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Tuesday
Aug052014

Sandra at the Top

Yesterday Forbes published their annual list of the top-grossing actresses of the year. They figure in gross earnings and endorsement deals and everything. The list is as follows: 10. Kristen Stewart 9. Natalie Portman 8. Amy Adams 7. Scarlett Johansson 6. Cameron Diaz 5. Angelina Jolie 4. Gwyneth Paltrow 3. Jennifer Aniston 2. Jennifer Lawrence 1. Sandra Bullock. So here's Matthew Eng chasing our very tiny recent Sandra fest with this climactic love letter. - Nathaniel

Sandra at the Spike Awards this summer with two of her most important co-stars Hugh Grant and Keanu Reeves

I don’t particularly get people who don’t like Sandra Bullock.

Yes, the 82nd Best Actress statuette deserves to be sitting comfortably somewhere on Gabourey Sidibe’s mantelpiece and yes, The Blind Side is a pretty foul piece of limo-liberal fabling. Yes, she is a performer of some obvious limitations that are strikingly evident in even her strongest comedic performances. And yes, she has given us All About Steve and The Proposal and the Miss Congenialitys and Two Weeks Notice and all those other “duds” we love to roll our eyes at in public almost as much as we love to sheepishly watch them in private whenever they pop up on FX or Lifetime or HBO.

I’m more than happy to make couch potato time for Two Weeks Notice, a funny/frisky valentine to New York that’s patently flawed but genuinely sentimental, and even The Proposal, a ridiculous container of rom-com contrivances that would make Kate Hudson cringe, but which has plenty of good moments to spare. No, I haven’t yet laid an eye on All About Steve, which is likely for the better, but I do own While You Were Sleeping and Miss Congeniality, and I’ve sat through the latter’s sequel, um, three, maybe four times.

Why am I glued to these movies when I still have so many unseen Bergmans? [more...]

Why do I choose to endure Ryan Reynolds’ whingeing or the groan-inducing appearances of that ham-hocked scene-snatcher William Shatner, time and time again? Why am I sitting here, watching that bonkers drag performance of “Rollin’ on a River” from Miss Congeniality Part Deux for the twentieth time when I haven’t seen The Godfather: Part II even once?

The answer is always, and resoundingly, Sandra.

I love Sandra Bullock, but not in the way one necessarily loves a Meryl or even a Julia Roberts. Sandra has clear, commendable gifts as an actress, including an extraordinary playfulness with line readings, a sure and professional sense of scene-to-scene generosity with even the most dire of co-stars, and the way in which she can allow the subtlest, fleeting shade of sadness or disappointment or ruefulness to flicker across her face during a scene and hook you instantly into a lame character and an even lamer vehicle.

But for me, there’s something deeper about Sandra’s specific talents, something possibly even more worthy of praise than just plainly being “good” in one’s performance. She’s perhaps our savviest commercial actress, one who can easily locate the needs of her project, and adjust her performance accordingly. She has become a beacon of commercial entertainment for being so accommodating, for providing the right type of performance, and committing so fully yet unfussily to even the most backward of entertainments. To be even remotely watchable, these humdrum, middle-of-the-road movies all but require a performer of consistency and dedication, who’s not going to simply play along and wink-wink-nudge-nudge her way out of the affair, constantly reminding us of how much better she is than this script or that director, but who’s willing to devote herself to the character at-hand, to track and telegraph her goals, desires, emotions, and transformations, albeit not so earnestly so as to come off less serious than self-serious.

It’s a trickier task than we’re often willing to admit, and to say that Sandra pulls it off with reliable aplomb and an admirable nimbleness is only skimming the surface of her accomplishments. She’s so poignantly lonely and quietly, gorgeously desperate for closeness in While You Were Sleeping, but also able to balance prickliness, passion, and neuroticism with such deft comedic sensibility in Miss Congeniality and Two Weeks Notice, where her games of nasty-funny verbal badinage with co-star Hugh Grant in the latter are tart-tasting candy for rom-com apologists. She’s an excellent Straight Man to Melissa McCarthy’s wild card in The Heat, but rather than merely cede the entire movie over to her formidable partner, Bullock forces her to grapple for jokes and scenes, keeping the humor alive and kicking, but also strengthening the film’s punchy, fully-developed central relationship. She’s done the buddy cop routine before, to drastically lesser effect, in the Congeniality sequel, where she and the atrociously undervalued Regina King refuse to play down to the limp material at-hand but rather invest it with confident, jocular commitment. Not even Don Cheadle could rescue the fundamentally false character notes of Crash, but it’s hard not to respect Sandra for trying her damnedest in the first place, applying herself completely to flushed, all-consuming anger in a way that managed to be interesting in spite of its inexplicability precisely because we’d never seen her try it before. And if Dr. Ryan Stone, surely her most daring career choice to date, isn’t exactly the acting tour de force it could’ve been, Bullock is nonetheless supremely indispensable to our emotional investment in Gravity, since who wants to see Sandra, with her dogged spirit and supple on-screen emotionality, die a gruesome space death?

