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Take Three: Grace Zabriskie

 Craig here with this week's Take Three. Today: Grace Zabriskie

It was Grace Zabriskie’s 71st birthday last week. She’s achieved a lot in her vast, varied career, with over the 34 years of acting: she had a daughter with oversized thumbs (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues); paid River Phoenix for sex (My Own Private Idaho); been killed by Chuckie (Child’s Play 2); ran on a brothel  (The Brothel); evangelized about vampires (Blood Ties); had a asteroid named after her (Armageddon); performed a voodoo sex-killing (Wild at Heart); fought for workers' rights (Norma Rae); navigated b-movie space horrors (Galaxy of Terror); and turned mourning into a mad maternal art (Twin Peaks). And that's just ten of her 93+ screen roles.

Here are three performances that I feel deserve highlighting.

Take One: The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)
Mad maternal mourning aptly fits Zabriskie’s part in Philip Ridley’s strange fable, The Passion of Darkly Noon. She plays a forest-dwelling recluse named Roxy, who has only a shotgun, a Rottweiler and her own unhinged beliefs to keep her company. The film is a sinister hotbed of religion and retribution set in a secluded and surreal Southern state. Roxy believes her estranged daughter Callie (Ashley Judd) to be the witch who led her husband astray, and a force to be expelled from her uneasy Eden. When Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser) stumbles upon her trailer home, she encourages him to do just that. “I am still here,” she tells him with teeth-gritting fury, “waiting for her to be punished.”

Roxy could be just another crazy mama soured by regret. But through Zabriskie’s rich portrayal she becomes a sympathetic figure. When her beloved dog is mysteriously killed, it signals the end of her life’s dismal struggle. Roxy is crushed, defeated by the cruelty of life, so she chooses death via her only other companion: her shotgun. This sets the film's fiery finale into motion. Without the poignancy with which Zabriskie performs, Darkly Noon would be bereft of its minor moments of compassion and pathos. Don’t get me wrong, the image of a giant silver shoe on fire floating down a river, zombie parents in trees and a nude Fraser wrapped in barbed wire going apeshit with a wood tool are memorably bonkers. But a simple shot of Zabriskie crying on a caravan floor, cradling a dead dog,  gives Darkly Noon a human kick that makes the film truly sing.

Take Two: The Grudge (2004)
Zabriskie sees dead people in Takashi Shimizu’s own horror remake The Grudge. She seems to have an uncanny ability to sense the ghosts of the dead in the house her family has moved her into. Zabriskie conveys a lot with very little dialogue. For much of the film she's an inert figure sadly dormant, unable to convey the terror encroaching upon her. That we intuit what she goes through is down to the expertise with which she performs. Zabriskie conveys her character's dementia with sensitivity despite the silent interpretation of terrifying genre thrills. Elements of her Grudge performance can be glimpsed in her Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks (like the manner in which Zabriskie reacts to an unsettling image off screen) and in her role as Michael Shannon’s slain mother in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (like those generous, yet ominous, interactions with co-stars). The best parts of The Grudge involve Zabriskie's subtle mannerisms which add a unique flavour to the horror while her face is frozen-with-fear.

Small supporting roles like this are her bread-and-butter work, but being the consummate pro Zabriskie always delivers with skill and conviction. She’s the kind of actress many non-character-actor-obsessed film fans might notice cropping up here and there in the odd mainstream outing (this, Armageddon, License to Wed). But if you’re aware of how vastly multi-faceted her filmography is, seeing a big-screen Zabriskie performance, however small, is tantamount to winning the character actor lottery. Every character carries the weight of full cinematic life in her hands.

Take Three: INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
How well do you know your neighbours? Laura Dern, as an actress shooting a picture within the picture, finds out more than she needs to know about hers. Grace Zabriskie's "Mysterious Visitor #1" emerges, lost from within the faulty static of a TV screen, to jovially trot up Dern's mansion path carrying strange greetings. A natter over morning coffee takes on a whole new slant when Zabriskie engages in some ominous chin-wagging. Filmed at threateningly close angles, Zabriskie leers toward Lynch’s intimate DV camera like a permed gargoyle. Speaking with a faux-Polish lilt, she offers up a handful of odd, indeterminate idioms:

If today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill."

Her peculiar parlance unsettles Dern – as well it should. As INLAND EMPIRE’s enigmatic figurehead Zabriskie makes the most of her loopy introduction, flipping between nuisance neighbour and dotty old lady in seconds. She seizes the scene with baffling witchy twitches that unnervingly disrupts the film’s flow: you’re never sure quite what’s happening where and when.

If it’s today, two days from now or yesterday... If it’s... 9:45, or even after midnight,” 

No sooner has Zabriskie prophesised coming doom and (literally) pointed the way to tomorrow, then Laura Dern's actress is on her way down Hollywood’s despairing spiral. Zabriskie pops up once again in a near-subliminal dissolve at the film’s close to suggest, oh-so enticingly, that the film may actually have been about her lost neighbour all along. But remember, if Zabriskie asks if there’s a murder in your film, it’s best to answer her politely. The response could be brutal.

