The Upside of Acting

Joan Allen makes it look hard in 'Yes'

While Allen was getting her feet wet in film, she tended toward smaller, supporting roles (e.g., as Drew Barrymore's mom in the disastrous Mad Love). Nevertheless, she became known as an actress who does her homework: While preparing for 1986's Manhunter, in which she played a blind woman for director Michael Mann, she remained blindfolded for days.

In 1996, she hit a big-screen home run when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Pat Nixon opposite Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's Nixon. Playing so-called "Plastic Pat"--the smilingly mute first lady--Allen demonstrated a style that was empathetic, naked, and, most people thought, virtuosic.

Counter to what many believe about Allen's preparedness, though, the Nixon performance was born of simple research and empathy. Said Allen: "I don't think any of us are one thing. I think Pat Nixon, at one time in her life, was a really fun-loving person." Allen mentions the unfathomable losses the first lady suffered early in her life--specifically, the deaths of both parents before she was 18. "You go, 'Wow! That's pretty hard.' That informed me a lot about who she was. I have a lot of compassion for her."

What a woman is She: Joan Allen in 'Yes'
Sony Pictures Classics
What a woman is She: Joan Allen in 'Yes'

Fast-forwarding 10 years, past a few red-blooded mainstream projects including Face/Off, The Contender, and The Bourne Supremacy, Allen finds herself back in another subtle, seething-with-heartbreak role. Within 24 hours, She loses her husband, her lover, and her closest family members. In the press notes for Yes, Potter praises Allen for bringing a "radiant and vulnerable quality" to the character--referring, I think, to Allen's pallid repose: something that exudes disappointment, but other times, too, flushes with desire, reckless neediness, or rage.

As She, Allen delivers another artful performance that looks deliberate and painstakingly prepared. But when asked, "How'd you do that?" as one awestruck moviegoer did in a post-screening Q&A at Walker Art Center, where Yes played as part of the Women with Vision series, Allen lit a coy Midwestern smirk. Down-casting her eyes, then summoning the grace to look up again, she tucked her chin into her shoulder and said: "We had a lot of time to rehearse."

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