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Take Three: Alfre Woodard

A great 1990s duet: PASSIONFISH with McDonnell & WoodardCraig here with Take Three. Today: Alfre Woodard

Take One: Passion Fish (1992)
After dismissing a string of unsuitable nurses, recently paralysed TV actress May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) opts to hire Alfre Woodard’s mysterious Chantelle in John Sayles’ Bayou drama Passion Fish. Chantelle enters the film out of nowhere, off a bus and into May-Alice’s house. She doesn’t let on any overt details about her life, but there’s a hint of intrigue about her, something amiss and troubling. It's evident in the slightly trembling nervous manner in which Chantelle goes about her new position. McDonnell’s icy actress will gradually thaw as a result of her dependency, but not before she attempts to make life miserable for Chantelle – who’s having none of it.

Chantelle is headstrong and defiant and she doesn’t suffer defeat readily. Woodard embodies these traits, but never adheres to over-familiar actorly tics in the way she conveys them. When wheeling May-Alice outside for exercise, Chantelle leaves her to fend for herself with a sarcastic motivational response.

Mary Alice: I want to go back inside!...It’s uphill!
Chantelle: So's life!"

Instead of merely showing us McDonnell’s abandoned reaction, Director John Sayles shows us Woodard's nurse pensively thinking in a swing chair. Chantelle is not the concrete-hard carer she likes to make everyone think she is. [more on Passionfish and two more takes after the jump]

Woodard treads this line so deftly, that she both makes us question Chantelle’s actions and understand her reasons for being so evasive. We do eventually discover the ghosts in her past, and this revelation late in the film offers further enticing angles to the character. The scenes where Woodard and McDonnell bond in awkward then winsome fashion make the film highly memorable. And although McDonnell nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nod for her performance, the Academy really – and I mean really – missed a trick by ignoring Woodard in the Supporting Actress category. She gives one of the best and most nuanced character performances of the 1990s.

Take Two
: The Forgotten (2004)
The Forgotten isn’t a particularly good film by any stretch, but there are a few moments in it that I’ve been unable to dislodge from my brain. Woodard plays Detective Anne Pope, a woman who finds herself investigating Julianne Moore’s extraterrestrial shenanigans and disbelieving a lot of what she stumbles across. You can’t blame her, really, as a lot of silliness ensues which makes scant sense for an audience. Moore gives good frazzled panic while Linus Roache, Dominic West and Gary Sinese baffle us with random nuggets of dodgy exposition. Woodard pops up intermittently to add some characterful class to the proceedings. Pope is the audience’s surrogate and we “detect” alongside her all the plot’s otherworldly disturbances. Woodard's nice peripheral turn would be a thanklessly rote role if played by just any paycheck actress. But it’s one that Woodard, ever the sterling professional, gives her all to.

So, when it comes to the bit where she’s required to actually make an impact on the plot, it's hard not to feel cheated. Pope has just witnessed for herself the alien-like terror that Moore’s been banging on about. Visibly shocked and agitated, she’s about to blurt out something interesting and cement her performance with what could be a definitive speech and – Yoink! – she’s tugged skyward by some unseen alien force, never to be seen or heard of again. It’s baffling, inexplicable and actually rather sad. It's also the most memorable bit thanks to the brief impact Woodard creates. Come back Anne Pope, you made The Forgotten worth watching for a brief time.

Take Three: Crooklyn (1995)
Crooklyn is very much a family affair for Spike Lee. His 1994 coming-of-age comic-drama centres on the Carmichael clan over the summer of 1973 in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It was co-written with Spike’s siblings, Cinqué Lee and Joie Lee. Woodard plays the mother, Carolyn, who is always doting on or cooking for her five kids and husband Woody (Delroy Lindo). She gets many moments around the kitchen table to display maternal warmth or, failing that, wittily talking back to her unruly brood’s insouciant ways. As Lee flits between scenes of family (disharmony) and neighbourly intervention, Woodard gets only piecemeal time to establish her character but makes a strong impression all the same.

There’s a hint that something will go wrong, that Carolyn may well succumb to an unfortunate plot event, and – SPOILERS ABOUND! – two-thirds in that’s exactly what happens. Woodard avoids cliché in the hospital sick-bed scenes and delivers a broken direct-to-camera late emotional monologue to her daughter Troy – in the form of an imaginary letter from beyond the grave.

Though Woodard displays evidence enough of her individual power as a great screen actress in every scene, she really deserved a better Spike Lee joint. Had the film, say, been made up entirely of her fourth-wall-breaking audience addresses, this would’ve been a wondrously singular Alfre Woodard showcase. That's something that we all know the movies have sorely lacked.

