Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas

Elisabeth Shue received her only Oscar nomination to date for playing Sera, a prostitute falling for a suicidal, alcoholic screenwriter in Leaving Las Vegas. Elisabeth's nomination is considered to have been a real nailbiter though I feel the SAG, Golden Globe and Bafta nods plus the wins from the critics' should have indicated a firm fanbase for Elisabeth. I suppose people might have been worried as she still might have been that girl from Back to the Future and Cocktail. Fortunately, she received her well-deserved acclaim for her work in Leaving Las Vegas and I suppose she was the dark horse for the Oscar (she might have even become second after Sarandon). I just hope that she gets such a great chance in the foreseeable future. 

Leaving Las Vegas is, by all means, a masterpiece. Not only is it better than any of the movies nominated for Best Picture (shitty field, I must say), it's also one of the best movies of the ninties. There we go, I said it. If you go for wonderfully depressing, dark independent films, Leaving Las Vegas is your ideal choice. It deserved all of its nominations and should have got Best Director and at the very least Adapted Screenplay. Nicolas Cage is very effective and heart-breaking in the lead though I must say he doesn't have much screentime at all. I can't really decide if he deserved the Oscar (I'll decide after I rewatch Penn). 

And then there's Maude Elisabeth Shue as Sera, one of the most atypical interpretations of a hooker in the history of film. Prostitutes have always done well with the Academy, we can mention Liz Taylor in her infamous BUtterfield 8 or Jane Fonda's towering achievement in Klute. I suppose I can describe Sera as a darker, even more devastating and heart-breaking version of Bree Daniels: on the ouside. She basically narrates the movie and her experiences very much like Bree does, revealing her feelings and intimate details about her relationship with Ben. Just like Bree, Sera is under a mask, always putting on performances with clients. As she says, she gives whatever they need and want to see. Inside, however, they couldn't be more different. While Bree is always hoping for a better day, Sera doesn't even try to break out of her terrible life even though she desperately clings to the only thing that makes her feel worthy of love and attention - and that's Ben. 

I often find myself wondering what makes a performance truly great, something that really hits you right in your guts. For instance: what's so great about Diane Keaton in Annie Hall technically or even emotionally? My answer is not really and yet she's #3 in my overall ranking. Her special aura and radiant persona is the thing that elevates her performance. Although Shue's plays with emotions incredibly, it's again that special radiation that makes her work so special as Sera. With one teardrop she can communicate the sadness and devastation of days, weeks, even decades. Shue really is the heart of Leaving Las Vegas, she makes it so wonderfully wrenching, depressing and cathartic. In fact, I feel that Nicolas Cage's character is nothing more than an accessory to create Sera's character. Not only that, also if we go by the numbers, she has considerably more scenes and screentime than Cage. On top of that, as I said, she has the biggest impact and she's the reason why you feel that pressing feeling in your throats. 

What I admired the most about Shue here is her ability to get across the humiliation and the love of Sera and the fact that she made her such a layered and beautiful character. She so carefully developed this human being that you can actually feel her heartbeats and feel her breath on your skin. It's chilling to see how close the camera she is to her. The relationship is so intimate between her and the audience but then again the question comes up: could it even be another one of Sera's performances? Are we also just clients of hers? Elisabeth is seemingly playing with the instincts of the viewer. She's extremely hot and sexy, it really just feels like a sexual encounter between you and her. This might sound a little perverted but I could actually smell her skin, her hair and feel her body. Elisabeth's literally almost in your face and this realism really fits this character. 

Furthermore, as Ben puts it many-many times, Sera is an angel to her, a form of salvation that might probably be the only thing that keeps him alive. William H. Macy's character in Magnolia says something like 'I have so much love to give'. I suppose that character and Sera could have a long chat about giving love. In this central relationship, Sera is seemingly the only one to give, give, give and always put up with Ben's unacceptable behaviour. Shue wonderfully showed how complicated this side of Sera is: she even suggests that it's actually Ben who's saving her (just remember her Oscar clip when she's begging him to seek the help of a doctor). This quiet breakdown is one of the most heart-breaking and devastating scenes ever in a movie. Elisabeth added a touch of the essence that Julianne Moore's (<3) character had in Far from Heaven: she turns a blind on the flaws of a man she loves and does everything to maintain that idyllic state. This is probably the biggest merit of Elisabeth: sometimes she does the most unexpected things that lead to the best outcomes. In the scene at the kitchen I felt like watching a 50s perfect housewife instead of a humiliated prostitute. 

Although Elisabeth (naturally) nails all the monologues, it's really her face that really tells Sera's feelings. She's incredibly subtle and avoids being over-the-top. She hits you hard with one simple truth: as hard as she's trying, in the eyes of others, Sera is nothing but a dirty f-ing whore. That's something that you can feel whenever she's on the screen, being humliliated by someone. Again, it's her face that makes these terrifying scenes unbearable: the pain that she displays is almost too much to carry for the audience (thankfully, she's completely in control of her character this way as well).  

Chemistry feels kind of an odd word to describe what's going on between Elisabeth and Nicolas Cage but I have no other word :-). However, their chemistry is just wonderful. Elisabeth is loving and caring, which is a great contrast to Cage's destructive, raging presence. It's over-the-top and subtle paired together and it's just a perfect synthesis. They are in love in the most peculiar and unexpected way - they are in love with each other because they need each other's love and both actors are showing this so effortlessly and naturally that I was actually doubting I was watching actors playing parts  (their last scene is just so amazing).

It takes some time and attention from the viewer to see all the things that Elisabeth put into this character and so all her layers and facets. However, if you surrender to her, it's going to be a wonderful experience for you. She makes Sera such an interesting, heartbreaking character without seeming forced for a second. It all seems to come from her so naturally: she clearly identified with this character. This wonderful, rich character study is indeed a very special gift to us and Elisabeth's talent, extraordinary range and passion makes this one of the greatest performances ever given. 
 

What do you think?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

For me Cage really overshadowed her with his amazing performance, but she is still great and my choice for win.

Cole said...

Great review! I'm torn between her and Streep, it's a very difficult choice! About Cage, he's easily my pick, Sean Penn , according to me, is not that great in Dead man walking.

mrripley said...

i go back n forth from shue to streep,at the moment it's streep.

Louis Morgan said...

I agree a strong performance that compliments Cage's performance extremely well.

dinasztie said...

Cole: Thanks! I just LOVE your picture. :D

Fritz said...

Great review! And she really is wonderful!

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