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« Cannes Check: A long weekend | Main | Cannes Check: "The Artist" Charms and Endears »
Monday
May162011

Take Three: Barbara Hershey

Craig (from Dark Eye Socket) here with this week's Take Three. Today: Barbara Hershey

Take One: Beaches (1988)
Whilst Bette Midler played the brash let-it-all-hang-out role in Beaches, Hershey was required to provide the flipside, a more fragile, buttoned-up role. Of course, in Garry Marshall’s timeless, weepy but somehow sickeningly enjoyable sorrowthon emotional barriers are royally broken down. As a solidly played, and, at times (all times, in fact), downright sentimentally treacly showcase of female solidarity, it works, and works very well indeed. (The late ‘80s was a fruitful time for the re-animation of such “woman’s” pictures; see also Steel Magnolias, Working Girl et al.) Beaches was a classic two-hander: one performance perfectly complemented the other. As the luxuriously-named San Franciscan heiress Hillary Whitney Essex, Hershey exuded just the right kind of well-turned-out class.

Her performance really was consistently good, despite the stock genre mannerisms very likely insisted upon by the filmmakers. She amiably chipped away at the inherent brittleness of the role, made her character appropriately timid, unexpectedly fragile and actually a believable mess with many of the concerns that spoke to half the women watching. (The other half would’ve surely identified with Midler’s character – this is a large part of Beaches’ amiability.) As the requirements of the genre dictate, there are melodramatic turns aplenty – love rivalry, career diversions, terminal disease – and Hershey and co. revel in its cornball pleasures. In the process it gave Hershey her biggest exposure. It was a certified commercial platform on which she could do great work. She broke through the privileged whininess of the character and made such a prim, off-putting madam feel thoroughly deserving of our investment and sympathy. But didn’t Hershey look as if she wasn’t always best pleased to be the wind beneath Bette Midler’s wings?

Take Two: The Entity (1982)
Just recently Hershey’s made a bit of a re-emergence on the big screen in a couple of notable roles. Earlier this year we saw her add some major dramatic supporting greatness as the nervous-wreck mother in Black Swan (see below), for which she unfortunately missed out on a second Oscar nomination (her first and only so far was for Supporting Actress in 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady). She followed that as a nervous-wreck grandmother in haunted house person flick Insidious, too. But it’s not the first time Babs has battled apparitions from the afterlife. Her career has seen its fair share of paranormal activity: back in 1982 she caused a spooky stir as beleaguered Carla Moran in Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity; a role for which she should have earned her her first Oscar nomination.

Two years before the Ghostbusters zapped spooks left, right and centre, Hershey and her parapsychologists had to lure her spectres in with a fake house set-up and little more than a majorly unnerving atmosphere in order to trap the unnatural forces that have been pervading her home and her very being in frozen liquid helium. As you do. There are numerous scenes in which Hershey is laid flat out, being forced to participate in any amount of unfavourable activities. She gets put through the otherworldly ringer. It’s distressing viewing, but Hershey conveys a great deal of believable fear and sincere anguish. It was the first time she truly got to flex her considerable acting talents for prolonged periods on screen.

Take Three: Black Swan (2010)
Hershey was entirely perfect casting in Black Swan. She’s the right age, has the exact look befitting an unusual ballet-horror movie, is seasoned enough to convey the exact tone of her character (Erica Sayers, pushy stage mother and ex-ballet star – I wouldn’t mention the term ‘has-been’ around her) and fits well within the overall dark timber of the piece. She inhabits the role with requisite poise and gives great face, either swelled with fury, sincerity or girlish glee. To say she lived vicariously through onscreen daughter Nina (Natalie Portman) is pointing out the obvious. It’s a given that Erica is clearly not living better through displaced ballet from the off; the queasy, mechanical dependency she displays for Portman’s successes, hidden behind the dimmed light of motherly tenderness, gives Black Swan a lot of its freakish charm. The technical aspects go a long way in creating an aura of unease, but Hershey is the living embodiment of all the on screen fear that really terrorises.

Watching Black Swan again I began to question whether Erica actually does care what happens to Nina. Could it be that, all told, she’s acting in her own interests? Is she just a desperate yet pitiable witch just getting off on someone else replicating her former glories? Erica seemed to fix a permanent forced smile on her face, as if through her feverish joy she was hiding a knife behind her back. There are enough hints in Hershey’s demeanour, her perfectly awkward body language in the role, to suggest another slant to the character, an angle on which other interpretations could arise. Whatever the reading, it’s the very polymorphic nature of Hershey’s performance that fascinates. It also gives much weight to all the cries of ‘she was robbed’ last February. But Hershey does tactical scariness well: whether she’s sitting in a darkened room waiting for attention, threatening madness via celebration-cake disposal or painting dodgy portraits whilst weeping, Hershey rules motherly ruin.

