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"Poor Ivy”: August: Osage County’s Underappreciated MVP

Here's Andrew to celebrate the release of last year's embattled August: Osage County newly arrived on DVD. Significant spoilers ahead.

Each year there's at least one film which wins middling to good reviews and manages Oscar nods but is promptly forgotten as soon as it's released. August: Osage County was 2013's victim of that unfortunate annual tradition. Sure, it earned those two acting nominations it seemed assured early on but no one was particularly interested in talking about any aspect of August: Osage County, but for its Oscar belly-flop elsewhere and the Oscar queen at the centre. Perhaps, it was an automated response to Meryl Streep usually being at the centre of films with little else to offer than her star turn (The Iron Lady, Julie & Julia, Music of the Heart, etcetera). It's a shame because the former awards’ hopeful had so much more to celebrate than just the fire-breathing matriarch in the middle.

The strongest asset was undoubtedly that excellent cast. Aside from Streep and Roberts, only a few players picked up significant praise and even then the one most deserving was the one afforded hardly any attention: Julianne Nicholson as middle-child Ivy.

Even back in October/November when there was faint hope the film would be a legitimate contender “in all categories” like those pesky FYC ads kept insisting, Nicholson was never explicitly in the running. Undoubtedly, much of that rests on the fact that middle daughter Ivy, is the least active of the five adult women in the drama despite a hefty amount of screen time. She has the least agency to the point that even when she’s attempting to do things it always seems like she’s the victim of an action and not the aggressor. I've been a steady fan of hers since her stellar work on Dick Wolf's ill-fated 2006 procedural Conviction, but there's no arguing that amidst Oscar winning Streep and Roberts, Emmy winning Martindale, and Oscar nominated Lewis (even Little Miss Sunshine herself Abigail Breslin) Nicholson was the woman with the lowest profile.

It might be disingenuous to say that Nicholson performance ends up being the key to August: Osage County working at all but she is its secret weapon, essential to its success despite a role without legitimate scene-stealing moments,  the kind by which so many performances are judged. Nicholson sits beside Roberts as MVP of the movie, but whereas Julia is working with a character that's destined to work if the actor doesn't make a mess of it, Ivy is the sort of role that can easily be wallpaper unexceptional. Nicholson is doing a fantastic job of imbuing a potentially fringe role with the import and effect of what Patron Saint of Supporting Actresses Stinkylulu calls “actressing at the edges”.

There's a scene late in the film where the three sisters have their lone moment in the yard when Ivy reveals her plans to leave the state with her "cousin" Charles. This leads into one of Violet’s key monologues, the boot story. It’s a big moment for Streep, but it’s significant how the reactions of the daughter inform the story. Karen responds most, trying so hard to win her mother’s attention. Barb is uncertain in her feelings but suspicious of an agenda in the telling. It’s Nicholson, on the periphery, that I’m drawn to. She does this almost imperceptible eye roll and then turns to trudge into the house. Even Lett’s in the script for the film points out as the script indicates her departure from the scene, She’s had enough of Violet to last a lifetime. It's a quiet moment which marks the entirety of the performance and a distinct indication of the difference between Ivy on screen and Ivy in the play.

Textually, Ivy can appear as such a flat character I’ve seen her played with a propensity for shrillness maybe to counteract the potential for flatness. Even in the superior Broadway production, Sally Murphy’s Ivy tends to be more strident than tranquil. (Take a look at her in the play’s final scene here.) If the biggest problem of Wells in August: Osage County is that he’s too hands off a director make the work cohesive, he at least directs a cast of excellent performances to make the make the ensemble nature of the piece shine. Ivy’s incestuous dalliance with Little Charles has always had the feeling of being closer to collateral damage than a sincere focal point; more of a 'This family is so screwed, no one is safe' moment than a 'Damn, look at how much this woman is hurting' incident. So Nicholson's moving work is surprising, arguably shifting that film's final moment of tragedy right here, and not the scene immediately thereafter where it usually is when Barb realizes Violet's culpability in her father's death.

