The Heart in the Middle of the ‘Waitress’ Pie

9 May

The late David Foster Wallace’s incomplete novel The Pale King was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The writer, perhaps best known for 1996’s Infinite Jest, struggled for decades to complete The Pale King before committing suicide in 2008. Even unfinished, The Pale King reportedly runs over 500 pages.

The Pulitzer prizes were announced last month, and in case you haven’t heard, the awards committee opted out of naming a winner in the category of fiction though there were some high profile finalists, such as Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. That’s the beauty, I guess, of the Pulitzers. If no work is considered distinguished enough to represent the standards and ideals of the honor, no award is given–and this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.  Without doing tons and tons of research, I can say with absolute authority that no award for drama was handed out in 1986 though there were reports of a campaign to consider Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, which was hot, hot, hot at the time.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely decides to not give an award because the movies and performances up for consideration are somehow not worthy of the Academy’s approval: something is either the best of a given year, or it’s not. Why quibble?

This brings to mind an interesting…quandary.  When the Pulitzer jurors are doing their thing, is their concern to pick only the best of what’s available in any given year, or are they looking to carry on some lofty ideal of what it means to carry the banner of “Pulitzer winner”? Let me give you an example. Back in the early 1990s, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast became the first ever animated film to score an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. I’ll be perfectly frank. I was thrilled that an animated film had finally, finally, been considered worthy of such an honor, but I was not entirely convinced that Beauty and the Beast was necessarily the best film to claim that distinction.  I had a real problem with the way that Disney pushed and pushed the film, courting the press in an extremely calculated p.r. campaign, which actually began several months before the film was ever released. I’m not saying Beauty and the Beast is a bad film, per se, but I do think its Best Picture nomination was as much a triumph of hype as anything else, and that it pales in comparison to, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), neither of which, I’m willing to bet, was the focus of such a concerted effort to sway Academy members’ votes.

Of course, as a good friend of mine pointed out at the time, I needed to get a grip because Beauty and the Beast wasn’t competing against Snow White and the rest of the Disney canon; it was only competing against other 1991 releases–and what happened before 1991 didn’t really matter. Yeah, okay, I get it. (See below.) Meanwhile, what about the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Apparently none of the finalists won a clear majority of votes from the panel, so rather than go with the results, such as they were, or attempt another round of voting, the committee just threw in the towel and decided that nothing was worthy. This is a dilemma the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely faces. Awards are handed out annually regardless: good, bad, whatever.  The Academy will name a Best Picture winner. Someone will win Best Actor, Best Actress, etc.  (The technical categories are occasionally revamped during leaner times, but not so the major awards.) Danny Peary, author of Alternate Oscars, does not operate like that; he’s more like the Pulitzers.  Throughout his book, he does not always include a winner and four finalists; sometimes he includes only one or two finalists; sometimes no finalist. He even opts out of naming a 1963 Best Picture winner because to his mind, nothing was truly good enough or inspired enough to warrant the industry’s top award (or, rather, his version of the industry’s top award).

All of this brings me to Keri Russell and her wonderful performance in Waitress.  In this 2007 offering, Russell plays Jenna Hunterson, a young woman living in a small town (presumably somewhere in the south), looking to bake her way out of a bad marriage.  Jenna is quite the creative soul; she makes pies the same way that other artists write, paint, sculpt, dance, and create music.  The trouble is that Jenna doesn’t really know her own self-worth. Her marriage is crap, to say the least, and her prospects for getting ahead are, uhm, meager, that is, unless she can win a pie-baking contest held a considerable distance away from home, but her plans are put on hold when she finds out she’s pregnant.  She doesn’t even want the baby, but she doesn’t want to harm it, either. To her, it’s just an inconvenience, an impediment, something that keeps her bound to her needy SOB of a husband. For awhile, Jenna finds escape, albeit unethical, in the arms of her handsome new doctor.

In a January 4 2008 USA Today article entitled “Hey, Oscar! Don’t forget about these actors in the big race,” movie critic Claudia Puig rhapsodized about Russell in Waitress, claiming, ““She is graceful even in her most curmudgeonly and disillusioned moments. She nails the deadpan humor and is believable in her unexpected embrace of passion. It’s such an engaging performance, it’s impossible not to like and empathize with her.” This near annual rite of USA Today to direct Academy voters’ attentions to smaller, less publicized fare doesn’t always do the trick, as in Russell’s case; however, Laura Linney, seen in 2007’s The Savages, was also included in the USA Today roll call, and she actually earned a slot among Oscar’s final five. I was also a little surprised when Russell was also overlooked as an Independent Spirit award nominee.

