For Your Consideration: Beth Grant and Dale Dickey in Blues for Willadean

12 Nov

Well, if it’s November, and it is, Oscar season must also be upon us. Ben Affleck’s Argo is currently the most-buzzed about movie with Best Picture potential. Of course, that could all change as more and more prestige flicks are released. The Best Actor race is probably as competitive as it has ever been. As of right now, Affleck, Denzel Washington (Flight), John Hawkes (The Sessions), and Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) are virtually set to claim their slots among the final five; Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, is open in a few markets and will expand soon.  Oh, and never mind about all that noise with Joaquin Phoenix making a big show about how he doesn’t want an Oscar and all that stuff.  You know, the Academy has been down that road already with among others, George C. Scott (Patton). Not only did the Academy award Scott the 1970 Best Actor trophy for Patton after the actor formally tried to withdraw from the race,  the very same Academy turned around and nominated him for The Hospital the very next year.  Ditto Marlon Brando. He famously sent “Sacheen Littlefeather” (the stage name of Native American actress Maria Cruz) to refuse his award for 1972’s The Godfather, yet one year later Brando was back in the race for Last Tango in Paris.  Speaking of Paris, Woody Allen just won his fourth Oscar even though he has snubbed the ceremonies for decades. Phoenix is in good company. Besides, the Academy’s official take has always been that it’s the performance (the script, the costume design, etc.) that’s being recognized–and not the person him/herself.

Left to Right: Dale Dickey, Beth Grant, and Octavia Spencer

On the other hand, there isn’t quite as much buzz swirling around Best Actress possibilities. Oh sure, Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Jennifer Lawrence (The Silver Linings Playbook), and Naomi Watts (The Impossible) are among the candidates, or potential candidates, profiled in a recent Entertainment Weekly feature, but their movies aren’t due in theatres for awhile. Of course, Lawrence also has the advantage of starring in one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, The Hunger Games.  Earlier this fall, previous nominees Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal co-starred in the fact-based Won’t Back Down, but that came and went in a flash. No Oscar buzz there. Meanwhile, I saw a movie a week or so ago  that serves as a stunning showcase for a pair of great character actresses. The movie is Blues for Willadean, written and directed by Texas native Del Shores, and it stars the great Beth Grant as the title character (more on her to follow). The cast is rounded out by the ever-reliable Dale Dickey, as the floozie of the trailer court where Willadean lives with her abusive husband (played by David Steen), and last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner Octavia Spencer as Willadean’s only true friend LaSonia (often called Lasagne); Debby Holiday also appears as a blues singer who more or less acts as a one woman Greek  chorus.  Even though Shores tries his best to make the latter interesting, it/she is a device that probably works best onstage than on film. Indeed, the film is based on Shores’s  play, The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, but I digress. I also have issues with the phrase “trailer trash,” but I digress further still.

In the foreground, Del Shores (l) directs Beth Grant (r) on the set of Blues for Willadean. Besides, this latest offering and Sordid Lives, Shores’s other credits include Daddy’s Dyin’…Who’s Got the Will? The 1990 feature, directed by Jack Fisk from Shores’s screenplay, was filmed in Denton, TX. and starred Beverly D’Angelo, Beau Bridges, Keith Carradine, Tess Harper, Patrika Darbo, Judge Reinhold, and Amy Wright.

Shores, famous for, among others,  the cultishly popular Southern-fried gothic  Sordid Lives (first on stage, then screen, and, finally, a short-lived TV spinoff) does not break new ground with his latest project. Simply, Willadean and her husband  J.D. barely make ends meet, living in a trailer park in good ole Mesquite Texas (though the movie was actually filmed in Georgia).  J.D. is a truck driver who drinks too much and keeps Willadean on a short leash; he doesn’t want her to work, preferring to keep her in the role of full-time cook, housekeeper, and sexual conquest. (Partner would not be the most applicable word.)  Of course, J.D. drinks too much; of course, he’s also a nasty drunk; of course, he’s not too bright. He complains about not always having what he wants when he wants it, but he doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that all the money he spends on booze cuts into Willadean’s monthly household budget, a shortfall compounded by the fact that he doesn’t want his wife to contribute financially by working outside the home. J.D. resents Willadean for “trapping” him into marriage, thereby curtailing what he believed would be a brilliant career as a Dallas Cowboy.  Furthermore, he’s such an abusive bully (if that’s not redundant) that he has alienated both of his grown children, one of whom–the son–is clearly identified as a homosexual.  Again, Shores isn’t breaking new ground here. We’ve seen this “trope” more than once.

