Janet McTeer had her Oscar breakthrough with Tumbleweeds, a movie in which she played Mary Jo Walker, a woman who runs from town to town with her teenage daughter to find the next overbearing and/or abusive guy. Although Janet received her fair share of critics' awards (plus a Globe in the Comedy/Musical category), I believe she was more of a dark horse after front-runners Annette Bening and Hilary Swank. That being said, it's a great triumph for Janet as the Academy likes to overlook comedy even when the leading character is somewhat trashy (but they only like that character a lot when there's deglam attached to it). But here we are, with a relatively unknown British Actress in an independent comedy receiving a nomination... that's what the Academy should be about.
And this independent comedy is a really heartwarming and genuinely pleasing piece (as for me). It's one of the few films where even a fart joke is adorable, thanks to the cosy, enjoyable direction of Gavin O'Connor (the guy who also plays Jack, one of Mary Jo's boyfriends). I was especially pleased by the fact that the story deliberately tried to avoid cliche, like there was (SPOILER) no huge dramatic asthma attack and running to the hospital (SPOILER OFF), which, in an unusual way, was further proof of the originality of this story.
However, I felt that none of this would have been possible without the participation of the always fantastic Janet McTeer who could turn the weakest material into gold (no, I'm not talking about Albert Nobbs, for which she should have won the Oscar) with her subtle development of characters. Even when she's stuck with a thin character (like her role on Damages), her intelligence and the previously mentioned subtle development makes you notice her. She's always aware of how much spotlight she can have, but she uses that to the maximum effect. Her interactions with other actors (huh, Great Glenn especially) are so interesting because she could find chemistry even with a cup of coffee.
All the external things about Mary Jo Walker's character seem to be loud, showy, almost over-the top, with the blond hair and her accent, which is pretty impressive coming from a British woman. It's sort of tiring to say that Janet McTeer completely disappears into the part and you barely recognise her, it just doesn't matter at all, once you get to see how Mary Jo's character is growing during the course of this film.
Tumbleweeds appears to be the next Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, but it's somewhat more realistic, funny and eventually, it's more of a feminist film. You already know by now how much I take pleasure in comparing characters and performances and this act has proven to be especially rewarding and fun this time. Both Alice Hyatt and Mary Jo Walker are defined by men they end up with, but while Alice remains to be defined by a man, Mary Jo has more of an awakening in the end and she turns out to be (in my opinion) more aware of her own worth. Thanks to her outspoken and smart daughter, Mary Jo realizes that maybe she can manage on her own and doesn't have to run away instantly.
Another accomplishment of McTeer is that while she makes Mary Jo's journey entertaining and funny, she never chooses the easy way to surrender to playing standard white trash, which is obviously more showy and crowd-pleasing (Gee, I'm still astonished that she won a Golden Globe), but instead portrays Mary Jo as a vulnerable, three-dimensional character, with killer optimism and zero vanity. Mary Jo is a indeed a shocking character, but you cannot spot McTeer being self-aware for a moment and manages to effortlessly combine the carefully worked out technical part with spontaneity, which makes this characterization even more interesting. You never really care about her accent because it seems to come out of Janet naturally as if she was able to find ways to the technical aspects of this character through her soul and personality (and not the other way around, which I find extremely off-putting).
And the same applies to the comedy part of this character. There wasn't one moment when I was entertained by the trashiness that could have been attached to Mary Jo, I was mostly entertained by her wonderful timing, the character's radiant, wonderful personality, the halo of optimism so effortlessly added to her by Janet. Through the comedy, McTeer reveals the sadness inside this woman and the previously mentioned optimism gets further away from her. This adds a bittersweet atmosphere to the movie, which was crucial to making it as effective and lovable as it really is.
And her delivery is killer in every scene, but I especially enjoyed the one where she quits from her job. She turns a cliche situation into a truly delightful. Her refreshing cheekiness and originality makes it an almost cathartic liberation. It seems as if she wanted to also say to the viewer "Do you want me to settle down and have an ordinary life?". This subtle fuck you to the audience is both admirable and deliciously bitchy. For me it really is what independent cinema should about: fighting conventions and original characters that are original without feeling forced (ahem, Juno, ahem). In the end, Mary Jo's great triumph is realizing her own self-worth without a man. SPOILER We don't get to know if she eventually ended up with Dan or someone else SPOILER OFF, but thanks to Janet's interpretation, it all doesn't matter, because Mary Jo is not defined by men anymore.
Overall, I found Janet McTeer as amazing as she always is in this movie. Although you could argue that this character doesn't reach a height when she blows your socks off, Janet brings out the maximum of this seemingly lightweight screenplay, thanks to her skill of portraying the development of characters. Watching her playing Mary Jo is more than a treat: it's a gripping, breathtakingly interesting experience, a truly outstanding, beautifully detailed characterization by one of the most fascinating actresses of our time.
What do you think? (I'm back and I'll try to finish 1999 ASAP.)