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Take Three: Judy Davis

Craig here, from Dark Eye Socket, with Take Three. Today: Judy Davis

Judy Davis as "Joan Lee" and Judy Davis as "Joan Frost" in NAKED LUNCH

Take One: Naked Lunch (1991)
The early nineties were extra literary times for Davis. She appeared in an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, played novelist George Sand in Impromptu, supported John Mahoney’s Faulkner-esque Southern writer in Barton Fink and performed dual role duties in David Cronenberg’s controversial adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Initially, as Joan Lee, she instigates a curious urgency within Peter Weller’s Burroughs avatar William Lee. She gets a “very literary high – a Kafka high” in a 1950s NY flophouse by injecting bug powder into her right boob. As you do. Then, as Joan Frost, the wife of eloping novelist Ian Holm, she flits and flirts around a North African port town, futilely arousing Weller to stray from his budding homosexual leanings.


Davis’ roles could be entirely different entities or the very same woman or some weirdly unfeasible concoction of both. The sarcastic boredom she expresses as junk-plugged Joan #1 couldn’t be further from the deliciously fruity joie de vivre she exudes as Joan #2; the ever-present look on this Joan’s face suggests she’s either just remembered or recently repeated a particularly saucy joke  -- maybe the kind of thing she feverishly typed in Arabic on her bug-morphed, Burroughs-voiced typewrite? She's all darting eyes and red-lipped pouting under falsely prim attire. Davis lets slip enough sly telling hints that she knows who she is and isn’t playing: do we want one Joan or two? she’s inferring. Whether she’s fingering a fleshy writing implement, re-enacting her doomed part in one of two “William Tell routines” or taking notes on some Interzone agents “feeding” from a mass of strung-up jism-dispensing mugwumps (as you do), Davis yields exemplary acting and exterminates all rational thought.

Take Two: The Ref (1994)
Her comic work doesn’t always get the acclaim it deserves but when she broadens her comic scope even slightly, it’s a treat. Davis does fierce comic exasperation well in numerous comedies but in The Ref – or to give it its far more obvious UK title, Hostile Hostages – it comes out in sharp, dry, staggered doses.  As Caroline Chasseur, wife, mother, adulteress, fan of traditional Scandinavian Xmas food, untapped creative soul and kidnapee, she's having the best worst Christmas ever. It’s the first and last of those designations, however, that come under closest scrutiny via irked hubbie Lloyd’s (Kevin Spacey) irritability and desperate Denis Leary’s criminal intervention.


In terms of grim festive laughs The Ref sits somewhere between Trapped in Paradise and Bad Santa. The beacon role is ex-con Leary’s ex-con, but Davis (scene)steals the film, particularly when she’s pontificating on historical cooking methods beneath a candle-wreath dinner crown. There’s a palpably maniacal undertow to Caroline that rears its head from time to time. Davis has an innate gift and aim with spiteful dialogue; she almost gargles her lines before ejecting them spouse-ward. She and Spacey are the most insufferable bickering double-act but your sympathies ultimately lie with Davis as the family's outsider. The unruly yuletide intrusion ordeal leads the couple to see the errors within their marriage, of course, and it reignites their love. But Davis gives a playfully caustic turn in getting to that traditional destination.

Take Three: Husbands & Wives (1992)
Davis’ Sally in Allen’s Husbands and Wives has a lot of supporters out there, and rightly so. Many thought she was a shoo-in to win the 1992 Supporting Actress Oscar. But, alas, not. (It went, of course, to Marisa Tomei, also deserving.) But she will forever have her performance etched on celluloid as evidence enough of her place in the annals of acting. Either way, she was singled out from the excellent ensemble for lone nomination honours. Over the course of the film’s 108 minutes Davis courses through a hysterical gamut of frayed emotions and moods: spiky, insolent, fragile, torn, flappable and defiant. Sometimes the moods blur into one and sometimes they evolve into baffling permutations by the time she's passed from one side of the frame to the other. If her performance is anything else, it's breathless. This is kamikaze actressing on a grand scale. 


