Wednesday, December 23, 2015

1993: Holly Hunter for The Piano

Holly Hunter plays a mute Scottish unwed mother in the 1800s who is sent to New Zealand to marry a man she's never met. Her new husband makes very little effort to connect with her, even refusing to bring her cherished piano from the beach where she landed to their house. He doesn't understand that she uses the piano as an extension of herself, playing it as a substitute for speech. But another man can see how she feels about the piano, and watching her play causes him to fall in love (lust?) with her.

Okay, first of all, this movie is really weird, and also really awkward to watch with your parents. I'm still not sure if I like it or not. I do think it's pretty cool that it was nominated for 8 Oscars, and 7 of those nominees were women, since that basically never happens. Jane Campion became only the second woman to be nominated for Best Director, which she did not win, but she did win for Best Original Screenplay. Eleven-year-old Anna Paquin became the second youngest Best Supporting Actress winner, and also the second youngest winner of a competitive Oscar, for her portrayal of Holly Hunter's daughter. And of course, the film's third and final Oscar went to Hunter herself, so let's talk about that.

Before watching this movie, I knew that Hunter's character didn't speak, but that did not prepare me for the type of performance I was about to witness. Past winners that had little to no dialogue (Jane Wyman and Marlee Matlin come to mind, in addition to Janet Gaynor's performances in silent films) were always very expressive with their faces, so the audience could usually tell what they were thinking and feeling even when they weren't signing. That is not the case here. For most of the movie, Hunter's face is pretty blank, and consequently we have no idea what her character is thinking or feeling. I thought this made it a bad performance until I realized that it must have been a conscious choice, since it serves at least two purposes that I can think of. First, it helps give the impression that she's just 1000% done with her crappy life and has stopped letting herself feel much of anything. The only thing she really cares about is her piano. And that's the second thing: the only time you can really tell what she's feeling is when she's playing the piano. All her expression is in her music. She has basic communication with her daughter through signing, and with others through writing, but communicating her feelings is mostly her piano's job. Her blank face the rest of the time emphasizes her expressiveness when she's playing, thus conveying to the audience how desperately she needs the piano. Her husband refuses to let her have the instrument and then complains to everyone else that he has no connection with her, while the other man gets her and the piano into his house under the pretense of music lessons. Any guess as to which guy she falls for? Personally, I thought the other guy was kind of creepy, but at least he knew how to win her over, while her husband (who was also creepy) had absolutely no clue. If it's a choice between two creepy guys, go with the one who sort of understands you. I guess. Anyway, this was a very unusual performance, but a fascinating one, so even though I'm not sure how I feel about the movie, I'm glad she won the Oscar. I always like seeing new and different things getting recognition. It's also worth mentioning that Holly Hunter did all her own piano playing, which is both unusual and impressive.

This was the first, and so far only, year in which two actresses were each nominated for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Hunter was one of them, receiving her supporting nomination for The Firm, but losing, of course, to Anna Paquin for this movie. The other was the previous year's Best Actress winner Emma Thompson. I'm not even going to try to speculate why this happened, but I think it's very interesting that it did. Anyway, Hunter was nominated for one Oscar before this year, for 1987's Broadcast News, and one after (so far), for her supporting role in 2003's Thirteen. She's a very talented actress, and ironically one of my favorite things about her is her speaking voice (Elastigirl might be my favorite Pixar character ever), but she clearly doesn't even need that.

Next up: Jessica Lange

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