Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry

Hilary Swank received a semi-surprise Academy Award for playing Brandon Teena, a brutally murdered transgendered teen in Kimberly Peirce's first movie, Boys Don't Cry. Although it was Swank who won the Golden Globe  for Best Actress in a Drama, Annette Bening was expected to take home the Oscar for her performance in the smash hit American Beauty. I cannot find a sensible reason for this upset besides the simple fact that this was one of the rare occasions that the Academy voted for what they found the best performance of the year. 

I must also add that Boys Don't Cry didn't do that well in terms of Oscar nominations. The only other nomination was for Chloe Sevigny who, in my opinion, might have deserved to win (more than the actual winner, that's for sure), but I somehow believe that Lana was the central character besides Brandon and she was leading as well. Also, I believe the movie was cheated out of nominations for both Best Picture and Original Screenplay (I know it was a very rich year, but this movie was way better than American Beauty or The Cider House Rules). I also admire Kimberly Peirce's unshowy, but sharp and confident direction that really builds up all the tension until the horrifying ending with the help of a very strong and talented cast. 

That cast includes Hilary Swank who, as you know, is not, ahhem, one of my favorite actresses as I find her performances overly affected and her performances are rarely honest, in my opinion. She's so desperate to gain your attention and your sympathy and she's actually quite skilful at that: she all does it under the disguise of 'subtlety'. And yet in Boys Don't Cry, she couldn't be any more different: she portrays Brandon's fears and desperation with brutal honesty and as a result, we get an incredibly mysterious and haunting performance that reveals its secrets in the course of the film, but it takes an effort from the viewer as well. 

Many people compare Hilary Swank's case to Sally Field who also (unexpectedly) took home two Oscars for Best Actress after some time on television. I suppose people at the time must have been surprised that actresses with such backgrounds can be so thrilling in a serious feautre film. However, I feel that all the comparisions end at this point: the actresses couldn't be any more different from one another, in their approach to characters and the audience (and Sally will receive that third nomination very soon so that two out of two thing won't apply, either). 

The character of Brandon Teena was Swank's ultimate chance to prove herself to Hollywood and moviegoers after being fired from Beverly Hills, 90210. Although it could have been a showy fuck you to the team of Aaron Spelling with the label 'I can do better than you', instead Swank played Brandon with fierce honestly and courage as if she had nothing to lose. Her bravery and dedication to this character was exactly what this movie needed. 

Since Brandon was a mystery, the ego of a huge star would have ruined the performance entirely. If anyone wanted to display her skills in this part, she would have failed miserably because Brandon's personality was all about concealing herself. For me, this performance was mainly effective because of all those repressed emotions of Brandon were so wonderfully communicated by Swank and that creates really disturbing tension that helped the movie have this very dark tone. Also, this is why I believe some people might be turned off by this performance. It doesn't grab you in a traditional sense, there aren't many actressy scenes, it just leaves you confused and incredibly disturbed.

However, I'd never say that Hilary's performance made this movie overly depressing. On the contrary, the passion and sometimes playfulness that she displays on the screen provide us with rare moments of comfort and harmony. Naturally, the most tender moments of the film are the ones between Brandon and Lana, where the two actresses work together exceptionally. Their relationship is not the earth-shattering romance one would expect in a movie, it's just these two people together, naturally, without much fuss. Their moments emphasise the romance instead of sex, even though that's a part of it as well (which is handled delicately by both actresses).

Hilary also handles the technical part of this performance wonderfully, nailing the accent, the faked deep voice. The physical transformation is almost frightening (no wonder people thought that Brandon was Hilary's brother) and you see that it's coming naturally. The Brandon/Teena personalities could be confusing to the viewer and yet it becomes the most clear thing for the viewer as Hilary totally identified with how Brandon saw himself.

Still, the most shocking and disturbing parts of Swank's performance come in the end, when Brandon's secret is revealed to her environment, leading to torture, suffering and ultimately, the violent death of Brandon. The cool guy image that he built for himself is gone and he becomes a broken down, raped and abandoned woman (something he was terrified of). Teena being raped is one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever. Even in this very tough scenes, Hilary was able to keep as subtle as she was from the very beginning. One of the earlier scenes feautre a humiliated Teena looking into the eyes of Brandon, which is a revelatory moment just as much for the audiene as it is for him.

And when you'd start to think that it couldn't get better, Hilary takes it a step further when Teena is examined after the rape. All the shame and humiliation that she displays without much dialogue is just unbelievably wrenching and it's also a powerful and shocking reminder of human cruelty (it's funny that in about 45 seconds she reveals more about rape than The Accused in two hours).

All this leads to an unforgettable final scene of Hilary, which is also such an effortless and beautifully played revision of that whole character: all the longing for a better life on his face before he's shot to death makes the ending hurt deeply. Hilary plays with your emotions and manipulates them, but she does so as a result flawless acting and her shocking honesty, not tactics in acting, which was probably the hardest part of this role.

In short, Hilary Swank gives a devastating and harrowing performance as Brandon Teena that stays with you long after you watched the film. Swank's work here is unaffected, honest and she's not as deseperate to please the audience as she's later in her career. Her fierceness is exactly what was needed with a character whose layerss had to be revealed slowly and carefully. And thanks to Hilary's harrowing characterisation, Boys Don't Cry becomes the masterpiece that it indeed is.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Boys Don't Cry is my favorite film of 1999! Excelent write up. It was robbed in so many categories.

joe burns said...

Great review!!! I haven't seen her in awhile, but I'm glad you mentioned how subtle she is, because it's true: she doesn't have a lot of showy moments, and that's why I think some would prefer Sevigny, as I did when I saw it.

As for her winning chances, I think she simply had gained so much momentum early on that it was impossible to beat her. People simply found her revelatory. I think Annette may have turned some people off: She's a hit and miss for many, including me. And I also think American Beauty was going to be honored in other categories anyway.

Is Sevigny or Keener your Best Supporting Actress pick?

dinasztie said...

Thanks to both of you!

Joe: Out of the two, it's Keener. Out of the five, I'm not sure, because I saw The Sixth Sense very long ago.

Louis Morgan said...

Well I doubt anyone left will beat her let alone get a five.

mrripley said...

I just think that this character you cared for and Annette's you did not simple plus Swank was totally unknown one of those once in a lifetime roles she probably thought little knowing Clint would come calling,can i ask what you thought of her in Amelia something else she was expected to be nommed for,i personally liked her and compared to 2 Mirren,Bullock of the other nominees much better but her film was a bit flaccid,love to know what you think and would you have nommed her,lovely post on a beautiful performance spot on for you.

dinasztie said...

mrripley: Yes, I cared for her character much more but mostly because her performance was much better. I've never seen Amelia and I'm not really eager to see it. :)

And thanks! :)