EXCLUSIVE: We all know that tensions rise during those final weeks leading up to the Academy Awards as media outlets decide who’s worthy and who’s not. So this begs the question: with so much money and prestige at stake, is it possible for even major and reputable media outlets to voice any negativel opinions while Oscar campaigning is underway? Especially if they want Academy Award contenders to take out ads and sit for interviews and come to parties? Increasingly, no.
It’s well known that The Hollywood Reporter and Variety cravenly promise Oscar hopefuls flattering coverage. But Vanity Fair? Granted, its year-round showbiz coverage has all the heft of a marshmallow. But its Deputy Editor Bruce Handy this Oscar season wrote for the magazine’s website one brief but hardly brutal column dissecting Jessica Chastain‘s body of work. This wasn’t some freelancer: this was the magazine’s #2 who dared to express mild criticism about the Best Actress Oscar nominee for Zero Dark Thirty. “I’m surprised it’s being hailed as one of the year’s great performances, and that it has earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress,” Handy opined. “It’s not the sort of flashy thing, like playing a transgendered murder victim or quadriplegic boxer, that the Academy normally rewards.” He included much praise but also said Chastain was an “empty vessel”‘ and “recessive presence” who doesn’t “quite hold your eye”.
The piece posted on the VF website January 25th at a pivotal point in Oscar campaigning: just before final paper ballots went out and online voting began. Within a day, the analysis was gone. Not just gone from the VF website but really really really erased from the Internet at large. (Replaced by this sassy VF error message flaunting top editor Graydon Carter.) Publicists for Sony Pictures and Chastain’s BNC flackery told me it was “not true” that VF deleted the article. But, to its credit, Vanity Fair owned up to it. Explained VF spokeswoman Beth Kseniak: “We took it down because it ran counter to what a number of people at the magazine believed.”
Ran counter to what? Its 19th annual Vanity Fair Hollywood issue whose centerpiece was a 44-page Bruce Weber portfolio completed over 8 days photographing 125 people including 75+ actors? Or this year’s crop of invitations to the VF Hollywood party? (Actual attendees, who haven’t been diissed by the magazine in decades, included Ben Affleck, Daniel Day-Lewis, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, Ang Lee, Chris Terrio, Quentin Tarantino, Amy Adams, Jennifer Aniston, Elizabeth Banks, Jason Bateman, Kate Beckinsale, Len Wiseman, Halle Berry, Orlando Bloom, Kate Bosworth, Russell Brand, Adrien Brody, Sandra Bullock, Gerard Butler, Sacha Baron Cohen, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chris Evans, Jane Fonda, Jamie Foxx, Richard Gere, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jon Hamm, Armie Hammer, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hugh Jackman, Tommy Lee Jones, Taylor Lautner, Michael Pena, Chris Pine, Natalie Portman, Daniel Radcliffe, Jeremy Renner, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Amanda Seyfried, Hilary Swank, Channing Tatum, Marisa Tomei, Chris Tucker, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Reese Witherspoon, Judd Apatow, Steve Martin, Melissa McCarthy, JJ Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, Cameron Crowe, Tom Hooper, Ron Howard, Penny Marshall, Brett Ratner, David O. Russell, Bryan Singer, Steven Spielberg, Aaron Sorkin, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, Barbara Broccoli, Brian Grazer, Kathleen Kennedy, Graham King, Jane Rosenthal, Megan Ellison, Jim Berkus, Ari Emanuel, Kevin Huvane, Bryan Lourd, Richard Lovett, Patrick Whitesell, Michael Barker, Tom Bernard, Rob Friedman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Donna Langley, John Lasseter, Jeff Robinov, Sir Howard Stringer, Harvey Weinstein?)
Here’s the article which Vanity Fair worked so hard to erase. Judge for yourself:
The Jessica Chastain Conundrum: Greatest Actress of Her Generation or Found Art?
By Bruce Handy
Movie acting is a strange, alchemic art. This weekend, for instance, you can go to your local multiplex and see Jessica Chastain play a credibly fierce C.I.A. officer in Zero Dark Thirty. Then you can go next door and see Mama, in which Chastain plays the least fierce, least credible punk rocker in the history of film. Maggie Smith could have done it with more edge and nerve. (Actually, that’s not a bad idea: a movie about an aging all-girl punk band starring Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and let’s say Rebel Wilson as the dead original drummer’s drummer granddaughter. Billy Nighy can be the manager. It could be a sort of non-sequel sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and you’re welcome, Harvey Weinstein.)
