The Comedy of Irritation
Unlike Sorvino, Lisa Kudrow does have a star personality as a character actress, and the difference between the two actresses’ styles may be the secret of why their partnering works so well: Sorvino mutates into Romy while Michele mutates into Kudrow. Kudrow’s persona is that of a woman who in nervous agitation that she won’t get what she feels she deserves can’t contain her defensive sarcasm, which she is able to get into a single syllable, "Unh." (She also can sustain it solo at the length of a sequence, for instance, the one here in which she’s looking for work as a sales clerk, and sells and unsells herself to the manager of a Versace boutique and then of Barney’s.) She’s like Teri Garr at her most flustered but without the physical or emotional cushioning. She’s always distinctive, and certainly distinctive looking: elongated and fragile, with a pointed chin and wide-set eyes, like an Ignaz Günther Madonna, minus the consolatory aura. (Sorvino’s cuter, but Kudrow is more beautiful.)
In Mother Albert Brooks cast Kudrow as the quintessential unsympathetic date, and in Analyze This Harold Ramis had her stand in as the impatient bride. She’s much more original than either type, and more varied. As Michele some of her best moments reveal a totally unretentive mind. For instance, when the girls start off in their borrowed car for the drive to Tucson, she lets out a whoop. The car stalls after a block--deflation--then starts again, and she lets out the same whoop, exactly as excited as the first. And the car stalls again, starts, and after a brief pause the same whoop follows. In this bit Michele is as much like Homer Simpson as like Cher in Clueless. The two types merge in the way that a person can resolve almost any tension with Michele simply by making another suggestion, to which she’ll respond with an affectlessly perky, "Okay" that conveys no awareness of what had been going on before. But Kudrow’s resentful manner is also perfect for the dream sequence in which she rattles off the process by which she arrived at the chemical formula for Post-It adhesive as a kiss-off to the bitchy A-Group girls at the reunion. She can play dumb or smart as long as the character is thin-skinned enough to justify Kudrow’s inventive variations on the comedy of irritation.
Laurel and Hardy
Sorvino and Kudrow are different enough in nonobvious ways to make a classic team. Though Romy lacks a mental power train, momentum is translated from her engine to her axles, as we see when she strides confidently to Ramon’s office wearing an even tighter than usual sausage skin in order to get him to lend her his Jaguar. (Amusingly, she’s brought up short when he expects her to have sex with him, but manages to get the car anyway.) Michele isn’t a complementary type; she’s simultaneously more tense and more diffuse, bristliness accenting her fundamental vacuity. Kudrow as Michele reminds me of the times I’ve laid my head on a pillow and been pricked by the wrong end of a feather. To my taste, Sorvino and Kudrow are right at the top of the list in the longstanding search for a female Laurel and Hardy 1 : both are swell to look at and very funny. In the early talkies they could have turned out two-reelers as Romy and Michele
for several years without wearing out the joke.
As Michele, Kudrow had a totally unretentive mind; in her best performance to date, as Lucia in The Opposite of Sex , she has the opposite problem. She’s a thistly high school teacher who remembers everybody’s failures to live up to her standards, and the depressing universality of disappointment has spoiled life for her. Lucia’s days revolve around Bill (Martin Donovan), the surviving lover of her beloved brother, who died of AIDS. A formerly fat, least-loved daughter in a family of four kids, Lucia always expects the worst, and it seems to show up one day in the form of Bill’s half-sister Dedee (Christina Ricci), a pregnant sixteen-year-old who steals Bill’s current boyfriend Matt (Ivan Sergei) and gets Matt to steal $10,000 from Bill so they can take off and have her baby, which she’s told Matt is his.
The movie’s neo-noir plot covers acres and is laid out (by the openly gay writer-director Don Roos) with a gay male audience’s attitudes and interests in mind, but it works, to the extent it does, because of a comic contrast between the extremes represented by Dedee and Lucia. Dedee is more ruthlessly selfish than normal, and has the advantage of being the self-conscious narrator who tells us not to expect "lessons" or for her to develop a heart of gold. Lucia, on the other hand is the excessive superego to Dedee’s excessive id, and, I think, wins the comedy contest. Ricci is talented, but the role is too extreme for a movie that right beneath its surface favors the moral characters. Dedee could probably be developed fully only in a more stylized and more punitive noir. In The Opposite of Sex she can only die or grow that heart of gold (the movie tries out both). To balance Ricci’s advantage as narrator, Kudrow has the advantage of punch lines that give voice to our recoil from Dedee. And not only does Lucia seem to have been written as if with Kudrow in mind, but her lines dominate the rhythm of group scenes, sometimes even of the editing between scenes, which gives a capper, such as a line she snaps out over the phone to an airline ticket representative, unbeatable éclat.