Willadean, on the other hand, is more interesting and more vivid than any summary might indicate.  She’s bright, fun-loving, and her feelings for her husband are complicated. She doesn’t love being abused, and she doesn’t even think she deserves her husband’s abuse, but on some level she still loves him in spite of all his faults. The years of abuse have taken their toll on her. “Relaxing” is something that doesn’t come easily for her. Sure, she’s at her best when she’s shooting the shit and watching Dr. Phil with her best friend, Lasagne, but, even then, she spends too much time either defending J.D. or avoiding the topic altogether; meanwhile, when J.D. comes home at night, Willadean is a model of forced gaiety though her attempts to appease her husband inevitably fail; nevertheless, she always holds on to the idea that things can and will get better. When J.D. storms out of the house, Willadean begs for his return because she feels lost without him however unlikely that might seem to an outsider, which is kind of the point. Dysfunction such as this never looks as awful from the inside out as it does from the outside looking in; however, eventually, Willadean finds the fortitude she needs to stick up for herself and find her own path though Shores refuses to make it easy for her.

^ The versatile Beth Grant, looking worlds removed from put upon Willadean.

Here’s the thing I love about Beth Grant in this movie.  She, Spencer, Dickey, and presumably Steen, have, reportedly, all been working with this material since Shores first wrote it–from workshop to stage to screen, and while the final result is still too nakedly a play (long, talky scenes  confined to one or two settings, almost always featuring only two characters), Grant’s performance hasn’t been thought out so much that it feels mechanical in any way. She’s so in-tune with what’s going on around her, acting and reacting, that everything seems spontaneous, and her closeups are devastating in their immediacy–nothing too overdone as would seem to be the case with a lot of performances that have been calibrated to reach the back row of a darkened playhouse.  On the other hand, the thing  I dislike is the same thing that made me twinge when I watched 2010 Best Actress nominee Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine: I just don’t think an actress should have to portray a woman repeatedly humiliated and debased in order to show that she is, in fact, capable of delivering an award caliber performance full of big emotions.

On the other hand, the role of a Willadean is a huge break for this hardworking actress who’s been plugging away, mostly in secondary roles on stage, screen, TV (including commercials) for years and years.  One of her most memorable film roles was as the snooty–officious–pageant official/judge in 2006 Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine though she has also appeared in three Best Picture winners as well: Rain Man (1988), No Country for Old Men (2007),  and last year’s champ, The Artist.  Nice work if you can get it, right Beth? Interestingly, she is not included among the recipients of the Screen Actors Guild award winners  for either Little Miss Sunshine or No Country for Old Men even though both films won the “Best Ensemble” prize during the respective awards seasons. Among Grant’s many other credits are multiple appearances on The Golden Girls (not always as the same character). Of course, she was in both the screen and TV incarnations of Sordid Lives.  My point is that Grant is an actress who works as often as she does, in as many varied projects as she does, because she’s incredibly skilled. She can seemingly play any part no matter how big or small whether comic or dramatic. In spite of my reservations for the project in general, I’m glad Blues for Willadean gives Grant a chance to not only step into the spotlight–but to own the spotlight; moreover, I hope better and bigger roles come her way as a result, which could definitely happen if this movie generates even an inkling of awards buzz.

^ Dale Dickey holds the Independent Spirit award she won for her portrayal of a grisly mountain woman in 2010’s Winter’s Bone.

Almost as impressive as Grant is the one and only Dale Dickey, again, in the role of a trailer court floozie. Dickey, another Shores veteran, is the great character actress who put up one hell of a fight in the acting sweepstakes known as 2010 Best Picture candidate Winter’s Bone.  Sure, newbie star Jennifer Lawrence and mesmerizing vet John Hawkes scored Oscar nominations, and good for them, but Dickey gave a performance as a hardened mountain matriarch that was all nerves of steel. She even scored an Independent Spirit award for her efforts, a nice consolation prize of sorts since Dickey was not among that year’s Oscar nominees.  Whatever she was, her “Merab” was no wimp. No, and she would have a field day with the neurotic mess named Rayleen that Dickey plays in Willadean. It’s a credit to Dickey’s considerable skill that she earns laughs playing a character that audiences are prepared to hate as pathetic Rayleen strikes up an alliance, however tentative, with Willadean–and in the harrowing climax, when push seemingly literally comes to shove, Dickey just goes full-throttle, letting her emotions “rip” as if her character’s life depends on it–which, at that point, it probably does.