Once again Nicholson is an extraneous part of a ferocious scene already in play. Her discovery of Charles' paternity sees her once again as victim. Even when we remember the scene in our minds it is Barb’s recitative “Eat the fish, bitch!” playing in our heads. And as excellently caustic and hilarious as Julia is while trying to prevent the inevitable, it’s disheartening to watch Nicholson playing Ivy's misguided hopefulness heading toward destruction. Ivy is full of sadness and desolation, but her certainty that this (her not at all glamorous move to New York) is the best possibility in her life has you rooting for this unusual case of cinematic incest. There’s a bizarre sort of pride as she repeats to her mother, “Little Charles and I. Little Charles and I.”  So, when the “Little Charles is your brother” line comes you haven't the least inclination to be amused, even if Streep's line-reading is a punchline.

The screenplay itself necessitates Ivy driving off after she leaves Barb with merely one line of angry resentment. But the film prolongs the scene, a smart move given Nicholson's excruciating profundity as she exits. It doesn’t feel forced but a natural extension of the underlying theme of broken people trying to reconnect but only hurting each other more. The score swells and as Barb chases behind the car apologising the film’s existence as a tale of sibling relationships destroyed comes to the fore. (I’ve read the play numerous times, I did a second year literature on 21st century dramas with a focus on August, I’ve seen it acted on stage, in parts, live and on the internet but the import of the play as one of sibling tragedy never felt as significant.)

Ivy’s earlier claim that the sisters are just people accidentally connected by genetics seemed truer than any belief that these women were actually really connected. But onscreen, in that final scene, I believed. When Ivy utters, "There's no difference!" equating Barb and Violet's culpability, Nicholson makes us believe with just a line reading that Barb is headed down a dangerous path. But, even more, the actress nails the sense of betrayal that a younger sibling feels when the eldest fails to protect her from a common enemy. It's why the ensuing car chase manages to work as an emotional moment, even if the sibling rapport in the film is at a minimum.

It’s the sort of role, quietly but excellently complementing cinema stars like Roberts and Streep that would in other circumstances win a mass of “breakthrough” accolades. Sure, Nicholson has been acting for more than a decade (she started in 1998, one of her roles that year as a college student in another Streep vehicle One True Thing but breakthrough prizes never care about time served already).I kept wondering just why – even with the film’s lukewarm reception – there were not louder plaudits of Nicholson who was doing such good work in her first main role in a major release. Sheer speculation, but I fear its indictive of the unfortunate state of affairs that after a certain age there’s little chance for actresses not previously lauded, to become so. Jared Leto, the same age as Nicholson, was picking up "Breakthrough" prizes and trophies galore for Dallas Buyers Club.

May some other director helming a major release realize Julianne Nicholson's worth. If John Wells cast her in this otherwise All-Name cast maybe things are looking up? If her upcoming work on James Gray’s series The Red Road succeeds, coupled with her 2013 work on Masters of Sex it could be the push forward that her career deserves and needs. But, so many ifs. Until then, I guess Julianne is destined to remain like poor Ivy - so good, but ever ignored.

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Reader Comments (34)

Thanks for spotlighting her. I appreciated how specific she was, and her last scene is devastating in so many ways.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Nicholson was terrific. Wells was lucky he had such a good cast.

Is that seriously the cover art for the DVD? Sucks................just saying.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Great post. We walked out of the film wondering why more people weren't talking about Nicholson. Her performance was a great surprise.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

Don't be so defeatist about Nicholson. Bea Arthur was 50 when she broke through with Maude. Kathy Bates was 42 when she won Best Actress for Misery and Judi Dench was in her sixties when she received her first of several Oscar nominations.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Henry -- that is seriously the cover art. I know!

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

LOVED Nicholson in this! She's one of my nominees this year. That cover art though. OI.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Julianne was an absolute delight in August. Julia, Ewan and Benedict were completely wrong for this movie. Margo and Juliette were really good choices, but somehow they never quite nailed their roles. Chris and Sam were correct and Dermot was far better than I expected.

