Take One: Snake Eyes (1998)
Gugino was underused as the social worker in The Lookout, underdressed and all too briefly seen as the parole officer in Sin City, and under De Niro as a delectable detective in Righteous Kill. But one of her earlier roles as the mysterious ringside blonde in Brian De Palma’s Vegas boxing noir Snake Eyes gave her plenty of room to make an impact. There’s a killing about to happen at a big match, but is she in on the missile-based murder conspiracy? She’s certainly the focus of maniacally charged Nicolas Cage’s attention – and, by association, ours. Snake’s tricky structure and multiple viewpoints (especially the famous opening tracking shots) allow Gugino to play fast and loose with her character, Julia Costello, who ultimately, like all desperate women of noir, isn’t quite who we think she is.
Gugino’s evasive vixen is a ‘90s variant on the femme fatale or the ‘mysterious blonde’ (aroused via De Palma’s acknowledged love for Hitchcock). Julia should perhaps be filed alongside the likes of Melanie Griffith in Body Double, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Annette Bening in The Grifters as revisionist takes on old noir staples. Gugino brings sly, slinky qualities and a perfectly deceptive approach to the part. Later on in the film she offers nicely-conveyed and unguarded emotion. It’s a key role in the movie, and she has the ideal voluptuous physique and versatile acting skill to carry it off. Outside of Cage’s OTT presence and De Palma’s bravura camerawork, Gugino was the one to keep your (snake) eyes on.
See also this 8-minute 2010 short, Tell-Tale, where she does actually play ‘Femme Fatale’.
Take two: Sucker Punch (2011)
Outside of its central gang of delusional madhouse girls, Sucker Punch had a few notable faces peppering the supporting cast list. They provided character-driven respite from Zack Snyder’s oversaturated sonic assault. Kindly ol’ Scott Glenn popped up like the Word doc paperclip to dispense helpful advice to Emily Browning and Co. Carla Gugino played Dr. Vera Gorski as if she fancied herself in her own one-woman cartoon version of Fame: she was like a cross between professional cane-waver Debbie Allen and a velvety version of Cruella de Vil who didn’t ultimately have it in her to be truly mean.
If you do not dance, you have no purpose."
Gugino's Kohl-lidded kick-ass dance madam snarled in Emily Browning's ear just before one of Babydoll's strangely absent dance-a-thons. “Your fight for survival starts right now,” Gorski adds, like a wicked witch with a dance stick. Gugino's verbal register of choice resounds with 'devious delight.'
Evident to those viewers who stick with the film is that Dr. Gorski plays a more significant part as the movie throttles its way onward. Gugino’s smart talent for making small roles matter peeks through the mechanical sheen of the film’s visual armoury. Those who say Sucker Punch is without any merit -- and there are a few -- need only look Gugino’s way; this sneaky, saucy pro totters in and gives the film’s best performance*. She’s gloriously and deliciously enigmatic and the only remotely decent presence in Lennox House. The only thing I wouldn’t trust is actually, um, her dance instruction: Babydoll’s groovy moves were rubbish.
* Also, check out her closing credits in-character rendition of ‘Love if the Drug’ with Oscar Isaac.
Take Three: Elektra Luxx (2010)
Gugino has worked with her boyfriend, director Sebastian Gutierrez, on three loosely-linked movies so far: Woman in Trouble (2009), Elektra Luxx and Girl Walks into a Bar (2011); but it was only the first two that featured her titular porn-star character. Elektra Luxx had an independent vibe, starry cast and a lightly harebrained plot: Elektra splits from the adult film industry to make a living teaching sex classes to housewives. An old friend asks her for a tricky favour, which puts a spanner in the works... Gugino had had recognisable supporting roles in many high profile outings (Night at the Museum, American Gangster, three Spy Kids), but her career is at the level where she can play a character like Elektra and it doesn't become the issue it would for a bigger name. (Julia Roberts or Cate Blanchett, for example, might not take on a role like this.) The way she gamely essays the amiable, sexually blasé variation on the ex-porn star is due to her tendency and commitment to take on roles that explore overt female sexuality.
Gugino never entirely opts for an expected route. She breezes through the wilfully silly slim-line plot with angst-free confidence. Elektra has much to cope with: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a live-at-home sex blogger, Josh Brolin as her rock-star ex, Julianne Moore as the Virgin Mary in a bathtub, Timothy Olyphant as a hunky private dick, Marley Shelton as a desperate flight attendant, Adrianne Palicki and Emmanuelle Chriqui as a pair of airhead party-goers and Lucy Punch, Kathleen Quinlan and Justin Kirk to boot.
Boogie Nights did post-porn suffering, but Luxx does post-porn kinky escapade. Gugino’s Elektra is Rollergirl, Amber Waves and Jessie St. Vincent all rolled in one. She plays a nun, a catwoman and a cowgirl (and more besides) for a series of top-shelf parodies, and even has a scene with herself when she appears as Elektra’s jailed twin sister Celia. Elektra’s certainly the most charming x-rated actress on screen. More people should watch Luxx for all the Gugino goodness. The role is a solid showcase for her savvy talents.
Three more key films for the taking: The One (2001), The Lookout (2007), Watchmen (2009)