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Supporting Actress Blog-a-Thon: Donna Murphy in "Tangled"

Tangled begins as so many Disney fairy tales do, with literal storytelling. But rather than opening a book --are they too antiquated for the kiddies *sniffle* ? -- it's simple narration as Flynn Rider begins to tell us the tale of Rapunzel. The first character he introduces us to is Mother Gothel, obsessing over the healing power of a golden flower. 

Oh, you see that old woman over there? You might want to remember her. She's kind of important.

No joke. That's true of character and actress. Gothel's voice belongs to Donna Murphy, one of Broadway's most formidable stars. She seizes the richest opportunity of her sparse screen career as forcefully as Mother Gothel grabs at her chance at immortality.

"blah blah blah blah blah"

In the first seconds of this introduction when we see the hunched crone-like woman with darting eyes, the animators are doing the heavy lifting. But soon enough Donna Murphy's spectacular voice creeps into the picture and we have one of the all-time best villains in Disney's already estimable rogues gallery.

"Flower gleam and glow, let your power shine," she sings with ancient cracked weariness. As her magic flower does its healing work, Murphy's more familiar superstar pipes emerge, newly coated in honey "Make the clock reverse, bring back what once was mine, what once was mine." No wonder she can't let go of this power once it's in the human form or Rapunzel. Who'd want that voice to whither, never mind the beauty. 

Murphy's enormous gift for musical comedy is a huge assett in crafting Disney's most disturbing parent/child relationship without alienating its intended audience. Tangled isn't a horror film after all. We have to understand that Mother Gothel is dangerous for her adopted daughter, but we also have to enjoy the emotional games which are played at Rapunzel's expense. Little "Flower", as Gothel calls Rapunzel, doesn't even understand the rules.

Murphy's quickfire comic delivery is filled with florid theatricality (perfect for both the stage and the animated film) but the actress can ground it just as quickly with softer tones. So when she teases Rapunzel in the mirror. "I see a confident beautiful young woman. [beat] Oh look you're here too!" and then laughs at her own mean joke, you're both giggling and apalled. Then you want to forgive her when she hugs her daughter because she's funny and vibrant and she sounds like she means it whenever she drops the teasing. She cushions those blows with kisses and endearments "I love you most" and though not all of them sound 100% genuine, moments of emotional authenticity pop up to catch you unawares. What kind of woman is this? Murphy flips Gothel's switch constantly: loving mother, flamboyant diva, charming confidante, dangerous villain, exhausted single parent, selfish bitch; who can keep up? Certainly not Rapunzel!  

a dramatic pose in "Mother Knows Best"

Even better, whether she's working the book scenes or singing, you can hear in Murphy's delivery both the anticipatory manipulations (when she doesn't want to deal with her daughter's neediness) and the lags in response time (when Rapunzel surprises her). 

Though it's not the least bit surprising if you've ever seen her on stage, Murphy absolutely nails Mother Gothel's big number "Mother Knows Best" which is a character song, an illustration of emotional backstory (you know she's sung this song before and you can imagine how it's shaped her "daughter"), a comic interlude and dramatic showstopper. At least it is with Murphy playing it. The most hilariously self-aware moment is in the climax. She sings 

Skip the drama
Stay with Mama
Moooooooooother Knows Best. 

"Skip the drama," sings the drama queen with total flamboyance. That's rich. Mother Gothel is laughing at her own killing joke even while sliding into the next witty lyric.

Murphy records Gothel's voiceLater while bargaining with her daughter about a trip, she drops the comedy for more earthbound familiar parent/child friction but Murphy's still working it like it's her big showstopping song and the spotlight is on. "Enough with the lights," she yells with scary force at her persistent daughter (Dangerous Villain) having reached her breaking point.  "Great now I'm the bad guy" she sighs, collapsing with self-deluding comedy (Selfish Bitch). Rapunzel switches gears herself in response and wants a different gift. "And what is that?" Murphy says with genuine inquisitiveness peaking through her annoyance (Exhaustive Single Parent). Murphy doesn't oversell this last line at all, though she might have. The actress is softening with the character so your attention can flow back to Rapunzel, who is trying her hand at the manipulation game from her mother who knows it best.

