The Upside of Acting

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

In Yes, a new film by British auteur Sally Potter, Joan Allen plays yet another unhappy wife--this after her roles in Nixon, Pleasantville, and, most recently, The Upside of Anger. The domestic dissidence she conjures up for Yes, however, is something wholly different. "She," as the unnamed character is called, doesn't binge-drink or hang around in silk jammies. Rather, she (or She) is a superstar biologist: A montage sequence begins with her in a white lab coat and ends when she wittingly lectures a boardroom of suits on the dogma of science.

She goes jogging twice in the film, once with a friend who can't keep up. And She takes a curly-headed, slope-nosed Middle Eastern lover. In one fantastic scene, "He" gets her off under a restaurant table, then licks his finger. (Thank you, Sally Potter!) Later, He, played by Armenian-French actor Simon Abkarian, shoves that same finger in Allen's face and snarls: "You, blond American, are too thin. Too fit. Not womanly. And then your skin too pale, insipid."

It's worth noting that his tirade, like the entire script, is delivered in iambic pentameter. As the venomous verse continues, his scowl turns putty: "And YOUR eyes TOO blue/Why DO you MAKE me DREAM of YOU?"

Allen is 48 years old. This is the first truly sexy film role I've seen her in. Sure, Allen is a striking beauty and, as such, she gets to play lots of attractive, middle-aged women. (In The Upside of Anger, for example, she plays Terry Wolfmeyer, an abandoned wife who's cute enough to attract the affections of the pro-ball retiree next door, played by Kevin Costner.) Usually, Allen's blond mane is brushed straight or combed into waves; but in Yes, it's left disheveled and curly. Tresses fall from her ponytail and stick to the sweat against her face.

Hot as that is, She still appears feminine and rather delicate. At any moment, it seems, her pretty face could unravel. But it never does, not even when her nose runs during a three-minute crying scene. Potter's gentle gaze and soft lighting favor Allen's fair skin and heavy eyelids--for a weathered, persevered look--to such a degree that I forgot what Allen looked like in previous films. When I walk into her hotel room in Minneapolis, where she has stopped to promote Yes, I'm surprised to find that Allen looks more like Terry Wolfmeyer: a rail-thin woman with hair blown straight and foundation makeup that cracks in her crow's feet.

Despite all the awards under her belt and a reputation for being the utmost "serious" film actress, it turns out Allen is something of a regular gal. She calls her approach to performing "intuitive" and shrugs off over-intellectualized questions about her technique, all the while scratching her Maltese behind the ears. To prepare for Yes, she says, "I met with some female scientists." But her voice soon falters. "I really don't map things out as much as I should. I usually just know what feels right."

For someone without a map, Allen has certainly navigated a winning and storied career path. In 1977, she left Eastern Illinois University's theater program, heeding the call of her friend John Malkovich to join him in Chicago, where a troupe of actors was starting Steppenwolf Theatre. That company, of course, went on to become one of the best-loved theater troupes in the country--in the same ballpark with our very own Guthrie Theater, but with a riskier, more contemporary edge. (Note: The theater takes its name after Hermann Hesse's darkly mystic and antibourgeois novel Steppenwolf, not after the magic carpet-riding rock band.)

Allen was a company member in Steppenwolf's early days, when the ensemble performed in a church basement and was founding its reputation on acting prowess and world-premiere texts. (Early plays ranged from obscure works by little-known playwrights to masterpieces by Tom Stoppard and Sam Shepard.) It was there, Allen says, that her acting skills were forged on Steppenwolf-style dramatic realism. ("Steppenwolf really shaped me," she says.) In November 1982, she made a splash when the company opened And the Nightingale Sang, a WWII love story in which she starred. Allen was recast when the show hit Broadway in 1983, which is how she landed in New York City and met her husband, Peter Friedman, who also performed in the production. To this day, she says, And the Nightingale Sang remains her favorite stage play (despite her recent separation from Friedman).

From there, she spent a few years performing on Broadway, where she racked up awards, including a Tony. At the same time, however, she was dabbling in movies such as Peggy Sue Got Married and Tucker: The Man and His Dream, both directed by Francis Coppola. The jump into film work from the Great White Way is a big one. But for Allen, who eschewed chorus line spectacle all along, the transition felt organic. "My stage performances were always more subtle," she explains. "I was never into being histrionic."

Eventually, Allen gave up stage performing to devote herself to film full-time. But, she says, it was a career switch born of boredom rather than a penchant for intimacy or character acting. "I did a couple of very long Broadway runs back-to-back and got a little burned out," she recalls. "I didn't find it as gratifying or as interesting to be doing the same thing every night." Now, after 15 years without theater work, she says it'd take a "brain transplant" to get her back onstage.

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."

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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