Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More News from the Travolta Wars

It looks like the exchange of fire between "New Yorker" film critic, David Denby, and Times reviewer, A. O. Scott was just an opening volley in the battle over whether John Travolta's portrayal of Edna Turnblad, an oversize mother in 1960s Baltimore in Adam Shankman's recently-released version of the movie "Hairspray", was an acting tour de force or a casting mistake of the first order.

No sooner had I read and commented in a previous blog entry on what those writers had to say, yet before I had a chance to see the movie myself, I came across Felicia Feaster's critique in Atlanta's "Creative Loafing". If Denby ever needed re-enforcements in his Travolta bashing, he has found them in Feaster's full-bore complaints. In some ways they see eye to eye, with Denby calling the casting of Travolta for the role "an idiocy" and Feaster characterizing it as "miserably failed." Feaster, though, does Denby one better, especially when comparing Travolta's performance to that of Divine, the erstwhile king of crossing-crossing queens, in the earlier film version.
Where transvestite Divine was just another another component in [director John] Water's wonderful scuzzy tapestry, Travolta is a beady-eyed freak with a mouth full of marbles forming an incomprehensible accent and the kind of caricatured body that transforms bosomy, motherly softness into a malicious dart board.
Feaster does not stop there; see finds lurking behind Travolta's realization of Edna not just poor casting and acting decisions, but a "frat boy" misogyny, emanating from
... a straight guy's sense of hilarity at the fleshy absurdity of the female form and the fun of imitating it for a time.
Well, you'd think that such an accusation of political obtuseness would pretty much put the nail in the John Travolta / Edna Turnblad coffin, but another one of Feaster's observations turns the tables - at least for me - in an unexpected way. Feaster is perplexed that Christopher Walken, Edna's hopelessly devoted husband Wilbur, could appear so smitten with Edna. She attributes this to either "Walken's delicious perversity or his acting ability" since he, against all odds, "manages to rake his eyes over Travolta in a latex big-mama suit with an expression of typically ravenous rapture."

Not to fault Walken in the least, since he is indeed a magnificent actor, but there is of course another explanation for this love-sickness and that is that John Tavolta's striving for authenticity in his portrayal of Edna Turnblad not only makes her, in A. O. Scott's words "the most realistic, least stereotypical character in the film", but I would dare to say the very heart and soul of "Hairspray". Count me with Walken as one captivated by Travolta's Edna.

Not being a professional critic it's hard for me to say authoritatively what makes for good character or a great performance. One thing that comes to mind, though, is whether an actor succeeds in having us identify with the character that he or she is portraying. Sometimes the part is written in such a way that identification, if not automatic, is at least not unexpected. At other times it requires the wit and resourcefulness of the player to draw us in to the humanity we share - if only marginally - with the character on the screen. Anthony Hopkins' embodiment of Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" is a marvelous example of this kind of acting triumph.

Travolta's decision to play Edna straight - complete with a realistic Baltimore accent, which, contrary to Denby and Feaster's claims, I found to be an asset to his characterization - opens the door for this identification. To have mimicked the exaggerated performances of Divine in the first movie or that of Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical would have been to have kept that door shut. By identifying with Edna we come to care about her and even to develop - much to Feaster's surprise - the kind of affection for her that Walken exudes as he serenades her with song and dance. This is what elevates Edna in Travolta's hands from being a prop to being a person.

But our identification with a movie character is only a starting point. Even characters that invite our sympathy often don't affect us unless they change in some significant way in the course of the film. "Hairspray", ironically, offers its lead character as an example of how this sometimes doesn't work. Tracy Turnblad, Edna's daughter (wonderfully performed by Nikki Blonsky), begins the film as a effervescent idealistic irrepressible young woman and ends the film much the same way. She is the hero of the film, of course, but a guileless one. We cheer for her the way we might cheer for a valiant clever puppy in a remake of a "Benji" movie, but we never really get to know her any better.

Edna, unlike Tracy, is a diffident pessimistic inhibited woman of middle years, who, because of her daughter's enthusiasm for dance, is forced to come out of her shell and to explore a world that, due to her obesity, she has shunned for many years. Hesitant and uncertain Edna, nonetheless, slowly develops the confidence to step out into a new life, first as Tracy's business agent, and eventually as an activist on the front lines in the Civil Rights Movement. By first having us identify with - and therefore care about - Edna and then setting that character in motion, having her learn and change, Travolta makes "Hairspray" a much more interesting film.

But that is not all. It is not for nothing that "Hairspray" is set in 1962, at the verge of a sea change that will transform the cultural landscape of a nation. The storyline features the struggle to integrate a TV dance show in Baltimore as its emblem of the changing times, but we know implicitly that other catalysts of change, the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles and the Vietnam War, for example, wait in the wings. I don't think that it was an accident - much less a clumsy mistake - that Travolta was cast to play the part of Edna and that he decided to do so in a way that depicts her in earnest as a woman emerging from a period of private torpor and hesitation into an era that demands she become publicly engaged and fearless. On the contrary, unlike Denby and Feaster, I see the selection of Travolta for the role as a casting coup, one that fostered the creation of a character whose humanity, in particular her suffering as an outcast, and whose personal transformation, bravely asserting herself in a challenging new world, not only mirror but indeed undergird the central themes of the movie.

"Hairspray" would hardly be the film it is without John Travolta's turn as Edna Turnblad. You do have to be willing, though, to look a beyond the "latex big-mama suit" to see what he's all about.

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