These Actresses Dominate Not Just the Stage, but the Screen Too
The most memorable performances in any medium are being given by a remarkable group of industry veterans — Judith Light, Allison Janney and Audra McDonald, among them.
For a long time, you could open a movie with a close-up on a woman’s face, as long as she presented the right knowing gaze, the one that suggested she had the perfect phrase on the tip of her tongue. Think of Jill Clayburgh in 1978’s “An Unmarried Woman,” responding to Alan Bates with such quietly tentative intimacy that it feels like a home movie. Think of Ellen Burstyn, Joan Hackett, Sandy Dennis. On and on one could go, citing examples from the time before Hollywood’s boys’ club determined that the men (mostly) should wear the armor while the women watch, bored into insensate numbness.
Now, though, it’s perhaps safe to welcome the return of adult women. They were always there of course, but mostly you had to go to the stage to find them. But today’s screens, no matter the platform, are perfectly suited to actresses whose emotional lives are laid as bare as Elizabeth Bishop poems — while male movie stars seem stuck in the rust-covered school of the Wounded Male Animal, which parodies itself in an endless loop of tough-guy celluloid or emo-muteness. As more female and queer screenwriters, playwrights and directors refuse to wait for permission to tell their stories, actresses who were once sent out to sea on icebergs have become commodities, no longer forced, as they used to tell me, to “come back to New York and do plays when Hollywood no longer wants me.”
Many of them occasionally play mothers, none more ruthless than Allison Janney’s LaVona Golden in “I, Tonya,” in which she manages — with one drag of a thin, brown cigarette — to almost excuse her daughter of her crimes. In 2002, Aaron Sorkin asked me to write an episode of “The West Wing” that was shot as a play about a single character. I had never written for TV before, and I had my choice of cast members, but it took me exactly zero seconds to select Janney. She can now single-handedly carry a film to the finish line.
These women were among the first to move seamlessly between stage and screen, and they quickly calculated that movies and television required a kind of surrender, as much of the work is done with the eyes, in reaction. They returned to Manhattan to whisper their realizations to newcomers trying to break into Hollywood: The camera is the storyteller, not you. Onstage, it’s the exact opposite — the actress is a vessel of transference, and the audience depends on her beat-by-beat immersion in the unfolding events to feel present in the story. (That’s why, when movie stars come to Broadway, the performances can feel anxious and small — or like an overly boisterous guest at a dinner party, unsure of the room’s temperature.) But because these women came up through live performance, they remain, elementally, theater folk, with all of the flexibility and spontaneity that the stage demands. They’re able to act and react, whether or not there’s a camera present.
This ability makes them not only memorable, but thrilling. Night after night, I watched Judith Light conjure the superannuated and supersaturated Palm Springs alcoholic Silda Grauman in my 2011 play, “Other Desert Cities,” for which she won a Tony. Every performance was different; everything she learned the prior day was absorbed into the whole, adding layers to her character, as if her mind was a 3D printer. Audra McDonald, a six-time Tony winner, does a similar thing, her spine as strong as her larynx, tantalizingly holding something back while appearing not to; both reticent and foot-forward, to borrow a British theaterism. It isn’t just range that makes her valuable to both Broadway producers and TV showrunners, but her refusal to be discounted as a “New York theater actress.” She chooses her roles judiciously, regardless of medium. To cite another test case, think of Laurie Metcalf, who recently shifted between “Lady Bird” onscreen, “Three Tall Women” onstage and onward into television’s impending “Roseanne” spinoff. Idina Menzel, back on the New York stage in Joshua Harmon’s timely “Skintight,” arrived on the theater scene in 1995’s “Rent” and has never lost the freshness of those first instincts, whether as a green witch in “Wicked” or animated in Disney’s “Frozen.”
Then there’s Janet McTeer, who is perhaps today’s version of William Holden: a well of intelligence and emotion so deep that it seems bottomless. Indeed, the old character men, the great noble everymen, have been replaced by character women who are also undeniable stars. They are the Gene Hackmans, the John Cazales and the Robert Shaws of today — actors we recognize on a mineral level, no matter where we encounter them.