Three more films for the taking: Cross Creek (1983), K-PAX (2001), The Family That Preys (2008)

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Reader Comments (17)

Woodard really missed out on Best Supporting Actress in 1992. I also kind of wonder who would have been the odd one out for the nomination-could it possibly have been Marisa Tomei? Richardson, Davis, and Plowright seemed incredibly safe, and I have a suspicion that Tomei may have been one of those rare "fifth place for a nomination, then a winner on Oscar night" sort of nominations. Which of course leads to a parallel reality where we see if Woodard can split the Brit vote in a similar way that Tomei did, or if Davis/Redgrave would win the Oscar, and then there's the question of whether Tomei's lack of a previous win would have helped her against Connelly or Cruz. The mind boggles-nothing more fun that speculative Oscar history.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

alfre woodard is the BEST. and she was totally robbed of an oscar nom for "Passion Fish", hands down. but how come no mention here of "Star Trek: First Contact"?! her character was one of the emotional touchstones of the movie, and her on-screen chemistry with patrick stewart (especially arriving as a newbie in a beloved franchise) is something to behold.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteris that so wrong?

Passion Fish is one of my all time favourite movies. It has a lot of humour and makes me laugh more than some so-called comedies. Transamerica is similar in that respect. Woodard deserved the nomination and possibly the win.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim B.

Salt in an open wound—Alfre Woodard deserves all the kudos [COMMENT EDITED - WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE AND RESPECT FOR ACTRESSES PEOPLE] and the proper opportunities are in television where age and color are barriers but not deal breakers. Emmy saw fit for sixteen nominations and four wins.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

I'm so glad to know she's going to appear in McQueen's TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE...a second nomination on arrival?

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

No mention of her scintillating supporting turn in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT?! I'm not kidding, btw - she's pretty great in it. More than holds her own against Patrick Stewart in scene after scene, and she has an actual part with a throughline and everything, as opposed to The Forgotten...

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Great choice for Take Three. Woodard steals the show in most of the TV shows she appears in. She needs a starring film role STAT! Hope Viola's success last year doesn't allow her to monopolize the already small pool of quality roles for middle-aged African-American actresses.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Wow! Just rewatched Passion Fish last week and was completely in awe of Woodard. She deserved a nomination for sure for that role, one of the best performance of the 90ies. Really wish her more roles...

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDominic

Did you guys see the new Lifetime STEEL MAGNOLIAS trailer that Alfre Woodard is in?
She plays Ouisa.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

*********"? I'm sorry, I didn't know I accidentally stumbled into the comments section on YouTube.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Alfre Woodard is a horrendously underappreciated talent. That a great actress such as she has only one Oscar nom and no wins when a mediocre actress like Halle Berry has a trophy is a crime! Not that her situation is unique sadly, superior actresses often are ignored since their uniformly excellent work often is taken for granted for the simple fact that they are never bad. Prime examples would be Ida Lupino & Myrna Loy, who were never even nominated!!, Angela Lansbury and Gena Rowlands. Hopefully someday she'll get a role that can't be denied the recognition she so richly deserves.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

when did 4rtful become a troll tho ... did i miss something
so annoying

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

I know 1992 was a year when there were many talented performers vying for one of the 5 slots in the Best Supporting Actress category. But I am still disappointed the Alfre Woodard did not get nominated for Passion Fish. She's just amazing! Together with actresses like Patricia Clarkson, Melissa Leo, Helena Bonham Carter and Catherine Keener, she is supporting actress royalty in the same way as Agnes Moorehead, Ethel Waters, Gladys Cooper, Ethel Barrymore or Anne Revere were back in the Golden Era.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

First things first, Alfre Woodard is an amazing actress, and as is the case for many black actresses, has never gotten the showcases that her talent really deserves. That she's been able to carve out and be so goddamned good with the limited material given to her, with a few exceptions, is a testament to true talent. I love her in every little thing I've seen her do.

The second matter is mainly to do with the comments section. 4rtful is such an abrasive, ugly presence in the comments section that I often stop reading after I see his/her name. Kudos to Nathaniel for having the patience and grace to deal with it, but ugh -- calling Meryl Streep that slur is so unnecessary.

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFlickah

when did 4rtful become a troll tho

Agree... While I understand the criticism against Streep in some situations, ******** and blaming her for all the racism and ageism in Hollywood is plain trolling and ridiculous. It's becoming an ugly presence.

I'm so glad to know she's going to appear in McQueen's TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE...a second nomination on arrival?

I hope so, she deserves this and with the last wave of returning nominees after +10 years since their first nomination...

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterleon

everyone -- Glad to see so many Woodard fans reading. I'm glad Craig chose her for the week. PASSIONFISH is really such a gift to actressexuals because it is all in their nuances and the back and forth pleasures of acting.

4rtful & Everyone - I value all my loyal readers but 4rtful you really gotta tone it down when it comes to molotov cocktail slurs and comments about beloved actresses. This site is a safe space for people who love actresses.

Leon -- i hadn't heard the twelve years a slave thing yet. so promising.

July 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Passion Fish is such a little gem. It really makes me wish both of the featured actresses in it had a more consistent big screen presence to their careers because they were both so fantastic and dynamic in this (although McDonnell certainly has done well on the small screen with Battlestar and The Closer). Woodard is fantastic in this....definitely deserved a nom!

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay
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