From this description, it would appear that Waitress is a bit of a downer, but, really, nothing could be farther from the truth. The film oh-so-delicately straddles that very fine line between quirky comedy and the sort of unfettered realism that is more and more only found in independent films rather than big budget studio releases. I think that’s what makes Russell’s performance so engaging: she can shift gears and go from comedy to drama and back again, per the script’s dictates, without sacrificing the heart of the character. In many ways, Jenna is quite certain of herself, but the thing that she is most certain about is that she is quite often uncertain of herself, and this is not an easy thing to play, but Russell adds the right amount of shading to even a seemingly throwaway line; moreover, she reveals a little bit of who Jenna is based on her interactions with other characters. For instance, Jenna and her cutie pie doctor (played by Castle‘s Nathan Fillion) frequently engage in a sort of rapid fire delivery reminiscent of, say, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. This clipped delivery is often at odds with the nature of their exchanges. On the other hand, Jenna’s voice gets a “tone” whenever she has to handle the town’s leading wealthy curmudgeon (TV icon Andy Griffith), but that tone is different from the tone that she uses when speaking to her boss at the diner (Lew Temple), and certainly different from the strain that creeps into her voice whenever she deals with her abusive husband (Suburbgatory‘s Jeremy Sisto); she knows she has to be reasonably convincing in order to keep him happy even when it hurts her to do so. Finally, she’s probably at her most relaxed whenever  she’s just chatting with her co-workers (Cheryl Hines, also of Suburbgatory, and the late Adrienne Shelley, the film’s writer-director).  Again, it’s not so much that Russell has to navigate a wealth of emotional changes–though she definitely does some of that; the beauty is that she navigates the script’s tonal changes without losing the essence of the character. That might not sound like much, but, believe me, I’ve seen performances in which it seemed like the actor was playing a different character in every scene.  Not Russell. She’s become one with Jenna, which is a good thing since she’s asked to perform the near-impossible feat of eliciting a modicum of audience sympathy while playing a character that goes against the grain of what “society” assumes of expectant mothers.  Again, Jenna doesn’t see her pregnancy as beautiful or wonderful, and she says so almost every chance she gets, yet if the audience doesn’t somehow root for Jenna, the movie doesn’t work. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Russell indeed has a face that the camera loves, and that’s not just about being pretty; it’s also about understanding the planes of the face and knowing how to use that and, of course, the eyes, to help portray what’s not in the script. The camera reads everything, so sometimes, it’s best to know when to just be present in the moment and not “act” so much. Done.

The 2007/08 Oscar for Best Actress went to France’s Marion Cotillard for her exceptional performance as that country’s legendary–and legendarily tragic–chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (the name of one of  Piaf’s most famous songs). To say that this great singer’s life was full of color and tumult is an understatement of epic proportions. Piaf said, sang, did, and lived it all: traumatic-impoverished childhood, one romantic heartbreak after another, a narrow escape–or two–from death, addiction to booze and other drugs, early demise from cancer–of the liver, no less. Still, through it all, Piaf lived and loved as fully as she possibly could. No regrets, indeed. Well, of course, any actress would jump at the chance to inhabit this woman’s psyche, and why not? It’s clearly the role of a lifetime, and Cotillard plays it to the hilt.  Plus, she gets to age on screen and undergo an awe-inspiring transformation thanks to the Oscar winning makeup by Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald. This is the  very textbook definition of what the Academy often looks for in an Oscar caliber performance, something to live on through the ages. I won’t quibble with Cotillard’s Oscar too much. I admire her technique and her dedication to such a challenging task, but I could never get past the film’s disjointed style, which, somehow, seemed to keep me at a distance as though I were watching random snippets of an earnest, if arty, re-enactment of someone’s life rather than experiencing what it must have been like to live such a amazing life.