A few more Zabriskie points from me here. Three more films for the taking: Norma Rae (1979), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

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Reader Comments (17)

Brilliant, brilliant choice. She is the key to the entirety of INLAND EMPIRE. She basically explains, however elliptically, all of what's to come in that coffee scene. She's unnerving, terrifying, and funny all at the same time. She made my supporting actress line up that year. I love that "BRUTAL FAHKING MURDER!"

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeeking Amy

I know her more for her brilliant work on television, where she seems to have been served better as an actress. She plays kooky well.

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Thank you Nathaniel for thinking of Grace Zabriskie! Just like Melissa Leo and Patricia Clarkson, this woman carries forward the tradition of the Grand Dames of Hollywood Character Actresses. They are heiresses to the talents of Agnes Moorehead, Anne Revere or Thelma Ritter.
I was first impressed by her performance in Norma Rae. She had a small part, but her reaction shots alone were incredible. Then came An Officer and a Gentelman and that was it for me. She became a favorite of mine.. Now I look forward to catching the films you mention here.
Her role in Big Love is a crowning achievement.
However... Only ONE nomination for a Chlotrudis Award in her whole career?! Not even an Emmy nom for Big love?

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I had hoped that she might get a role in AUGUST:ORANGE COUNTY ... I loved her on the HBO series about the polygamous families... forgot the name.

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick


This series is Craig Bloomfield's not Nathan's.


If Bates can't get in I doubt they'd hire real character actors when all the devil wants is stars—Roberts, Streep, Wiest.

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

The first time I remember seeing her was when I was very little and saw The Private Eyes, starring Don Knotts and Tim Conway. Even then I was taken with her presence. Then, of course, came Twin Peaks and her sad, hilarious, creepy turn as Laura Palmer's mother.

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric Arvin

Grace Zabriskie FTW! :)

PS. HBO show: BIG LOVE. She played Lois, mother of Bill Pullman's character. She was, hands-down, the most electrifying thing about that program.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJesse

Love this woman! She's fearless. I haven't seen "The Grudge" but she's great in Lynch's films specially "Inland Empire". She would be great in a comedy by John Waters .

PS It's true, she totally deserved some Emmy love for "Big Love".

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue


May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

Didn't she play George Costanza's fiancee's Mom on SEINFELD?

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOctavia

According to the imdb she was Mrs. Ross on Seinfeld. And now that I look she has not done any work after Big Love! Only one short. Let's hope she get a good role soon!

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos


I have seen the play twice and it is magnificent ... however, saying that, it would be a very difficult movie to "sell" without big name stars...

Streep and Wiest are wonderfully cast .. but Roberts??? rather see Linney in the role.

Also, not happy with Bates.... her role is not huge, so I thought Grace would add a great job to it.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick


Harvey's behind the adaption: which causes me confusion about his desire for stars when he turned the black and white, silent, no stars, The Artist into a BP winner and commercial hit. He could have Jane Fonda or Ellen Burstyn—bringing either woman to Streep status in terms of attracting a wider commercial appeal while being a veteran actress.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful


Both Fonda and Burstyn have not proven themselves in later years as draws... I could never see Fonda playing this role... she doesn't have the chops for it.

Also The Artist did not really need "stars" because it was such a unique movie in itself. August... is the closest to Tennesse Williams that has come around in a long while. His movies always needed BIG stars because the story content was so bleak. This is just my views as I saw every thing Williams put onto film and I loved them, but they were not mainstream moviegoers fare.... and it is more true in 2012.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

PS to 4rtful

You do not care for Streep for the part? I think I would have cast her as Barbara and a much older actress as Violet.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick


I'm not really mad at Streep. Her third statuette was inevitable. I'm in agreement she deserved a second Best Actress win, for the simple fact they continue to nominate her. I'm not in agreement at the expensive of Viola Davis. That's the cruelest thing to happen in Best Actress since Swank's second win. Watch the You Tube clip: Annette cries! I don't believe in Streep's reputation. In the end it feels like group think instead of popular opinion. I dislike she's up for a lot of quality material that would be better suited to other women in her age demographic.

I've been raging and it isn't worth it. For one it does nothing but keep me angry. I need to apologize to Nathan because I went too far with an f-u directed his way. I love expressing myself here. I love actresses. No other place online seems devoted to women on film than this place. Maybe Streep will shock many with this performance? I suspect not since the man directing it won't stand up to her like Almodovar hopes to do if he ever gets his English language project off the ground.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

@Eric Arvin - that's where I remember her from, thanks! (I hate to admit that I haven't seen the three films listed here.)

May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice
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