Take One: Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
Smith's performance as Dawn “Bloody mama” Lagarto in Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders is a goldmine of maternal aggression. Dawn is a risk-taking, self-serving, take-no-prisoners single pregnant woman with a gun and a hit list of new Contenders to wipe out. It's as far from life-affirming as it gets making Dawn the kind of caustically fantastic role that most A-list actresses would give their right arm... to steer clear of. Thank the gods of indie cinema that they gave us Brooke Smith, then. We first see her enter a convenience store to shoot an old guy in the back. “You got any bean dip?” she asks the cashier. The humour is black and she dishes it dry. In one of the film’s sickest/funniest TV-montage parodies we see Dawn slit someone’s throat in a lift, kick a guy downstairs, drown someone else in a toilet and strangle a woman in a car à la Halloween’s Michael Myers, all whilst with a bun in the oven. This is not a rom-com.
Smith exudes confidence as an actress and is completely believable even within the outre satiric prophecies of Series 7. I’d like to see her trade fiery, meaty dialogue with some of today’s cinematic greats; this may not have happened yet because she may somewhat show them up. With its sly undercurrent of political commentary, Series 7 (and, to a lesser extent, its closest imitator, 2005’s Live!) is the kind of film that prods the dark funny bone of anyone who finds the ongoing fad for “reality” TV (now more hatefully extreme then ever) dispiriting and ripe for incisive satire. Ten years on the film retains its grim, acidic bite. In my view, Smith’s performance is one of 2001's very best. Shame Oscar wouldn’t go near it with a barge pole.
Take Two: Melinda and Melinda (2005)
In Woody Allen’s double-plotted Melinda and Melinda Smith gives a supporting turn as friend and confidant of both lead Radha Mitchell’s Melinda and Chloë Sevigny’s Laurel. (She was at it again earlier this year in Fair Game, where she had one group dinner scene and a brief chat with Naomi Watts and was still the best thing about it.) Smith played pregnant Cassie, the only female role (barring bit parts) without her own (sub)plotline. This is a shame as there are mild hints (thanks to Smith) that Cassie has a sly, playful side that would’ve dazzled in a fun, stand-alone narrative strand. Sevigny and Mitchell, both ordinarily very good actresses, give strained, overdramatic performances. That left Smith to bring the goods.
More on Melinda² and, you guessed it, "The Girl in the Pit" after the jump.
She’s the calm, collected, dry-witted centre of the friendship: the mumsy one, a maternal sounding board and shoulder to cry on. (There are two scenes where all she does is listen). Smith made more of an impact than the part required. Watching her gave rise to a mini, fanciful theory: Smith should’ve been Woody’s muse instead of Scarlett Johansson. Had she got the roles in which Woody cast Johansson (Match Point, Scoop, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) they may well have been markedly better films by association. Smith’s durability would’ve illuminated Match Point’s somewhat sombre tone; her comic sass would’ve nicely perked Scoop up; and her unconventionality would’ve added a spark of gritty difference to Barcelona. Think on, Woody, think on.
Take Three: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
It puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.
You could tell that had the 20ft drop of the well-like dungeon between them not been an insurmountable obstacle, Smith’s senator’s daughter Catherine Martin would’ve told Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) exactly where to hang his friggin’ hose. That Catherine was scared, desperate and tremulously real was down to the crucial level of unaffected expertise that Smith conveyed in the role. (Kudos, too, to casting director Howard Feuer; Smith - who nonetheless gained 25lb to achieve the “roomy” heft for the role - is apt casting for reasons extending beyond the narrative’s need for Martin’s physicality.) But the way Smith’s face turned from a frightened mask of fear to an emboldened, vengeful grimace over the course of Lamb’s duration contained its own minute plot-like fascination.
Lambs made significant cash, was big Oscar business and entered the public consciousness. It was a big film for the actress, a great early-career stepping stone. Though Catherine is pivotal to the plot -- its entire focus in a way -- on paper the role didn’t appear to outwardly call for much. But fleshed out by Smith, Catherine is a vivid memorable character. Catherine survives because she is determined. She has claws -- not fingernails like the unfortunate girls before her. She shows them in her cunning capture of Bill’s dog, "Precious". Catherine wasn’t going to wait for someone to save her (although ultimately someone, a woman, freed her). She guesses her fate (those bloodstained walls) but knows her foe (“Don’t you MAKE me hurt your dog!”), and fearlessly acts out of antagonistic self preservation. You believe her every word and action. Smith makes each moment count.
Three more key films for the taking: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), Kansas City (1996), In Her Shoes (2005)