Tuesday, September 08, 2009

façade: Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis, with her straight-forward, angular good looks and rather statuesque personality, played willful heroines, briefly, in the 1970s and '80s. Less intimidating than, say, Sigourney Weaver and less girlish than Julia Roberts, she pretty much fell through the studio cracks.

I suppose she was yet another example of a promising talent who, for some bizarre reason, befuddled Hollywood.

But like her mom, Janet Leigh, Curtis was a team player and did what Hollywood handed her, much in the spirit of an old contract player. She was particularly playful opposite Dan Aykroyd in two films - John Landis' "Trading Place" (1983) and Howard Zieff's "My Girl" (1991).

She gamely overcame the stigma of initiating her film career in 1978 with seven - count 'em - seven back-to-back horror flicks. Here goes: "Halloween," "The Fog," "Prom Night," "Terror Train," "Roadgames" (not strictly a horror flick), "Halloween II" and "Halloween III: Season of the Witch." I guess all those titles seemed like a good idea at the time.

But then came good roles in the aforementioned "Trading Places," Robert M. Young's "Dominick and Eugene" (1987), Charles Crichton's "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), Steve Rash's "Queens Logic" (1990) and Kathryn Bigelow's "Blue Steel" (also '90). Bigelow's film should have been her way to break out of genre films and into starring roles in the major league.

Bigelow handcrafted for Curtis an archetypal role that the actress seemed to instinctively understand. Cast as Megan Turner, a rookie cop who stops a robbery in progress, killing the supposed bad guy (Tom Sizemore) but actually set up by the film's resident psycho/stalker (Ron Silver), Curtis perhaps brought her experience as an actress manipulated by the Hollywood system to the role of a professional woman unsure of who exactly to trust. Magan is an obsessive character and Curtis turns in an appropriately obsessive performance - a fully realized performance.

It is an engaged yet compellingly reserved acting triumph, beautifully modulated and underlined by Curtis' impeccable line readings.

Both she and her director, clearly in perfect concert with each other, seem to be working here through the professional delusions that each one had experienced. It's odd that "Blue Steel" is rarely invoked in references to either Bigelow or Curtis, but it remains something of a major, if unacknowledged, accomplishment in feminist filmmmaking.

Curtis had a few other roles that seemed worthy of her talent but that, inexplicably, led to nowhere - opposite John Travolta in James Bridges' "Perfect" (1985), a reviled film that may be ripe for reevaluation, and Diane Kurys' "A Man in Love" (1987), which my friend, Carrie Rickey, once wittily retitled "A Man in Love with Himself," a wicked reference to title star Peter Coyote's narcissistic lead performance.

Curtis' last great role was opposite Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush in 2001 - in "The Tailor of Panama," John Boorman's first-rate adaptation of the John le Carré novel. In it, she was mature, relaxed with herself and as sexy as ever. I doubt if even Streep could have done a better job.


David said...

Curtis's pathologically controlling performance in "Blue Steel" always fascinated me. It is indeed a great performance and I appreciate that you singled it out. I wish she and Bigelow had made more films together. Perhaps they still will.

Alex said...

It’s nice to read some senstive words about the acting/persona of the wonderful Jamie Lee. My favorite of her films happens to be "Blue Steel," but “The Tailor of Panama” is certainly one of her best, along with her other two Aykroyd movies. By the way, "Roadgames" is definitely a notch above her other early horror films. You're right. It's not a horror film. It's really a nifty little Australian thriller.

tuckova said...

She also does physical comedy awfully well, I think. "A Fish Called Wanda" is one example, and I also thought she played "True Lies" like a clever comedy instead of an action film, and that saved it for me.
Ah, "Dominick and Eugene"! How did Rainman get all the accolades?

joe baltake said...

tuckova- Curtis redeemed "True Lies" for me. It wasn't much of a role but she threw herself into like a real champ and made something out of nothing. I'm not sure that film deserved her effort(s), but it sure was a pleasure watching her. She brought a sense of joy to a film that I wouldn't think of calling joyful.