I don't think we have praised enough how great are the female characters in Masters of Sex.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Nicholson was by far my favourite supporting member of the cast!

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

For real, that cover art is terrible. It reminds me of covers for 90's children's films with that bad lighting and font. The Little Princess, anyone?

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I agree - Nicholson's sublte work was overlooked but so too was Juliette Lewis's - both performances would have been considered exceptional if the film had not been dismissed as a self-conscious exercise in Oscar baiting. I didn't really understand this backlash - I thought "American Hustle" was far more guilty of acting one's tits off in wigs.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJKD

Julianne Nicholson was terrific in this, and hella better than the original Broadway performer who played Ivy. I loved the play onstage in New York, but the actress who played Ivy may have given the worst stage performance I've ever seen. She was so shrill and ridiculous.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Thank you so much for this excellent piece, Andrew - it's the article I was hoping and (naively) expecting to read all over the place after being blown away by Nicholson's Ivy. Her performance single-handedly elevates the film, wringing every nuance from the minor notes to create something profoundly moving. I sincerely hope that such exquisite work resonated deeper in the hearts and minds of casting directors than it apparently did with movie critics.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter7bis

Ugh...Julia should have made way for Julianne in the BSA category. That movie was stamped with Julia's energy and presence - it was clearly a leading performance, not a supporting one.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMB76

Yes, she was the MVP of the movie, apart from Streep of course
I even cried in the revelation scene for her

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

OMG that cover art looks like something on 1990's VHS tape. lol
who is in charge of these things?!??!

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRebel Heart

Awesome article, Andrew!

After seeing Nicholson's incredible work on Masters of Sex I was even more excited to see her in August and BOY did she not disappoint! I can still her reading of "There's no difference!" in my head. It's funny - Ivy is the forgotten sister, and Nicholson's is seemingly the forgotten performance. Neither should be. She is able to to do such wonderful things with such quiet, seemingly flat parts that I'm aching for someone like Kelly Reichardt to put her at the center of something.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

That's some of the worst cover art I've ever seen. Good God that's awful. Shame on you, Harvey! With that cast you couldn't give any love to no one besides your two precious leads? Whatever. Bought the DVD yesterday. Can't wait to see the film again. Loved it. The play's a masterpiece!

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaulie

Great write-up! She was definitely the grounded anchor this film needed, and seemed more like a real person than almost anyone else in the cast. If more critics had championed her then maybe she would've broken through, but I recall some reviews referring to her as the "bland saint" and other negative descriptions. With such a huge cast of talented actors, I guess it's inevitable that no individual actor gets unanimous MVP reviews (even Streep and Roberts had many detractors).

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Isn't it interesting? Literally everyone I know who saw the movie, fans and non-fans alike, agreed that hers was the best work in the film, but "the internet" didn't seem to notice. I also thought Lewis was superb. You can keep the rest of them. The stupid Roberts category fraud left no room to discuss the actual supporting players, which is really a shame.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentervladdy

Julianne Nicholson is spectacular and my sixth in supporting actress. I agree she was best in show and I love how lately she has been doing some brillant work on television especially. Some high class shows like Boardwalk Empire, The Good Wife, Masters of Sex and recently The Red Road where she made the show worth the watch.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

Agreed her,Roberts,Streep and the overlooked in supp actor Cooper.did not care for Lewis she totally blows her last scene.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Mark - that's interesting. Lewis' last scene is where I felt she finally nailed it.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I missed seeing August Osage County, but Julianne Nicholson really made me sit up and take notice in Masters of Sex - she's one of the best things about that show. Part of it is the way her character is written, but her performance is the kind that sneaks up on you.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Yeah, she ran away with the movie for me. Definitely the only character I thought about long after I left the theater, partly due to being such a victim to that awful family and because she feels so human and warm thanks to Nicholson's lived-in sturdy performance. Cooper was good, Roberts was solid but miscast and Lewis had flashes of brilliance but I was hoping Nicholson was the only nomination the film would reap come Oscar nod morning. Don't even get me started on Meryl's showboating.

