Zero Dark Thirty actress Jessica Chastain must have some friends over at the Graydon Carter offices. Last night, Nikki Finke was able to reproduce, word-for-word, a pulled essay from VF.com that slightly criticized the actress as an “empty vessel” (honestly, it sounds much worse out of context) and using one of her own quotes–”I’m the unknown everyone’s already sick of”–to explain why she didn’t quite work in the film Mama.
Deputy editor Bruce Handy, the article’s author, has a lot of good things to say about Ms. Chastain as well! But you would have never had known that, because VF.com pulled the article–which ran January 25, during a crucial build-up week for Oscar-baiting, with ballots going out to Academy members that day–from the site within 24 hours.
From the article obtained by Nikki Finke over at Deadline:
The Jessica Chastain Conundrum: Greatest Actress of Her Generation or Found Art?
By Bruce Handy
Movie acting is a strange, alchemic art. This weekend, for instance, you can go to your local multiplex and see Jessica Chastain play a credibly fierce C.I.A. officer in Zero Dark Thirty. Then you can go next door and see Mama, in which Chastain plays the least fierce, least credible punk rocker in the history of film. Maggie Smith could have done it with more edge and nerve. (Actually, that’s not a bad idea: a movie about an aging all-girl punk band starring Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and let’s say Rebel Wilson as the dead original drummer’s drummer granddaughter. Billy Nighy can be the manager. It could be a sort of non-sequel sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and you’re welcome, Harvey Weinstein.)
But back to Chastain. Why is she so excellent in the one movie and so not excellent in the other? To the extent we can bat around theories—and ignore the collaborative nature of movie-making—we can begin to solve the even deeper mystery that is Chastain herself, who, as if she were Hollywood kudzu, has starred in half of all films released over the past two years. If that weren’t accomplishment enough, last weekend she had the No. 1 and 2 films at the box office. She has also received an Oscar nomination for the second year in a row and is currently on Broadway starring in The Heiress. And yet, as a public figure and performer, she is as elusive as she is ubiquitous, one of the most curious stars ever anointed by Hollywood. As she herself put it to Evgenia Peretz in a Vanity Fair profile, “I’m the unknown everyone’s already sick of.”
She’s obviously beautiful, but there’s something about Chastain’s features that doesn’t quite hold your eye. To me, Cate Blanchett is from the same mold; maybe they’re both too perfectly beautiful, almost burnished. When you get past the dazzle, a lot of movie stars are actually kind of funny looking, like Julia Roberts with her big upper lip or Emma Stone with her huge, Bratz-doll eyes or Channing Tatum with his blockhead; the classic examples are the Dumbo ears on either side of Clark Gable. Other stars are better-looking versions of people we might know in real life—Reese Witherspoon or Ryan Reynolds, say. But one way or another, their faces have visual “hooks” analogous to the musical hooks in pop songs; we’re drawn back to them again and again. Actors and actresses who lack that quality, who are too blandly beautiful, we dismiss as “soap-opera-y.” Actors and actresses who are even more beautiful than that, who approach a classical ideal, as Chastain and Blanchett do, we call “timeless” or “ethereal,” but that can be limiting. Put another way, whom else but Cate Blanchett would you cast as an elf queen?
Looks aside (a phrase rarely spoken in the film world), on-screen Chastain seems disinclined to convey a sense of who she really is—she can often be a recessive presence. (As she also told Peretz—perversely for an actress—“I don’t want people to look at me.”) All acting is a combustion of craft and personality, but the personality quotient tends to run high for movie stars. Once you’ve seen Jennifer Lawrence in a couple things, you get a sense of her as mischievous, smart-mouthed, scrappy—perhaps a false impression, but there’s an underlying beat in her performances that, aside from her talent, goes a long way toward making her a star. You know what you’re going to get with her the way you do with Katherine Hepburn, so it’s easier to welcome them as your make-believe friends, at least for two hours.
Plenty of actors are said to “disappear” into their roles; Meryl Streep and Sean Penn come to mind, but even they throw off a consistent charisma no matter the thickness of their accent or putty on their nose. Chastain is more like an empty vessel, and I think she’s at her best when she either has very little or very much to do. Terrence Malick used her as if she were found art in Tree of Life, where she had almost no lines but filled space wonderfully as an idealized mother figure, more symbol than character. The truth is, she doesn’t really have that much to do in Zero Dark Thirty, either, where a lot of the performance takes place in reaction shots, and she’s mostly required to just look fierce and determined. She’s very good at that—and I doubt it’s easy—but I’m surprised it’s being hailed as one of the year’s great performances, and that it has earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. It’s not the sort of flashy thing, like playing a transgendered murder victim or quadriplegic boxer, that the Academy normally rewards.
On the other end of the Chastain spectrum was her role in The Help as a sexy, white-trash housewife. The part, like every other one in that ridiculous film, was a caricature, but Chastain brought depth and nuance and vulnerability to the caricature, if that’s not all a contradiction in terms, which made her the best thing in the movie and won her a well-deserved supporting-actress nomination last year. (She lost to her co-star Octavia Spencer, for her update on the time-honored Sassy Black Maid part.)
The problem for Chastain in Mama, a modern-day Gothic-style ghost story that opened last week, is that her role is not particularly well written or interesting; there’s not much there there, though it’s a busy part all the same, larded with stair-climbing and closet-door-opening and screaming. Another actress—Lawrence, say, or Kristen Stewart, either of whom would have also been more cast to type as a punk—could have filled out the part with their personalities. Chastain just looked lost, as if she couldn’t find any traction in the dialogue or action. (Unlike on Zero Dark Thirty, where she got to model those boss aviator shades, she wasn’t helped on Mama by a weird shag haircut or an uninspired wardrobe that, as my colleague Juli Weiner says, looked like the costume designer Google-imaged “punk” and then went home.) She was better in Lawless, last fall’s dopey moonshine drama, but still seemed adrift. Perhaps the lesson is she’s a performer who needs either too much scaffolding from a script or almost none at all.
(Mea culpa: in a similar post a couple of weeks ago where I sought to explain the appeal of Ryan Gosling, as my wife pointed out, I neglected to mention his most salient attribute as an actor—that he’s “fucking hot.”)
At least the magazine owned up. According to a VF spokeswoman who talked to Deadline, “We took it down because it ran counter to what a number of people at the magazine believed.”
Maybe. Ms. Chastain has a sort of “hot sister of Cate Blanchett” thing going on, which isn’t in and of itself interesting. Maybe try doing a rom-com next, and see if you are the next crossover hit or Katherine Heigl.