Three more key roles for the taking: Boxcar Bertha (1972), A World Apart (1988), Lantana (2001)

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Reader Comments (19)

What about Hannah and her sisters? That's my favorite Hershey role ever!
"...nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands"

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

I couldn't stand Beaches back in the day and have no desire to revisit it (though admittedly, that's likely due as much to Midler's screen-hog performance as to the cliched nature of the material.)

That photo at the top of this article makes me cry, though - it's not just "natural aging", it's 'screwing around with one's face along the way and then aging badly because of that" (see also: Jessica Turner.)

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

She was so great in the telefilm A KILLING IN A SMALL TOWN.

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAquila

Awwww, no SHY PEOPLE?

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

After watching Black Swan and talking to my friends about it, I have no doubt in my mind that Nina was being molested by Erica. Watch it again and tell me I'm wrong. That being said, that just makes Hershey's performance better. You know this awful thing she is doing to her daughter, but she still seems like the most stable individual of the main characters (minus Lilly).

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Beaches?! I don't think whoever wrote this article is familiar enough with Barbara Hershey and her career.

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

No PORTRAIT OF A LADY?

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

There are plenty of choices he could've chosen, Hershey's been terrific many many times, but I love that Craig picked her work in Beaches, which really is underrated. She gives way more than is called for in such a soapy melodrama.

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJA

JA -- i agree that it's an interesting choice. I don't think Craig is ever saying "these are the three best performances". He's just choosing three to write about as far as i understand it.

Ben -- that is discomforting but i can see that. I wish in some (okay a lot of) ways that aronofsky had let the home scnese breathe a little more because they're spooky but there's something abandoned about them with the speed of the movie, i think.

EVERYONE would y'all agree that SHY PEOPLE, A WORLD APART, PORTRAIT OF A LADY. are her three best performances?

May 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

She was the best thing about Black Swan (her, and Winona, and the music). Haven't seen Insidious yet but hoping she'll add some zest to it.

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMultiplex Slut

I liked Hershey in A World Apart and Boxcar Bertha. She was also one of my favorites in The Last Temptation of Christ. It seemed like only she, Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton took it seriously and played their roles for real. (No matter how goofy the roles were).

That's what I like about Hershey - that she really throws herself into a role, doesn't care about making herself look good (so why the weird surgery?) and delivers something off-beat almost every time, with an ambiguity to it.

May 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I think she should've been nominated for Hannah and her sisters, best performance of the movie IMO

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

JA / Nathaniel - Yes, that's right. The three selected films aren't intended to be what I see as the best three from the given actor, just three that I can say something hopefully interesting or entertaining about. My personal favourites are: The Entity, Hannah and Her Sisters & Shy People, I think.

Gustavo / Seisgrados / Richard - I wrote about Portrait for Shelley Duvall a few weeks ago; I did Hannah for Dianne Wiest last year - and I try no to repeat films on Take three (as yet, anyway!), but Hershey was amazing in that, agreed; I loved her in Shy People, but it's been too long since I've seen it, and it's not fresh enough in my memory to feel confident to write about it (plus I didn't have a copy handy). Another time perhaps.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Craig -- i love her in shy people so much but its hard to find. I should probably keep a better eye out because it might be fun to write about sometime. I remember loving Martha Plimpton in it too and being scared to death by the alligator scene.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Nathaniel - Yes! I've looked too, but to no avail. It's a "forgotten" gem. And, yes, a great and fascinating one to write about for sure; one of Jill Clayburgh's best roles too. I remember there being almost a 'rural Martha Plimpton' run in the '80s: this, Running on Empty, The Mosquito Coast, The River Rat...

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

I couldn't agree more on your choice for the Entity. It's probably theeee most underrated horror movie of all time. Yes it's flawed, but Barbara's performance not only saves the movie but (as she says in the Stunt Man) she IS the movie. The range of emotions that she had to portray convincingly was staggering. Her character experienced terror; joy, humiliation, strength, vulnerability, sadness, relief, exhaustion, and many others. Nobody could have pulled it off but Barbara Hershey. She's a gem.

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