Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee

I still hold firm to my opinion that the first Oscar nomination Sandra Bullock received should have been in the Best Supporting Actress category.  Bullock should've been in that category for her intelligent, subtle and nuanced performance as Harper Lee, the novelist who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.  Today is Miss Lee's 86th birthday.  Sandra Bullock portrayed her in the 2006 film, Infamous.  It's another biopic about writer Truman Capote at the time he was researching his book, In Cold Blood.
Bullock's work as Harper Lee in this look at Truman Capote's life really touches something in my soul.  There's a wisdom and honesty about it.  At the end, she gives voice to a certain unexpressed weight in the heart of artists -- anyone who works hard, digs down deep inside to be raw, true and give a good performance of some sort.  Catherine Keener was a Best Supporting Actress contender for her portrayal of Harper Lee in 2005's Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. He won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Lee's best friend and fellow writer.
Bullock gave her interpretation of Lee opposite Toby Jones as Truman Capote in Infamous. 
 In Hollywood history, it's rare for studios to release two biographical pictures about the same famous modern figure at about the same time.  In 1965, Paramount Pictures highly promoted Carroll Baker as the late 1930s Hollywood sex symbol, Jean Harlow, in Harlow.
That same year, in an independent film release, Carol Lynley also played the platinum blonde movie superstar in a biopic also called Harlow.
As I recall, Warner Brothers pushed back the release of its Capote biopic because the indie feature with Philip Seymour Hoffman was wowing the critics and building up major Oscar buzz.  I'm pretty sure the studio didn't want "Dueling Capotes" in the same year.
I was a movie critic on national radio when I saw Infamous.  The studio seemed be giving it mild promotion.  Odd, because Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels, Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig are co-stars. When the movie was over, I left the screening room and told the publicist present that the studio should campaign for Sandra Bullock as Best Supporting Actress.  I put those sentiments for Sandra in my review.  But that didn't help turn up the heat any for the movie's publicity.  Studio promotion remained lukewarm.  And Bullock wasn't the only actor who gave a praise-worthy performance in it.
The two movies have different tones.  Capote drives us to that questionable media intersection of celebrity, crime and journalism.  We see how lines get blurred.  Think of the O. J. Simpson trial.  A crime involving a celebrity.  People who had to take the witness stand, like Kato Kaelin, became celebrities.  People who covered the case, like Star Jones, became celebrities.  Infamous is more about Truman Capote's internal tug-of-war with truth and fiction.  It's about truth vs. self-deception.  It's about the painful process of trying to be creative, about giving the public a good and emotionally honest product.  And then trying to give the public another one.  That's what I loved about Sandra Bullock's turn as Harper Lee.  She stays on her course. She's an honest friend. A voice of reason.  She knows why Truman has recreated himself in Manhattan and why he hungers to be a celebrity while being an artist.  But, unlike him, she realizes that there could be land mines under that Red Carpet he craves to walk.  She will use a real life crime and trial (the race hate murder of black teen Emmett Till) to inspire her famous work of fiction, To Kill A Mockingbird.  He will take researched facts and alter them to suit his masterpiece non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, based on a real life murder case in Kansas.  Truman will make those alterations in his art and in his life.  Daniel Craig plays one of the killers Capote interviews for his book.
Harper senses that her friend's self-deception and neediness will lead him to cross a line that should not be crossed.  He can't be an objective journalist/writer if he develops romantic feelings for his subject.
Bullock's Harper Lee is complex.  She's an honest and loyal friend but that's not all there is to her.  There's a dissonance behind her eyes.  And we sense an occasional jealousy.  She struggles to come up with the next thing after her hugely successful first novel.  We don't get that element from Keener's Lee in Capote so much.  In Infamous, Harper (Truman calls her "Nell") watches Truman change quotes to make them more interesting.  She does not approve of that.  Yet he's produced more work.  They argue.  They love each dearly.  These are friends who know each other well.  She's knows Truman perhaps better than he knows himself.
We don't think ever of Harper Lee frustrated while trying to produce something to follow her acclaimed novel.  When Bullock as Lee says "It just not coming together," I felt a certain twinge of connection in my heart.  It made her so much more real to me.  The film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird is very faithful to her novel.  It's a classic film based on classic modern literature.  I wish one of the three senior networks would air it annually in prime time like it does It's A Wonderful Life -- like it used to air The Wizard of Oz.  There are lessons in To Kill A Mockingbird that we need to learn again.
Lawyer Atticus Finch (as superbly played by Gregory Peck) needs to be an American role model and deserves as much prime time network exposure one night as "The Bachelor" gets.  More so, in fact.  I remember being  a youngster and watching To Kill A Mockingbird on NBC with my parents.  It would be wonderful if families could gather and watch this film as a once-a-year special network presentation nowadays.
Happy Birthday, Harper Lee.  Thank you for Atticus, Jem, Scout, Dill, Tom Robinson, Boo Radley and all the other memorable characters in your novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  What a fascinating friendship you must have had with Truman Capote.  (Look at the two writers in this pic below.  He's autographing copies of his best-seller, In Cold Blood.)
Sandra Bullock -- excellent work as Harper Lee in Infamous.  Your challenged yourself in that character role.  It's not the Sandra Bullock of Speed, While You Were Sleeping or Miss Congeniality.  It was solid dramatic work that should've made you an Oscar contender before The Blind Side did.  Your tender monologue at the end of Infamous always puts a tear in my eye.  What you say as Harper is so...right. 

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