I don’t know what the status of Blues of Willadean is. The IMDb shows it as being in “post-production” rather than being in full-release mode, yet I saw the movie not as part of a random screening, but in its week-long engagement at a local cinema-complex.  As I recall, Shores was even on hand for some of the opening weekend festivities. On the other hand, a week isn’t much, and, to clarify, the movie was only promoted as a week long run, which to me indicates the run might have very well been a four-walled affair.  Four-walling, for those not so much-in-the-loop was a once staple of the movie biz, often a favorite of cheapie outfits looking for a quick profit. Rather than negotiate a percentage deal with exhibitors over a run of weeks or months, four-wallers simply rent the four walls of a theatre auditorium outright–for a specified limited run–and keep all the revenue themselves.  Of course, media saturation (print and TV ads) helps seal the deal, and, typically, the producer accomplishes this trick by hitting only one market at a time.  Keeps the overhead low. I’m pretty sure that William Castle, famous for gimmicky horror films such as The Tingler and the original 13 Ghosts in the 195os  and 1960s four-walled his films (per the book,  Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters).  Tim Burton’s take on Ed Wood also depicts four-walling as the z grade director latches on to one sleazy outfit after another.  Again, I can’t say for sure that the recent local run of Blues for Willadean was in fact a four-walled affair though that appears to be the case. To further clarify, this is not even an issue for me, not really. To me, this is just a sign that Shores is, at the very least, a shrewd independent filmmaker who is out there busting his hump, trying to help his movie find an audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that; after all, his Sordid Lives eventually developed a following (significant enough to make a TV spin-off seem like a viable proposition) without a lot of big movie studio machinery behind it;  for those less familiar, Sordid Lives, starring Bonnie Bedelia, Beau Bridges, Delta Burke, Olivia Newton John, and Leslie Jordan, among others, enjoyed a nice long run at the Highland Park Regent theater several years ago.

Blues for Willadean might be too fiercely idiosyncratic, too obviously the antithesis of popular or commercial filmmaking, to ever gain wide acceptance; it might even be too quirky, stagebound, and small-scale to find much favor with members of the Academy, but that does not mean that it’s not excellent in its own way, and that it’s not worthy of Oscar voters’ attention–and by that I mean the powerhouse performances of Beth Grant and Dale Dickey.  Maybe I’m not so far out of left field either. After all, Melissa Leo, who had long toiled in the biz without a lot of hype, broke through with the Academy, if not the mainstream, with 2008’s Frozen River, earning an Oscar nod for a gritty indie film about smuggling illegal aliens into the U.S. from Canada; two years later, Leo took home the Best Supporting Actress prize for the highly commercial The Fighter. I wish Shores all the best as he tries to market his film.

Oh, and speaking of Best Supporting Actresses,  I would be remiss if I did not write at least a line or two about Octavia Spencer, who filmed Blues for Willadean sometime between the release of The Help in the summer of 2011 and her subsequent Oscar victory earlier this year. Of course, she’s fine  as Willadean’s longtime bff though  “Lasagne”  lacks the color and excitement of Spencer’s  award winning Minnie with her game-changing chocolate pie; meanwhile, what about David Steen? Sure, he tries, but J.D. is a thankless role, and the odds are definitely against him in this company of formidable women.

Thanks for your consideration…

Bring Blues for Willadean to your town: https://www.facebook.com/#!/events/543485945677101/

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2 Responses to “For Your Consideration: Beth Grant and Dale Dickey in Blues for Willadean”

  1. Beth Grant 29 November 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Dear Melanie, A friend just sent your wonderful, thoughtful article about our little movie, Blues For Willadean. Your words are so encouraging! We are trying so hard to reach the people who really need this wake up call, women (and sometimes men) trapped in abusive relationships. Our next screening is in Boston on December 10th, sponsored by the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film at the historic Brattle Theatre. And I think you figured out and that we have no money for press, promotion, ad campaigns, etc. In fact our producers took on personal debt to finish the movie. It’s on iNDemand (Comcast, Infinity and I’m not sure what else) til Dec. 12, then maybe iTunes, etc. We have a fundraiser for an organization in Atlanta in January. Other than that we are just praying for people like you to notice. THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY CHARACTER ACTRESS HEART! Much love, Beth

    • listen2uraunt 29 November 2012 at 3:48 pm #

      Wow, Beth! You have made my day. Like you, I too wonder if I have an audience outside of my circle of friends. I’m so glad I made myself see this movie, knowing it was only in town a week. I have long been a fan of yours–and of Dickey’s and of Shores. I actually worked in movie exhibition for 20 years, so I learned a lot about the business, and I’m glad it informs my blog, the purpose of which is to write about movies that are awards worthy yet have not always gotten the acclaim they deserve. Well, that’s that. Thanks again for taking the time to respond. There’s a lot more I could add, but I’ll stop now lest I gush. I hope to purchase a copy of Blues for Willadean as soon as it is available on DVD; in the meantime, I hope everyone keeps pushing the movie, and that it (and you) find the audience it deserves. Take care.

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