Russell’s performance in Waitress, on the other hand, lacks all of  that energy and fury, that sense of gravitas (self-importance, even) that inevitably draws attention to itself. Russell’s performance might not have that, “Here’s one for the ages” quality that spills forth from the likes of such past Oscar winners as Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind, 1939), Susan Hayward (I Want to Live!, 1958),  Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969), Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, 1982), Holly Hunter (The Piano, 1993), and Charlize Theron (Monster, 2003), not to mention a few famous also-rans, such as Judy Garland (A Star is Born, 1954), and Jessica Lange (Frances, 1982), but, of course, Russell need not be better or even as good as some of those others because she wasn’t in a race with them. She only needed to be better than what else was available in 2007, and I absolutely believe she was. Her performance in Waitress was actually my favorite performance by a leading actress that year–and that includes Cotillard’s award winner as well as Julie Christie in Away from Her, which gave the perennial stunner–and previous Oscar winner–a chance to go through the motions of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease–and, trust me, I’m a huge Christie fan. [See below.] I also like Sarah Polley, the actress turned filmmaker who wrote and directed Away from Her, but the movie left me cold. For me, Russell’s performance just radiates something pure and honest. In spite of all of Jenna’s woes and missteps, I genuinely care about the character, and I enjoy spending time with her.  I think that’s a rare and beautiful thing.

Of course, in any year, there are always wonderful films, performances, scripts, etc., that get overlooked by the Academy. Indeed. 2007 also saw the release of Enchanted, starring Amy Adams in a colorful Disney musical fantasy that was marketed as the successor to Julie Andrews’s classic–and Oscar winning–Mary Poppins, as well as A Mighty Heart, with Angelina Jolie giving a mannered, if generally well-received, performance in the ripped-from-the-headline account of slain journalist Daniel Pearl (with Jolie enacting the role of Pearl’s widow, Mariane). So, okay, there’s that, but I also think that Russell fell victim to studio politics. Let me explain. First, there is the matter of the late writer-director-actress Adrienne Shelly. For those out of the loop, Shelly was brutally murdered by an intruder in her New York apartment in November 2006, apparently just weeks before Waitress was accepted as an entry in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival; its national release followed a few months later in the spring of ’07.  At the time, the spectre of Shelly’s untimely death almost overshadowed what was on the screen. In spite of enthusiastic reviews, Shelly’s murder became the story. By the end of the year, when the focus should have shifted back to Russell, per the USA Today article  (see the sidebar), another story had developed, and that was the story of Juno.  Here’s the scoop: Juno, directed by Jason Retiman and written by Diablo Cody (who would go on to win an Oscar for her screenplay), tells the story of a suburban high school girl who finds out, lo and behold, that she’s pregnant. While  serious in spots, much of Juno plays like a 21st century version of the snappy teen comedies that made the late writer-director John Hughes a household name back in the 1980s. Starring Ellen Page as the scrappy, wisecracking title character, the film opened at the end of 2007, after winning over audiences during the late summer/early fall film festival circuit. Coincidentally, both Waitress and Juno were released by Fox Searchlight, the allegedly “indie” distribution branch of 20th Century Fox, and that, I think, is part of the problem. Juno was still playing in theatres, making money hand over fist, during the awards season–teens, after all, related to it and loved it accordingly–and Fox took advantage of the movie’s overwhelming popularity by mounting a lavish campaign around not only the film, but also affable NEW star Page and the media-savvy Cody (who was already fringe-famous for being a stripper and a blogger). Even director Reitman had an easy hook as a second generation director; his father is Ivan Reitman (1984’s Ghostbusters, among many other comedy hits).  The public ate it up. (Sorry ’bout the preposition.) Russell and her film seemed old hat in comparison. (Also, a teen not wanting to be pregnant “reads” differently than a grown woman not wanting her baby–especially to teens.) By the time the Oscars came around, a year or so had passed since Waitress premiered at Sundance, and the movie had been on DVD for a few months, while Juno was still holding steady near the weekly box office  top ten. (See below.) Anyway, as I see it, Fox personnel were all too eager to sacrifice a full-out publicity blitz for Waitress in favor of the more highly marketable Juno, which earned four nods, including Best Picture and Best Actress. (The fifth Best Actress nominee was Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, reprising the 1998 role of Queen Elizabeth I, which helped her land her first nod though the second film was not nearly as popular with audiences and critics as the earlier one was.)

Have you heard about the Adrienne Shelly Foundation? Named after the late actor-writer-director (above), the non-profit was established to help up and coming female filmmakers realize their dreams. (See link below this article.)