But back to Chastain. Why is she so excellent in the one movie and so not excellent in the other? To the extent we can bat around theories—and ignore the collaborative nature of movie-making—we can begin to solve the even deeper mystery that is Chastain herself, who, as if she were Hollywood kudzu, has starred in half of all films released over the past two years. If that weren’t accomplishment enough, last weekend she had the No. 1 and 2 films at the box office. She has also received an Oscar nomination for the second year in a row and is currently on Broadway starring in The Heiress. And yet, as a public figure and performer, she is as elusive as she is ubiquitous, one of the most curious stars ever anointed by Hollywood. As she herself put it to Evgenia Peretz in a Vanity Fair profile, “I’m the unknown everyone’s already sick of.”
She’s obviously beautiful, but there’s something about Chastain’s features that doesn’t quite hold your eye. To me, Cate Blanchett is from the same mold; maybe they’re both too perfectly beautiful, almost burnished. When you get past the dazzle, a lot of movie stars are actually kind of funny looking, like Julia Roberts with her big upper lip or Emma Stone with her huge, Bratz-doll eyes or Channing Tatum with his blockhead; the classic examples are the Dumbo ears on either side of Clark Gable. Other stars are better-looking versions of people we might know in real life—Reese Witherspoon or Ryan Reynolds, say. But one way or another, their faces have visual “hooks” analogous to the musical hooks in pop songs; we’re drawn back to them again and again. Actors and actresses who lack that quality, who are too blandly beautiful, we dismiss as “soap-opera-y.” Actors and actresses who are even more beautiful than that, who approach a classical ideal, as Chastain and Blanchett do, we call “timeless” or “ethereal,” but that can be limiting. Put another way, whom else but Cate Blanchett would you cast as an elf queen?
Looks aside (a phrase rarely spoken in the film world), on-screen Chastain seems disinclined to convey a sense of who she really is—she can often be a recessive presence. (As she also told Peretz—perversely for an actress—“I don’t want people to look at me.”) All acting is a combustion of craft and personality, but the personality quotient tends to run high for movie stars. Once you’ve seen Jennifer Lawrence in a couple things, you get a sense of her as mischievous, smart-mouthed, scrappy—perhaps a false impression, but there’s an underlying beat in her performances that, aside from her talent, goes a long way toward making her a star. You know what you’re going to get with her the way you do with Katherine Hepburn, so it’s easier to welcome them as your make-believe friends, at least for two hours.
Plenty of actors are said to “disappear” into their roles; Meryl Streep and Sean Penn come to mind, but even they throw off a consistent charisma no matter the thickness of their accent or putty on their nose. Chastain is more like an empty vessel, and I think she’s at her best when she either has very little or very much to do. Terrence Malick used her as if she were found art in Tree of Life, where she had almost no lines but filled space wonderfully as an idealized mother figure, more symbol than character. The truth is, she doesn’t really have that much to do in Zero Dark Thirty, either, where a lot of the performance takes place in reaction shots, and she’s mostly required to just look fierce and determined. She’s very good at that—and I doubt it’s easy—but I’m surprised it’s being hailed as one of the year’s great performances, and that it has earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. It’s not the sort of flashy thing, like playing a transgendered murder victim or quadriplegic boxer, that the Academy normally rewards.
On the other end of the Chastain spectrum was her role in The Help as a sexy, white-trash housewife. The part, like every other one in that ridiculous film, was a caricature, but Chastain brought depth and nuance and vulnerability to the caricature, if that’s not all a contradiction in terms, which made her the best thing in the movie and won her a well-deserved supporting-actress nomination last year. (She lost to her co-star Octavia Spencer, for her update on the time-honored Sassy Black Maid part.)
The problem for Chastain in Mama, a modern-day Gothic-style ghost story that opened last week, is that her role is not particularly well written or interesting; there’s not much there there, though it’s a busy part all the same, larded with stair-climbing and closet-door-opening and screaming. Another actress—Lawrence, say, or Kristen Stewart, either of whom would have also been more cast to type as a punk—could have filled out the part with their personalities. Chastain just looked lost, as if she couldn’t find any traction in the dialogue or action. (Unlike on Zero Dark Thirty, where she got to model those boss aviator shades, she wasn’t helped on Mama by a weird shag haircut or an uninspired wardrobe that, as my colleague Juli Weiner says, looked like the costume designer Google-imaged “punk” and then went home.) She was better in Lawless, last fall’s dopey moonshine drama, but still seemed adrift. Perhaps the lesson is she’s a performer who needs either too much scaffolding from a script or almost none at all.
(Mea culpa: in a similar post a couple of weeks ago where I sought to explain the appeal of Ryan Gosling, as my wife pointed out, I neglected to mention his most salient attribute as an actor—that he’s “fucking hot.”)