Patricia Clarkson seems like one cool chick. Maybe it’s because she’s played liberal, laidback moms a few times; a role that she plays so naturally that it seems to be an extension of her true self. She’s an amazing supporting actress who pops up in dramas and comedies and is such a memorable presence in every film that she’s in. There’s something so natural, powerful and engaging about her acting style. Even in a minor role, like her lone scene in Shutter Island, Clarkson commands the screen, carves out a pivotal role and leaves a memorable impression. Like her character in the film, Clarkson’s appearance was unexpected since I wasn’t aware that she was even in the movie. I find the movie-viewing experience a little extra special when Patricia Clarkson shows up for a few scenes or even more.
She starred in a few early films that I had seen, like The Untouchables, but it wasn’t until The Green Mile that Clarkson really appeared on my radar. She was heartbreakingly perfect as Melinda Moores, the terminally ill wife of Warden Hal Moores. She was at times rife with anger because of the physical pain she was in and then perfectly calm and retrospective when talking to John Coffey about her dream of them wandering in the dark and finding each other. Her role was small, but her impact was immense.
I’m a big Frasier fan, and just yesterday I was watching re-runs on TV while having dinner and there was Patricia Clarkson playing Claire, Frasier’s love interest. In that recurring guest role, it seemed like Clarkson was playing herself – a lady with elegance, class and a great sense of humour. She also earned two Emmys for her memorable supporting role in another great show, Six Feet Under.
What’s incredible about Patricia Clarkson is seeing how effectively she can transition from comedy to drama and, more importantly, to infuse drama with comedy. In Pieces of April, she plays a mother who is dying of breast cancer and she uses her mortality as a source of brave humour. She asks for silence to reflect on an impending crisis and while her family expects her to mention her illness, she instead wonders how they’ll hide the food they don’t eat. The film is quirky and enjoyable and Clarkson takes her moments onscreen and makes them shine. She was deservedly nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the film.
Just as she can play funny and play light amidst darker themes, she can play mean and dichotomous with the best of them. She was superb as the nasty neighbour pretending to be sweet opposite Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven. Then she made a string of films and played a number of different characters for a variety of interesting directors. There was The Pledge for Sean Penn; Dogville for Lars Von Trier; Good Night, and Good Luck for George Clooney and Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works for Woody Allen. I can’t help but think about Lars and the Real Girl when I think about Clarkson’s filmography. That film was so special and it left such a lasting impression, and the fact that Patricia Clarkson was in it only adds to its appeal. I sat down to watch that film knowing nothing about it apart from the fact that it starred Ryan Gosling as a young man who falls in love with a doll. I had no idea that Clarkson was in the film, but I was so thrilled when she appeared as the family doctor and psychologist who treats Lars. I was surprised and happy to see her!
The laidback moms to which I referred earlier were comedic supporting roles – and great roles – in two comedies that I rather enjoyed. I didn’t sit down to watch Friends With Benefits with any expectations whatsoever. I actually thought I wouldn’t like it, but I did. It was nothing special, very formulaic and unoriginal, but it was entertaining nonetheless. What did impress me about it, though, was the stellar supporting cast in it including Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins and Patricia Clarkson. Once again, Clarkson appeared in a movie that I had no idea she was in and she was delightful! She played a hip, cool mom who can talk to her daughter about anything. In another comedy that I liked a lot better because it was smarter and more effective, she played a cool mom again, but didn’t just have conversations with her daughter about sex and men, she was a sharp-tongued, witty and clever mother who shared amusing barbs with her daughter, yet never lost her loving and caring edge. When she learned that her daughter was carrying on a ruse about losing her virginity to a college guy at school, she responded with equanimity rather than freak out about it.
She finally got a chance to play a starring role in Cairo Time and she was as engaging and as wonderful as ever. Now in her 50s, Clarkson’s career seems to be heating up and I think she’s firmly established herself as a formidable character actor that can play everything from cool mothers to desperate, tortured characters to difficult relatives to strong, independent wives. She’s enterprising, smart and interesting and one of the things that I continue to appreciate as I watch movies is seeing Patricia Clarkson appear in a film that I didn’t know she was in. It’s always a lovely surprise.