Lest you, dear reader, think that Waitress is only worth recommending because of Russell, let me assure you that is not the case.  The movie is chockfull of wonderful supporting performances, starting with Andy Griffith, who might have snared a Best Supporting Actor nomination had things worked out differently. Jeremy Sisto must also be given credit–of a sort–for trying to find the wounded humanity in his deeply flawed character. It might not seem much of a compliment to say he stops just short of being a stereotype, but there it is.  The diner’s gruff manager played by Lew Temple is not a huge role, but Shelly gives him a short monologue that gives him a chance to shine and add a little color to a minor character. Also good for a few laughs is Eddie Jemison as the nerdy-accountant-turned-poet who woos Shelly’s quirky Dawn.  Shelly, by the way, who established herself as an actress in the films of Hal Hartley, a true independent filmmaker if there ever were one, is  adorable in the film, but, of course, it’s sometimes hard to watch her, knowing that her life was over all too abruptly.  I wished she’d also been given some Oscar level recognition, even posthumously, for her work here–at the very least for her screenplay. Still, the movie was not entirely ignored: Shelly earned a Spirit nomination for her screenplay, and the movie was honored at the Newport and Sarasota film festivals besides being nominated for a Humanitas prize, among a few others.

Before I sign-off, I also want to point out that Waitress looks pretty good for a low budget feature (per the Internet Movie Database, it was filmed for 2 million), with much of the credit going to cinematographer Matthew Irving, who works wonders with what appears to be natural lighting. There’s also a fun montage in which Russell sports a sort of stupefied grin in shot after shot. It never ceases to tickle me.  Also, of course, the movie would hardly be the same without all those yummy looking pies, often shot in close-ups. A woman named Laura Donnelly, a food editor and former pastry chef, is listed in the credits as the “Pie Mistress,” so there you have it.

Final thought? Academy members vote for what they like, but maybe they sometimes take themselves too seriously.  Of course, they’re just human as are we all–and we all know what we like as well; however, all too often I have heard people qualify their own admiration for one movie or another by adding something to the effect of “Well, of course, it’s no Oscar contender, but…” Well, the next time you hear someone say something like that, ask him/her what that means. After all, an Oscar contender doesn’t have to be one of the greatest movies ever made; it only has to be better than whatever else is out there at the time.  The same applies to the Pulitzer Prizes as well.

Thanks for your consideration…

List of 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners at the official Pulitzer Prize website:

http://www.pulitzer.org/awards/2012

Entertainment Weekly on the Pulitzer controversy regarding the absence of a fiction winner:

http://shelf-life.ew.com/2012/04/16/pulitzer-prize-no-fiction-award/

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, at Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Pale-King-David-Foster-Wallace/dp/0316074233

The 1991 Best Picture nominees in alphabetical order: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, J.F.K., The Prince of Tides, and The Silence of the Lambs (w).

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. New York: Delta/Dell Publishing, 1993. Available on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Alternate-Oscars-Danny-Peary/dp/0385303327/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336618705&sr=1-4

Bowles, Scott. “Hey, Oscar! Don’t forget about these actors in the big race.” USA Today. 04 January 2008.

http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/movieawards/oscars/2008-01-03-oscar-predictions_N.htm?csp=34Ch

  • Julie Christie won the 1965 Best Actress Oscar for Darling; her subsequent nominations were for McCabe & Mrs. Miller (the 1971 Robert Altman classic, a personal fave), and Afterglow (an exquisite 1997 offering from Alan Rudolph); her other credits include Doctor Zhivago (1965), Shampoo (1975), and Heaven Can Wait (1978), and many other choice offerings; Julie Christie at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001046/
  • Per the Internet Movie Database, Waitress cost two million and turned a tidy profit with a total of 19 million in ticket sales. According to Box Office Mojo, the film played in theatres from late spring until early fall though it’s run was limited to hundreds rather than thousands of screens; meanwhile, per Box Office Mojo, Juno cost 7.5 million to make but made a staggering 143 million at the box office, spending at least 10 weeks in the box office top ten and playing on as many as 2,000+ screens.

Waitress @ the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0473308/

Waitress @ Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=weekend&id=waitress.htm

Juno @ Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=juno.htm

Visit the Adrienne Shelly Foundation’s website:

http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org/

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4 Responses to “The Heart in the Middle of the ‘Waitress’ Pie”

  1. musea 10 May 2012 at 8:47 am #

    Michael Helsem’s book deserves a Pulitzer.

    • listen2uraunt 10 May 2012 at 8:55 am #

      Thanks! I’ll pass that along. ; ) I thought you mind find this post interesting because it gets into some of the studio politics of the Academy Awards.

  2. Dale 10 May 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    Nice Write-up of one of the great “Sleepers” of recent years! Jill Loved this movie as do I.

    • listen2uraunt 16 May 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      Thanks, Dale. It gladdens my own heart just a bit to know that Jill loved this movie, and that this is something we all share.

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