So where, we must ask, does Sandra go from here?

That rumored Heat sequel is surely just a put-on, and she’s publically expressed her disinterest in it anyway. Her next high-profile gig is a central supervillian role in the Despicable Me spin-off The Minions, which should at least give her the chance to do some animated, entertaining character work. And while the jury’s still out on Tate Taylor, I hope his biopic of pioneering Tupperware entrepreneur Brownie Wise, which Sandra’s attached to, allows her to stretch herself in an exciting, period-specific context. It gives me some honest-to-goodness joy to sit in a theater and see that badge of honor-cum-actor qualifier “Academy Award Winner” preceding her name during trailers. I’m glad that Oscar has enabled her to challenge herself with the type of higher-profile directors like Stephen Daldry and Alfonso Cuarón who would’ve never taken a chance on her during the untested first act of her career. Hopefully this ambitious streak continues during the second half of a career that’s teaming a new desire to experiment with a timeless talent for playing the classy, carefree crowd-pleaser we’ve known and loved for over twenty years.

I hope she does whatever the hell she wants to do. Because she deserves to. And we’ll be there.

 

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Reader Comments (29)

I think Sandy's humility is why I can't begrudge her anything. She's just so emphatically aware of her own career and talent limitations, the improbability of her 2009 Oscar run, and the great fortune she's enjoyed. "Down-to-earth" gets thrown around to describe a lot of people but where is it more true than of Bullock.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

I think Sandy's humility is why I can't begrudge her anything. She's just so emphatically aware of her own career and talent limitations, the improbability of her 2009 Oscar run, and the great fortune she's enjoyed. "Down-to-earth" gets thrown around to describe a lot of people but where is it more true than of Bullock.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

I agree with Hayden, Sandra's own self-awareness sets her apart. She inspires no bad will in anyone.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I love this write-up, and I agree that Bullock is a wonderful cinematic presence, one that I genuinely seek out even if I too have a stack of Bergmans waiting for me.

I will ask though (tangentially-related): how is Melissa McCarthy not on that Top 10 list yet? I know that part of it is deals with cosmetics and apparel companies (hence Paltrow and Aniston nearing the top of the list), but shouldn't McCarthy, with her proven track record (even her "flops" like Tammy turn a decent-sized profit) be on this list by now?

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

LOL, not a single favorite on that list. It goes from "I kinda like a bit" to "I think she's just plain bad and should never be allowed to appear on screen again".

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

I'm right there with you: I know that people who don't like Sandra Bullock exist, but I don't understand why. I have loved her ever since Speed, and Miss Congeniality made me a fan for life. She hasn't disappointed since (although I do not have the strength to even attempt All About Steve, her classy and hilarious bit at the Razzies notwithstanding).

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I'd rather watch Speed, Two Weeks Notice, While You Were Sleeping, Miss Congeniality, and Gravity any day of the week, and I like Bergman!

Even with Sandy making a hundred million dollars or so, it is really hard to begrudge her that. Heck, she even came out of the Jesse James debacle with her dignity intact.

Someone who is a girl next door and not really embarrassing, yet the most fun person at the party? Who else could fill that role? Julia Roberts? Cameron Diaz? It's pretty rare.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

As much as I disliked Hope Floats, The Blind Side, and All About Steve.... Gravity is a major reason into why Sandra Bullock is so beloved. I like the fact that she doesn't take herself seriously while also wanting to be funny.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I have all the time in the world for Sandra. After 9/11, when there were A-listers who wouldn't even set foot in NYC and the requirements for filming were severely limited for security reasons, Sandra brought Two Weeks Notice to town and gave a lot of actors a bit of work when we needed it most. I do not begrudge her anything.

