Thursday, July 21, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Reaching For the Stars

The scene of the after party for "Tallulah" at Jimmy at the James Hotel. Photo: Patrick McMullan
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Tammy Blanchard Reaches For the Stars in "Tallulah." (Ellen Page and Allison Janney Also Dazzle in This Compelling Film.)


“AS AN actress, how do you create the emotional journey your character took in this movie? From someone the audience is initially revolted by, to a point of a near-total reclamation of her soul, and that audience is rooting for her?”

“Honey, if I knew how I made that journey — or any journey as an actress, I don’t think I could be an actress. I can’t explain what I do. The important thing is that you just said what you said to me; that’s all that matters — I’ve done what I intended to do.”
Tammy giving out more hugs to co-stars Allison Janney and Ellen Page.
So it went between the brilliant actress Tammy Blanchard and this columnist, at the NYC premiere of her film, “Tallulah.” Miss Blanchard then enveloped me in a grateful hug that conveyed nearly as much about this lovely woman as her searing performance did onscreen.

Blanchard shot to fame back in 2001 as young Judy Garland in the acclaimed TV movie “Me and My Shadows.” (Judy Davis, another force of nature, played the older Garland, and she was marvelous. But I recall thinking at the time that Tammy should have been allowed to travel Judy’s entire road in the movie, her youth be damned — she eerily inhabited the essence of that tragic legend to the nth degree.)
Tammy as a young Judy Garland in “Me and My Shadows.”
Since then, Blanchard has worked a lot to great effect in a plethora of TV and feature films (“Bella,” “Rabbit Hole,” Blue Jasmine,” etc) But major stardom, sustained media attention has eluded her. Variety recently referred to her as a “reliable character actress.” She is indeed that (“reliable” hardly describes what she commits to even the smallest role) and if enough people see “Tallulah,” if enough attention is paid, Tammy might become the leading lady she deserves to be, and, wants to be. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a higher professional profile” she said. “Well, maybe you’re not supposed to say it. But I’ve been around long enough. I’ve got a right to sing the blues, just a little!” She laughed, she smiled, but somehow the compliments, the attention that night (I wasn’t the only one bowled over) didn’t reach her huge, melancholy eyes. I guess she’s been here before — high praise and then ... what the hell happened?
Tammy in “Bella," 2006.
With Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole."
With Peter Sarsgaard, Alec Baldwin, and Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine."
“TALLULAH” screened at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street, courtesy of The Cinema Society and Netflix, which has bought the film. I don’t know if the movie — written and directed by Sian Heder — will show on Netflix only, or has a theatrical run, but either way, it deserves to be seen, savored and honored, come awards season.

The movie features Ellen Page as the abrasive but fragile title character, Tallulah, who prefers “Lu.” She lives out of her van, she steals, she grifts. We learn that as a child she was abandoned and most likely abused. Trust is not a friend, love offered has no meaning; she lives only in the anxious, sometimes exciting, often desperate moment.
Ellen Page as the title character, Tallulah.
This wild child wanders into the lives of Carolyn (Blanchard) and Margo (Allison Janney) with explosive effect. Carolyn is a coarse, careless, hard-drinking, bitterly disappointed married woman of some means, who is frightened of and resents her own beautiful baby.

Margo is another disappointed character, still stunned by a three separation from her husband of 18 years, still living in their apartment, refusing to sign divorce papers, surrounded by his belongings and his art, which she loathes. (Making matters worse, she’s an author, whose most recent book was about ... sustaining a successful marriage!)
Allison Janney as Margo.
To tell exactly how their lives connect, to explain the plot, would, I think, do the film a disservice. The synopsis, as it reads on paper is eye-rollingly melodramatic, unrealistic, contrived — a “dramedy.” But, thanks to the sharp writing and soul-capturing direction of Sian Heder, the film steps out of itself, becoming a tribute to the human spirit, to the strength of women (make no mistake, this is a movie about, but not singularly for, women) the power of redemption, the necessity and the beauty, of “hanging on” to life.

