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.
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)