However, do your corneas a favor and avoid All About Steve. Mine are still scarred and I only caught a few minutes on the tube.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I don’t particularly get people who don’t like Sandra Bullock.

You don't have to, there are movie stars for all likes, just like colours. I don't like Sandra Bullock*, but I don't judge people who do.

*the movie star, I'm not familiar with her off screen persona, nor I have the intention to get to know her.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

I might not have liked her win for The Blind Side AT ALL (seriously, i'm still stunned how she seemingly came out of nowhere and won) but i think she totally brought it in Gravity. I still tear up during her big emotional scenes.

Plus, she just seems like a nice, inoffensive person. Like a female version of Tom Hanks.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Miss Congeniality is one of my top three favorite movies of all time. There. I said it.

Add Drop Dead Gorgeous to the mix make a very pageanty Top 5 Favorites list.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

This:

But for me, there’s something deeper about Sandra’s specific talents, something possibly even more worthy of praise than just plainly being “good” in one’s performance. She’s perhaps our savviest commercial actress, one who can easily locate the needs of her project, and adjust her performance accordingly. She has become a beacon of commercial entertainment for being so accommodating, for providing the right type of performance, and committing so fully yet unfussily to even the most backward of entertainments. To be even remotely watchable, these humdrum, middle-of-the-road movies all but require a performer of consistency and dedication, who’s not going to simply play along and wink-wink-nudge-nudge her way out of the affair, constantly reminding us of how much better she is than this script or that director, but who’s willing to devote herself to the character at-hand, to track and telegraph her goals, desires, emotions, and transformations, albeit not so earnestly so as to come off less serious than self-serious.
SO INSIGHTFUL. And helps me to understand the love so many have of her. I've never loved her per se but recognize that she's gloriously easy to watch. Even when the movie is bad.

August 5, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks, everyone! Love that we all can freely admit to loving Sandra, and not <I>only</I> as a guilty pleasure.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Eng

Loved the tribute Matthew Eng !! It perfectly explains the reason why people are drawn to Sandra. By the way her racist rant in Crash is still one of her finest moments on screen, despite how awful the rest of the film was.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel

I have only recently started loving Sandra with her recent career surge (Gravity, The Proposal, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and lately I have found myself appreciating her star quality and charisma even in her worst movies from the beginning of her career.

She may not have that signature piece (perhaps Gravity) that will compliment her name and her brand the way some of her peers would be remembered for theirs- Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman, My Best Friend's Wedding, Notting Hill), Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire, Top Gun, Mission Impossible), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan), but she remains to be the only one from that group that has kept generations of audiences invested in their recent films. She is even more beloved in her 50's than she was in her 30's when she was only deemed as Julia Roberts-lite

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike

"Miss Congeniality" is one of those films that I could watch OVER AND OVER again. I've literally seen it 100 times. And it's so undeniably Sandra Bullock -- the commentary with her and Marc Lawrence leaves the suggestion that he doctored the script from two sitcom vets and made it their own -- that I think she had a big part of how it got made and how the part could have only been played by her.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

"Miss Congeniality" is one of those films that I could watch OVER AND OVER again. I've literally seen it 100 times. And it's so undeniably Sandra Bullock -- the commentary with her and Marc Lawrence leaves the suggestion that he doctored the script from two sitcom vets and made it their own -- that I think she had a big part of how it got made and how the part could have only been played by her.

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

I was going to point out the exact same passage that Nathaniel did. Such an on point observation and it's so very true. She's almost always exactly what the films need even if they're unaware (whether it's her pulling the reins back or charging full throttle).

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I don't know people that don't like SaBu at least. I know people that don't love her, but I doubt anyone could really hate her.
I don't like her win for TBS and I think I always will, but the more I look back at 2009 it just felt like it was "her" year. Meryl was not going to win for a comedy, Helen Mirren was lucky to get nominated, Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe were newbies. (plus Mo'Nique stole every scene of Precious).
SaBu had the whole "OMG, she's a SERIOUS drama actress now!" narrative and TBS made a lot of money.
So did Gravity. I haven't seen it yet fully, but from what I've seen in clips it seems like it deserves all its praise.
It might be the only other SaBu film (so far) beside Miss Congeniality that I'll have in my DVD collection.
But one has to be really impressed an actress like her who just turned 50 this year and ten years ago hardly anyone would have thought would be an Academy winner some day is now so high on top. So I am impressed. Congratiolations!

