of her films and TV work (from which I compiled this short list), I’m struck by her consistent talent in choosing interesting parts and making them more interesting:

  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Roe vs. Wade (1989)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Copycat (1993)
  • The Firm (1993)
  • Home for the Holidays (1995)
  • Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
  • Thirteen (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Nine Lives (2005)
  • Saving Grace (TV show, 2007-2010)
  • Hunter’s characters often inhabit that weird place between comedy and pathos, but you know immediately it’s not a recognizable pathos but something more real, awful.  In “Raising Arizona” her comically inconsolable weeping contrasted nicely with her otherwise drill-sergeant relationship to mouth-breathing H. I. McDonough (Nicholas Cage).  But in “Broadcast News” it was something more:  she paused every morning in the midst of her breakneck routine, sat on the edge of her bed, and indulged in a private crying jag.  Audiences laughed, but they weren’t sure they were supposed to.  In “Home for the Holidays” (a wonderful and much-overlooked film, in my opinion), she headed home to Baltimore in a terrible state — lonely, confused, worried about her daughter, dreading a family visit.  “Hey, little brother,” she breathes into the phone early in the film, beginning a mortifyingly desperate message for the Robert Downey, Jr. character (a message that comes back to haunt her).  Her eyes are huge, she’s a wreck.  Each time, the viewer can’t see her character’s fragility as pure comedy, even when it’s funny.  She’s not playing to type.  She’s fantastic.

    She has the same complicated relationship to her sexiness.  For a long time, she seemed resigned to cutie pie status; her diminutive frame, distinctive accent, and heavy bangs distracted from her sex appeal — she was smart, not a beauty.  In “Broadcast News” her character’s brief affair with William Hurt’s dim-witted anchorman made so much sense because she lacked all the conventional beauties he possessed — how could she not want to be wanted by him, no matter how smart she was otherwise?  Likewise, her mixed views of herself made it impossible for her to fall in love with the shlubby Albert Brooks, her best friend.  In all those early parts, her resolute jaw lent daggers to her voice.  Over time, though, she used her big, dark eyes to terrific effect — most strikingly in “The Piano,” in a face starker than Emily Dickinson’s, with heavy eyebrows and that fiercely black, parted-in-the-middle hair that granted her face little prettiness.

    At some point in her mid-30s she grew into her beauty as she grew out her hair.  Don’t get me wrong: she never tried to be a Julia Roberts or appear in rom coms.  Rather, she developed a lithe way of using her body — moving slowly and with a slightly wicked, self-conscious, rolling gait that (in my mother’s phrasing) told you she was looking for trouble.  Not that it made her sexiness conventional.  Her tongue remained just as sharp, her characters idiosyncratic and generally disinterested in pleasing anyone. 

    By the time she appeared in “Saving Grace” she was nearly 50.  In its pilot she appeared in a few nearly-nude scenes in which her tiny, skinny frame is covered with alarmingly blueish pale skin.  Being willing to appear in such a shot — on television, no less, and in a Hollywood that rejects actresses when they cease to be youthfully sexy — impressed me yet again with Hunter’s determination to be her own woman, to display her character’s troubles on her very body.  I didn’t latch onto that show (the religious angle never worked for me), but it wasn’t because of her, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it didn’t change my overall respect for her skill in finding great parts.  She seemed all the sexier in “Saving Grace” for downing shots of whiskey, sleeping with younger men, and pulling hard on all those cigarettes — cigarettes now coded for TV viewers as “bad” — and letting her natural smarts get a bit fuzzy in the haze.

    It’s also been interesting to see Hunter’s long list of characters whose complicated maternal status, marital status, and career make them more interesting.  Whether she gets her husband to kidnap a baby for her (“Raising Arizona”), chooses abortion (“Roe v. Wade,” which reflected Hunter’s own firm pro-choice views), struggles as a single mother or young widow (“The Piano,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Thirteen,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or wrestles with her career (“Broadcast News,” “Saving Grace”), taken together her characters exemplify the struggles of a whole generation of women in a “post-feminist” age.  I find it striking that, with the recent cancellation of “Saving Grace,” Hunter has apparently determined to take a break from acting to be with her family — her domestic partner and her twin 4-year-old boys, whom she bore at age 47.  I hope it’s not a decision that came from a lack of roles.  I want to keep watching Holly Hunter in roles that expand our understanding of complex human emotions — and not least because right now, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to be the only women over 50 getting parts that allow them to be interesting and have sex lives. 

    David Thomson: I think we shouldn’t be surprised if Holly Hunter has more awards awaiting her — and if your next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film requires a serious revision of your earlier entry.