Murphy's spoken dialogue is as musically fluid and emotionally incisive as her singing is dramatically and comedically assured.  This is why you cast already great musical stars in musicals, Hollywood! They sing beautifully even when they're just acting and they act dramatically even when their voices are carrying a melody.

Murphy Done Best.   


For more supporting actress write-ups see StinkyLulu's 5th annual Supporting Actress blog-a-thon


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Reader Comments (13)

Ah, this is a lovely writeup. Tangled REALLY didn't do it for me and I wonder if it's perhaps because I was hoping for a little more emotional resonance with Mother Gothel (a la Into the Woods) or if the adapatation was just too tame. I mean, the original Rapunzel had a child born out of implicit wed-lock - talk about drama. BUT Murphy is sooooooo good here, and I'm still not sure if the delicious hooks of "Mother Knows Best" is Menken doing good work or Murphy really selling the number but it's the only number that seems to have more than a superficial prettiness (the part where she mimics baby talk is chilling). Her voice is just amazing, SHE is amazing.
(I think I'll go listen to Passion now to entertain myself.)

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

The "Mother Knows Best (Reprise)" is my new shower song. This movie is SOO much better than Toy Story 3, imo.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathon

jonathon -- that is hilarious... do you sell it as full throttle as Donna, while lathered up?

Andrew -- eeeeeh, Passion. "I read.... to live" god, her voice is amazeness.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I love Donna Murphy, this write up makes me want to see Tangled.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBroooooke

I just caught up with Tangled Friday night, and was wondering if anyone was going to include her. Of course, I should've trusted that a fan of the House of Mouse like you wouldn't disappoint :). While I don't think it's one of the best villain songs Menken's done, Murphy makes it required for constant replay - again...and again...and again.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWalter

Donna Murphy is sublime, especially in this. I loved your write-up- a fitting ode to a great performance. She is on my top 20 list (top 5 actually) and I was SO pleased she is getting so much attention and rave reviews.
Just to add something new- I have actually met her a few times and she is even more wonderful in person- she has this aura about her. And, like you said, she radiates warmth with just her voice.
Going to listen to Passion, as well. :-)

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeehee

Ah, thank you so much for this Nathaniel! Donna Murphy provided one of the best supporting performances of the year, even if it was just voice work. She totally inhabits Gothel and it's so fun to listen to her - the way she toys with the emotions of Rapunzel (and thus, the audience) is just fantastic.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

What kind of woman is this?

Ha! That line made me laugh with an embarassing snort. Great write-up!

Not the biggest fan of animation (though I can certainly appreciate the skill and artistry involved), but for Donna Murphy to infuse so much life into what amounts to little more than a collection of bright and multi-colored pixels on the screen, that's some major league talent.

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRick Tran

If we take 'I See The Light' out of the picture, then Mother Knows Best (especially the reprise) is my favorite song. Such a sparkly showstopper that puts down--well no. SHOVES Rapunzel below her. Everyone likes a villain who knows that they're no good and Murphy didn't disappoint.

Overalll though, the voice-work was incredible. Mandy Moore speaks and sings like many of the classic Disney princess (i.e Belle and Ariel) and Zachary Levi was charming and had a suprisingly dreamy voice.

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck

Caught the film the other day whilst I was locked out of my house and was killing time till my housemates got home. Loved it. And Mother Gothel is a villain truely worthy to sit next to Ursula, Jafar, Malificent as the great Disney villains. Murphy really nails the reprise when she's snarkily mocking Rapunzels sudden independence in a way only a mother could.

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoFo

I saw Tangled dubbed in spanish so I couldn't hear Donna Murphys performance. (if I wanted to see it in the theater, dubbed was my only choice! ) Still, I thought the character was greatly done, so you shouldn't just acknowledge her for the character. Just in that snippet above you can see her wonderful expressions. greatly drawn sounds weird, but it is.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteragustin

Agustin -- i don't actually ever nominate voice performance as one of the five best for this exact reason. (though i know some people wish they would get oscar nods) Voice is only one aspect of acting. But still, Murphy is doing ace voicework and I wanted to acknowledge it.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I should definitely watch it in english, though. Those voices were specially chosen by the director, not some regional disney executive.
And the spanish voice for the character was ok, but the singing was kind of bad, so I´m eager to rewatch it with Donna Murphy.

ps- love the email alert for responses!!

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteragustin
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