Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Key Personnel: Sigourney Weaver

Veneration of all things Sigourney Weaver, probably my favourite American actress of the 1980s and 1990s, began on a first VHS viewing of Alien, was cemented by a follow-up experience of Aliens and then another and another, remained undiminished for every second of the criminally underrated Ghostbusters II (OK, I was 12), and had me looking forward to Alien³ as if RenĂ©e Maria Falconetti were returning to the role of Joan of Arc and intended to kick some serious ecclesiastical ass this time. Throughout that curious dirge of a sequel I found Weaver as riveting a presence as ever, so much more fearsome running down those prison corridors, somehow, than the alien itself, and so much more determined to claim the franchise as her own, to kill it off, even to resurrect it, six years later, on her own indomitable and fiery terms.

Alien³ is much more a Sigourney Weaver movie than it is a David Fincher movie or even an Alien movie, in a odd way, and for all its gaping flaws — wilfully ignored amid the inconceivable excitement of getting to see it, underage, with my dad at an industry preview screening about which my younger brothers were not at all happy — the film still strikes me as an important statement in its genre, a statement that was Weaver's to make and that she made with a self-sacrificial pride every bit as ballsy as the character deserved. If this series was going down, she was going down with it, basically. She's lacked hits ever since, unless we count the delightful Galaxy Quest (1999), in which she spoofed exactly the sort of role she'd refused to let Ellen Ripley ever become; I think she's extraordinary in Alien: Resurrection (1997), meanwhile, even when the movie's gloopily assaulting her with all manner of unwelcome bolted-on conceits and geeky Joss Whedon-ness. But her reign as the dominant feminist icon in late 20th-century blockbuster cinema appeared to be over, and I for one am still in mourning.

In between, I consoled myself by getting to grips with the other Weavers: bowled over by her sinewy dramatic work in Gorillas in the Mist, I forgave the movie every sin — it commits many — for allowing her to push Dian Fossey to the outer limits of audience sympathy and still make us feel the full, gutting force of tragedy at the end. Was this her, too, this smashingly strident comedienne Oscar-nominated in the same year for Working Girl? And then the fierce, bony empathy of Death and the Maiden, on which more below. Weaver's range as an actress has always impressed me enormously, and I think it's at least the equal of her Map of the World co-star Julianne Moore's; Weaver couldn't pull off the tiny emotional calibrations of a Safe, perhaps, but nor could I imagine Moore summoning the sheer fortitude, the regal poise, or the haughty, acidic outrage to do Weaver-like justice to any of the underlisted.

Five of the best:

1. Death and the Maiden (1994)

More tightly-wound and combustible than ever, Weaver stomps all over Polanski's somewhat dour film of Ariel Dorfman's play, which got a minuscule theatrical release in Britain and is still maddeningly hard to track down. Her Paulina is the whole point: damaged, dangerous, and so ferociously right that we bow our heads for doubting her sanity in the early going; that she can be this right and still this sadistic makes the second half all the queasier, and it's a performance that never for a second sentimentalises the unsightly psychological scars of victimhood or the savage, self-lacerating joy of revenge. Honestly, how an actress could have pulled out of the wreckage of Alien³ with more galvanic force and determination to prove her "serious" mettle, I couldn't say, or how one of the weakest Best Actress fields in Oscar history failed to clear space for work this sensational.

2. Aliens (1986)

Space was cleared here, on the other hand, in a "shock" genre nomination that was no shock to anyone who actually saw Aliens, which Weaver owns like a single mother owns a loudly squalling child: far more primally, that's to say, than any of her co-nominees owned their own dainty little femme-pics. Try wresting this movie away from her, just try. Ellen Ripley was suddenly not just worth rooting for but worth dying for — a magnificent bitch, a ball-breaker, an LGBTA icon to arm up with flamethrowers and go to the grave with. That "A"s for alien, by the way, as the slimy buggers seemed hardly any less smitten — an entire species dying to procreate with this one woman. They can get in line, right?

3. Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

Speaking of inter-species procreation, it gets worryingly intense in the forest glades of central Africa here, as Weaver's Fossey goes about forging a much more intimate bond with the apes than any of the token humans in her orbit, or Bryan Brown. It's the rare performance in a weak-ish biopic which is good enough on its own to make the movie worth going back to, again because of its obsessive, alienated quality, and because there's something unnervingly (poly)sexual in Fossey's very aloofness: check out the almost Darwinian contempt with which she dispatches her horny young assistants.

4. Alien: Resurrection (1997)

She's the saving grace here, of course, but way more than that: even as the movie's dissolving into gooey silliness, she gets big chances to take Ripley into fascinating new territory and plays them for all they're worth. Acid may be coursing through her veins, but I guess we always knew that; "I died", on the other hand, is a very Whedon punchline, but she delivers it with the kind of throwaway comic timing Sarah Michelle Gellar can only dream of. It's the scene in the cloning room (not the naff writhings of the finale) that really pushes the mythology forward a final notch, and golly if she doesn't make it genuinely potent and upsetting. All these half-formed Ripleys: what's left of her, even in this one? Weaver seemed to be asking the question.