As to the performances, I’d hand best-actress Oscar nominations to all three of the leading ladies. Ellen Page’s “Lu” is not dissimilar to her breakout turn in “Juno” but with even more pain and poignancy. Allison Janney is an actress without peer, who can convey a world of pain, pleasure, joy, in a glance. When she lets loose here, at one vital point, spewing out years of anger, it is volcanic, riveting.
Tammy Blanchard as Carolyn.
In the end, however, the film belongs to Tammy Blanchard — her initial brutal disregard, rage, pathetically displayed sexuality, fear, humiliation, regret, and in the end (maybe) a new woman is born. I was stunned with admiration. And so was the audience, who gave “Tallulah” a tumultuous reaction.

Big kudos also to Evan Jonigkeit ... David Zayas ... Zachary Quinto ... John Benjamin Hickey ... Felix Solis and Fredric Lehne, the men who manage to stand tall against three female forces of nature. (Jonikeit, who plays Page’s lover, is particularly effective.)
A very special tip of the hat to Uzo Aduba. She is best known as “Crazy Eyes” from the prison series “Orange is the New Black.” First-time director Heder, who writes for that show, chose Ms. Aduba for several potent scenes as a totally non-nonsense police detective. In a way, it’s kind of an inside joke — from inmate to policewoman. It is also a tribute to Aduba’s ability, as she was all but unrecognizable playing it straight — no crazy eyes.
Uzo Aduba in “Tallulah.”
THE PARTY after — because what is a screening without a party? — happened at Jimmy at the James Hotel. It’s way up in the sky, the night was warm but not oppressive and a full moon appeared and vanished through clouds against a deep blue sky. It reminded me of the cloud/moon motif in the Bette Davis movie “The Letter.” Luckily, no woman scorned appeared with a pistol, ready to shoot her lover down! It was all quite serene.
The "Tallulah" party was nothing like this!
Among the crowd: Dick Cavett ... Spike Jonze ... Condola Rashad (gorgeous daughter of Phylicia Rashad) ... Danielle Brooks and Yael Stone (“OITNB” castmembers) ... Candy Pratts Price ... PR’s Scott Gorenstein ... Oklahoma’s fresh-faced and refreshingly sincere Manhattan success, Kipton Cronkite (He advises everybody who is anybody on art, how to display their art, and on real estate where art can breathe and be appreciated. He encourages up and coming artists in every field, too.) Allison Janney was in and out swiftly.  I heard she was finishing up a 30-day "cleanse" — perhaps in preparation for a new movie, and I guess she didn't want to be tempted by treacherous nibbles and cocktails.  She did look great — long and leggy and tan, with some impressive musculature in her arms.
Long legged Allison Janney with her costars.
Sian Heder. Zosia Mamet and Evan Jonigkeit.
Kipton Cronkite and Daniel Benedict. Danielle Brooks and Uzo Aduba.
Pat Cleveland and Paul von Ravenstein. Sophie Simmons.
Also on hand, suffering a bit of jet lag that made him anything but lethargic was young real estate mogul Chase Landow of Nest Seekers. (Flying from London, after attending the wedding of Ryan Serhant of Bravo's "Million Dollar Listing," had invigorated Chase and made him appreciate Manhattan all the more.)

Chase Landow and Kipton Cronkite cuddle with the star of the evening, Tammy Blanchard.
The first time I met Chase was at the premiere of the Sally Field movie, “Hello, My Name is Doris.” He looked 17 and I worried that he was drinking, but he is actually 23, and real estate is just his latest career. He’d been in music and tech stuff previously. I’d been impressed. At “Tallulah” he looked 16!
But I didn’t try to warn him off a glass or two of white wine — he is after all, a man.

Mr. Landow is sharp, funny and restless. He travels a lot. (We spoke of the beauties of Australia and why Greece had let him down — there was a garbage strike, among other things.) He knows the people worth knowing in a town tailored for success — not jaded, but nobody’s fool. Tall and strikingly slim, Chase resembles a Modigliani, or because of his electric nervous energy, a glamorous whippet, or an edgy greyhound, at the start of the race. He’s fun. But he’s not all fun.

If I have the strength to carry on with this work a few more years, I’m pretty sure Chase Landow will top this column someday.
Chase and friends on the Island of Paxos in Greece.

Photographs by Patrick McMullan

Contact Liz here.