I've actually liked JN since Tully and Ally McBeal's final season. Two very different projects and roles that she broke through with around 2002 but I thought thoroughly winning in both. She was also great in such a tricky role in the otherwise-forgettable-but-mostly-awful Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. A good character actress with some serious chops that needs to be better appreciated, for sure.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

I was gonna say "can we just talk about how offensive the DVD cover is?" but I'm like others noticed...

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I had only previously seen her on "Ally McBeal". I thought she quietly anchored the film. What worked so much about her performance -- and truly, about Martindale, Roberts, and especially Lewis -- was that, while Violet herself is an over-the-top character, you felt like the daughters were people you *knew* in real life.

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

I had no MVP in A:OC, tbh. I loved them all, because they all haves their moment with each other. A fine ensemble.
Of the daughters/sisters though, I felt for Ivy the most. But they were all great in their different characters, even Juliette Lewis as the youngest and most.... simple minded one.
Barbara is overall no saint either. I wished the "Eat the fish, bitch" punchline would have been more effective. I had no knowledge about the stage play, so I thought this is brought up in a heated argument/fight, not just sitting on a table to try to prevent Violet from listening to Ivy's plan to go to New York with Charles.
And I really REALLY expected Violet to be a monster, stomping around and breathing fire around everyone. I was actually surprised how much she was holding back and just grabbed the moment when she saw it. She's theatric and a f*cked up character for real, but the more I heard about her own mother playing this prank on her or that one of her mother's lover tried to attack her with a hammer, I understand why she has to be so bitter and hard to her own daughters. The spiral is still spinning between Barbara and her own daughter. It's open how their relationship will end.
I don't know the stage play, as I mentioned, so I don't think what's missing from the original story, but i found A:OC a very fine ensemble film in where everyone interacted with each other perfectly. No one owned it. Not Meryl, not Julia. And I'm glad they didn't.
As for the cover "art"..... I know worse. Like the US DVD for TIL is not the best either. But whatever.

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Plus one touching scene is when Violet demanded Barbara to stop on their way home after the doctor's office visit, because she suddenly felt sick and then run away into the fields. Barbara followed and called "Mom, where do you want to go?!"
Violet breaks down and Barbara lays beside her. In the trailer it was an awkward moment, but in the movie it's just a sad scene. Not even Violet can go anywhere. She's "trapped".

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Nicholson gave by far my favorite performance in the movie! I'm glad other people appreciate it as well.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

I know I'm late to the party, but I am elated to see that there are others who view her completely devastating performance the same way as I do. Her intuitive "acting on the edges" is, in my opinion, the reason that audience feels the full weight of all of the other characters' actions. It's nearly a travesty that in an age where a million organizations hand out awards for film not a one could find room for her even on a ballot. I mean, if you can't say something that everyone else isn't already saying, then why say anything at all?

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Troy H -- that's what i'm always bitching about here and people have taken to bitching about me bitching about it but there is simply no reason (or excuse) for so many awards bodies if there isn't any variety in opinion about what constitutes best or even any variety in which films people are screening. With over 30 "official" organizations giving prizes there should be room for a lot more than 23 or 24 performances to get some sort of recognition each year.

April 13, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think it's a valid thing about which to bitch, Nathaniel, especially considering what a citation like that possibly could have done for someone such as Nicholson. When you think about the hundreds of films released each year, most of which are probably filled more with supporting than leading performances, there exists no excuse for that type of laziness. If they're gonna give out these awards, then they might as well be bold, daring, and unexpected in their choices.

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

It's a shame to read about another actress who would have been noticed if Streep didn't hog the attention like she usually does.

April 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim C.

Tim C -- but in this case it wasn't Meryl's fault at all but Julia's for pretending she was a supporting actress.

April 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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