Kudrow is a prickly comedienne for a prickly cultural moment. As Lucia, she takes stand-up comedians’ aggravation over other people’s flaws and foibles as encountered daily and naturalizes it in character. Lucia’s polite smile is clearly pained tolerance, every intake of breath preparation for a sigh that could never expel enough air to really soothe her soul. When she listens to Dedee’s callous comments about homosexuals and AIDS, we literally see Lucia’s head spin in preparation for a cutting comment. And though Dedee is a clever stunt for a gay audience--making them choose between comforting platitudes and hipper comic unsentimentality--Lucia’s material is better and not that dissimilar from Dedee’s, for instance, when Lucia goes off on The Sound of Music, saying that she always felt left out, like the Baroness, and wanted "to stuff that guitar up that nun’s ass."
In general, Kudrow’s reactions are funny because minimal (a lot of vexation can be squeezed into an emphatic syllable), but Lucia has a full range of material. She has exasperated punch lines, for instance, when Matt says, "Believe me, I share your feelings," and she hollers, "Oh, well, prove it--help me kill yourself!" And she gets in one superb off-reading of a single word, when Dedee bitchily asks, "God, how does a woman get so bitter," and Lucia quietly but authoritatively answers, "Observation." She has wacky moments that play off her character as a high school teacher, for instance, when she chides former students she comes across, including a TV news reporter asking her a question on camera. The character comes together in a big speech expressing Lucia’s incomprehension of the appeal of sex. This speech is funny in itself, and speaks to the priggish side of us all in face of human animality. At the same time this speech shows Lucia’s morally superior isolation giving way. You can see in Kudrow’s face that she’s ready to join the human comedy, and you believe it and are cheered when she leaps at the earliest opportunity.
Kudrow has a high, nervous voice that tries to get in its quick-stab delivery before composure deserts her--it’s as if she’d taken master classes with a slightly wobbly sewing machine needle. Many of her best lines seem to be preparations for a flounce out of your presence. I’m a critic; unbidden I tell people what they should feel and think and why. So a significant part of me identifies with the unreconstructed Lucia, just as part of me identifies with Miss Gulch and Sally Kellerman’s Hot Lips Houlihan before her turnaround. And yet I can see what’s the matter with Lucia--she doesn’t get how complex adjustments can work. They depart from strict moral norms (not moralistic norms, she’s not bothered by homosexuality, for instance) and she sees that kind of complexity as a problem. This overwhelms her and she withdraws, leaving an expertly-timed cutting remark for you to remember.
But despite grabbing attention with the superficially tough-talking Dedee, Roos does understand how comedy works, how it loosens up the rigid and bends them to the requirements of fluid human interactions. It’s perfect that, until the end, Lucia is so out of sync with the natural rhythms of life that her expertise with human reproduction consists in being able to judge by sight how far along a wayward teen is. You identify with Lucia because of her outraged responses and then she gets the reward of the best things that can come from compromising your standards. It may not happen this neatly in life, but Kudrow is such a galvanizing comedienne that Lucia’s happy ending is positively rousing.
- female Laurel and Hardy: The basic problem has been to find two girls who are both funny, not just a demure girl with a looser sidekick, which is essentially an allegory of the popular audience’s feeling that funny girls aren’t sexy. It also helps if you feel the pair are funnier together than they would be singly or paired with anyone else. Hal Roach, who produced Laurel and Hardy’s pictures, started the search by pairing Marion Byron and Anita Garvin in the 1928 MGM two-reeler A Pair of Tights. (Professor Ian Abrams of Drexel University called my attention to this short and lent me his copy.) Garvin, an expert mimic, was especially flavorful as the tall, experienced skeptic, while Byron played slapstick as part of her flapper’s bounciness. But Roach didn’t further this experiment, though he did make a string of talking shorts pairing Thelma Todd first with ZaSu Pitts and then with Patsy Kelly. And Marie Dressler and Polly Moran certainly had their moments, especially in Al Christie’s 1929 Paramount two-reel talkie Dangerous Females. In ’30s comedies you often had an aunt who liked to whoop it up as a companion to the romantic comedy heroine, and some of the 20th Century-Fox ’40s musicals would pair pretty-but-energetic Betty Grable with a horsy, eccentric live wire like Charlotte Greenwood.
To answer the single most common question I’ve been asked about female comedians: I’ve never been impressed by the Lucille Ball-Vivian Vance teamwork on I Love Lucy because the routines are so stale (and almost never connected to the setting); because I like broad performers such as Ball only when they have much faster timing than TV sit-coms allowed until recently (compare her to Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred, Martha Raye in The Big Broadcast of 1938, Rosalind Russell in The Women and His Girl Friday, or Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek--Ball wasn’t any better in the movies and, comparing The Affairs of Annabel and Without Love to Critic’s Choice and Yours, Mine and Ours, you can say she actually got worse on the big screen with experience); and because Vance has no specialty, indeed, little enough talent at all. Debra Massing and Megan Mullally’s scenes together on Will & Grace set a standard in all these respects that Ball and Vance’s work can’t approach. On the big screen, Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin were entertaining in Big Business, certainly more so than Midler and Shelley Long in Outrageous Fortune, but they didn’t follow up on it.
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