She’s wholly good, retaining an exemplary grip on the material at all times, but two scenes stand out: her non-date with Paul (Timothy Jerome) and her discovery in flagrante delicto by husband Jack (Sydney Pollack). She’s the epitome of distanced and distressed, impolitely not-quite-there and obliviously or perhaps deliberately, slapdash (she so spilt the drink on purpose to make a beeline for the phone). Sally is not outwardly attuned enough to register as significant anything outside of what's going on inside her perceptive/paranoid, frazzled mind. But she conveys all of this with heart-wrenching hilariousness and with innumerable perceptive qualities recognisable to anyone with a firsthand knowledge of relationship entanglements. Particularly memorable is this miniature conversational coup de grâce: “Don’t defend your sex! It’s true...” [The award for best dramatically pregnant pause of 1992 goes to...] “You’re great until you start to show your age... and then they want a newer model!”

Three more key films for the taking: My Brilliant Career (1979), A Passage to India (1984), The New Age (1994)

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Reader Comments (11)

Craig, what this essay reminds me is that I am woefully behind in viewing Davis' performances; I have yet to see any of these three, and in fact the only films of the ones you've mentioned that I have seen (shame on me) are My Brilliant Career (in which she is, indeed, brilliant), and Where Angels Fear to Tread (a more minor supporting turn for her, and not her best showcase). Add to that the made for TV movie Serving in Silence about Margarethe Cammermeyer (in which she played the supportive partner.)

And yet, I somehow was still a fan despite having barely viewed her work, or at least very conscious of the fact that she had a lot of film work and one point, but it then trickled to nothing, and regretted that fact. There was something about her unconventional beauty and intelligence that the cinema badly needs more of, and that surely cannot exist in today's superhero-dominated cinema.

Excellent post (as always).

August 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Great post! But let us never forget Judy Davis as Judy Garland. Meryl Streep herself singled out that performance in a Golden Globe acceptance speech.

August 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKV

Love Davis! She was my "best supporting actress" in 1992 for THE NAKED LUNCH...I know, I know...but in EUROPE we watched it in 1992 ;)

August 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

Great post - love her, and love these three performances. I really should try to find High Tide. That was my favorite of her pre-90s work, but I haven't seen it in ages.

August 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

She's outstanding in all three. Husbands and Wives is usually where my mind gos when thinking of her. She's definitely a commanding presence. That typewriter scene in Naked Lunch always makes me laugh.

KV, I agree she so fantastic as Judy Garland, I think the movie is a bit exploitative as those projects can sometimes be. Though she elevates the material with a very natural( which I'm sure was challenging given the character) performance.

Janice, You're right, I don't think it would take viewing that many of her performances to become an admirer.

August 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterty

Judy Davis, shrill-- her neck's veins bulging on the verge of death-- for the sake of expressing her character's frustration. As a kid I never got her appeal. She frightened and unnerved me with her presence because it meant unpleasantness. Now I understand she's the current film equivalent to Sandy Dennis with just a smidgen of Bette Davis-- the original who made it all right for actresses to become more vivid as performers.

{Tomei's Oscar is premature. Davis is the most deserving winner of the nominees.}

August 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

It's sad that I only know Judy Davis from Marie Antoinette. Hopefully I get to see Eye of the Storm at Tiff and see her goodness there.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

1) She's amazing in H&W and should've won the Oscar and all that. However, just when I thought she'd given the film's best performance with the multiple phone calls/non-date scene, in comes Juliette Lewis and her taxi cab closeup shot. Her face was like the coolest, most interesting puzzle you could ever find.

2) Life With Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows should be listed here. She's astounding and totally raises the material. And then some.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I'm a big, big Judy Davis fan from way back. She just always comes across as the most vivid, perhaps most intelligent person on the screen. I don't know if My Brilliant Career could have worked with anyone else. I loved Passage To India, but I probably like Judy most in Husbands & Wives - I remember seriously giggling over her crazy character, and also Impromptu which was probably too artsy/intelligent for its own good. High Tide was a great "smaller" movie and The New Age had its moments. I'm glad Woody discovered her, but I wish someone else would give her a wicked role a la Judi Dench.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Just her supercilious line reading of that moment when Peter Weller has caught her shooting that junk into that breast - "Try it, you might like it .... or you might not" is one of the funniest things in a year of movies. A real treasure in that movie, and in so many others. Love her gonzo Marxist bit in Children of the Revolution and her juicy supporting part in Blood & Wine, that Rafelson movie where she, Nicholson, Dorff, Lopez, and Caine were all so good at the same time and still nobody cared.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Judy Davis is always great value. Love her.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks
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