5. The Ice Storm (1997)

All that overworked ice imagery and Joan Allen chipping away at the cube tray; but it's Weaver who wouldn't thaw under the Saharan sun here, and her Janey Carver is the movie's most resolutely hard and uncompromised creation, not to mention its best casting. She seems to steer miraculously clear of all the worst, most programmatic tendencies of James Schamus's screenplay; when I think of The Ice Storm, which is not that often, to be honest, I think of Weaver twirling car keys, and then the rest of a vague, complacent, underachieved movie being whipped into shape by her every appearance.

And one of the worst:

Imaginary Heroes (2004)

Here, she's sucked, unavoidably, into utter smugness. Dan Harris's movie is such a stale, self-congratulatory slice of Ordinary People-Lite picket-fence therapy drama that not even Weaver can burst through its grim lacquer. We'll move swiftly on from her truly embarrassing pot-smoking escapade in this, and hope for bigger and much better things around the corner. All hail Sigourney!


Nick Davis said...

I hung. on every. word. of this. The whole thing is a spectacular summary statement about an actress to whom I've started to develop an indifference—even though, as you trot through the performances, especially the very different Ripleys (nonetheless recognizable as the same stupendous Alpha-female), I realize I agree with you about almost everything. And then the sniffy boredom with The Ice Storm, Weaver aside, makes it all even better.

But the Aliens paragraph is true sublimity. Thank goodness everyone has emptied the office, so they don't have to come ask why I'm laughing. "A" indeed.

Can't wait to see who's next.

Goran said...

What is it about gay men and Sigourney Weaver?

I'm a fan too but I try not to think about her too much these days. Her roles in the past 10 years have been mostly depressing.

Also, Tim, I'm excited that you were excited by To Be or Not to Be. It's one of my favourite films - probably my favourite comedy - it needs much more exposure than it gets.

Kamikaze Camel said...

Man, how many ways do I love Sigourney? A WHOLE FREAKIN' LOT! And I totally agree with you about what you said about Aliens and especially Gorillas in the Mist which is indeed one of the truest examples of a spectacular performance triumphing over mediocre filmmaking.

Top 5 Sigourney Movies
1. Alien
2. Aliens
3. Ghostbusters
4. Galaxy Quest
5. Copycat (er, sorry)

I do like The Ice Storm, Dave, Holes Working Girl and Ghostbusters II.

Top 5 Sigourney Performances
1. Aliens
2. The Ice Storm
3. Gorillas in the Mist
4. Galaxy Quest
5. Working Girl

tim r said...

I like Copycat too! Kind of. I like her and Holly, anyway.

Nick Davis said...

Me, three. I love the moment when Holly & Dermot pull up to a crime scene in their police car and jive for an extra beat or two to whatever's on the radio before they get out.

I also love watching Jon Amiel struggle to keep the titaness Sigourney and the palm-sized Holly into the same frames. (Maybe he did Tom & Nic's wedding photos?)

ps. I have now failed the word verification test TWICE.

tim r said...

Yes! Those scenes with Sigourney lying flat out on the sofa while Holly peeks over the top of it. We saw the same movie here. Will Patton also rocks, right?

Shame about, you know, the plot and everything. William McNamara must be the single least scary serial killer the movies have ever spawned.

Cal said...

What about Sigourney in comedy?!

Top 5 Sigourney:

1. Aliens
2. Heartbreakers
3. Working Girl
4. Gorillas in the Mist
5. Alien

Anonymous said...

Am really surprised that no one has mentioned The Year of Living Dangerously: a great film and she is sizzlingly sexy. The love scene in the rain is wonderful.

tim r said...

Good call — and an extremely sexy film, I agree, even if it's comparatively minor Weir and Weaver for me, as a great fan of both. Sigourney and Mel together though... phew! And you've zeroed in on one of the sexiest and most romantic sequences I know in any movie: if ever a single scene justified the admission price...

As for Sigourney in comedy, she's a class act throughout Dave and has wonderful moments in Heartbreakers (even if she has to contend with rolling around on the floor with Jennifer Love Hewitt in others, and boasting about her ass.) The whole Gene Hackman subplot with her pretending to be a Russian countess is priceless.

FilmFan said...

(whispers) I quite liked Imaginary Heroes, actually.

mladen said...

Fab Sigourney!
top 10 movies:
1. Aliens
2. Gorillas in the mist
3. Copycat
4. Ice storm
5. Year of Living Dangerously
6. Working girl
7. Imaginary heros
8. Half moon street
9. Death and the maiden
10. Map of the world