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Excellent love letter and I'm loving all the attention she's getting lately. I freely admit that I own "In Love and War" and have watched it 3 times. That's how much I love Sandra Bullock. Does anyone else choose friends based on how much they love Sandra (or can stand my love for her)?

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLam

Do people think she will be remebered more fondly than her contemporary Julia or is Julia truly lurching toward Legendary status.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Matthew Eng is le Xavier Dolan of this site.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

There's little to add to Matthew's succinct, deft dissection of what makes Sandy so likable, but I will say that she also has such a grounded approach to her work that tends to allow her to elevate some of the worst of her movies (I'm speaking in particular about "The Blind Side" and "Extremely Long and Incredibly Cloying").

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Mark,

She definitely became a better Julia Roberts than Julia Roberts herself- in terms of a lovable movie queen. Julia started her career on that America's Sweetheart route- but I would still argue that Julia's trio of romantic comedy classics (Pretty Woman, My Best Friend's Wedding, Notting Hill) are far and away better than any of Sandra's films. Im pretty sure Julia would still be ranked much higher among her peers. film critics, and film enthusiasts. There was even an article a couple of years ago citing that the two most influential female movie stars of the past 40 years have been Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts- and I very much agree.

Sandra Bullock, though, has ran off with that America's Sweetheart crown and will continue to hold that for the foreseeable future, especially when Julia has been semi-retired and fully become a dramatic actress (Erin Brockovich, Closer, August: Osage County, Normal Heart). Plus she's just so damn likable, we don't hear any "BITCH" reports about her unlike Julia.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike

An interesting take on Sandra's career, which I had never taken seriously.
I'm not a snob, but after "Speed: she sort of dropped off my radar. I didn't see all those Rom Com pictures, and was shocked when The Blind Side was taken seriously enough to get an Oscar nomination.

However I was very impressed by "Gravity" last year, and loved her in "Heat"which was a very deft comedic performance. So if I am to dip back into her back catalog what film would you suggest for a cautious convert?

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

@ Lam - I wouldn't say I necessarily choose friends based on their affinity for Sandra, but... let's just say bashing Sandra in my presence is semi-tantamount to burning a Michelle Pfeiffer effigy, taking pictures of it, and sending said pictures to Nathaniel.

@ Lady Edith - I'd definitely recommend While You Were Sleeping, which I haven't seen in a while but which I remember as being totally lovely and really charming in a low-key, un-strained way, and which is generally free of the easy cheap shots and occasionally chauvinist impulses that tend to plague some of her later rom-coms, i.e. The Proposal. Two Weeks Notice doesn't steer clear of these habits either and pivots around a pretty uneven love triangle, but it's a sweet love letter to New York, and Sandra has terrific chemistry with Hugh Grant, who I'd say is probably her best co-star in this genre.

@ Mike and Mark - Julia's best performances have always seemed to rely on a unique form of rather forceful spikiness in her characters, a really bold flirting with potential unlikability that I know has turned off some of my friends in projects as modest as Notting Hill, so I can't imagine how something like the all-out, delicious bitchery of My Best Friend's Wedding must play to others, much less Erin Brockovich, which is easily a desert island movie for me and which I think she's AMAZING in, even though Erin can be downright unkind when she wants to be. And yeah, I'd say the irregular working schedule post-Erin may perhaps make her legacy seem a little less tony in some viewer's eyes, whereas someone like Sandra has seemingly never stopped working, although I like that she's become more choosy with her projects post-Oscar.

And woah, Peggy Sue, I'm bowled over! And so unworthy!

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Eng

I completely agree Matthew.. I have always been a Julia Roberts fan- the way Nat loves Michelle and the way you love Sandy, but I have been turned off lately by the underlying anger in her performances since Erin Brockovich. Don't get me wrong, I still love her but I find her much more believable in her dramatic work rather than her once signature comedic timing. Even though Sandra and Julia (along with Meg) are considered the Romantic Comedy Queens of the '90's - they really are two different actresses. Julia excels in the bitchy lead roles, while Sandra is more humble and relatable. I never cared much for Sandra before, but I find her so irresistible right now and I have to bow down to an actress who can rule Hollywood at the age of 50.

August 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel

Miss Congeniality is endlessly watchable in my opinion. I love Sandra in it.

August 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

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