The Film Experience is proud to welcome back Matthew Eng for this personal FYC
These days, to simply see Sarah Paulson’s name in the opening credits of any project is enough to make me sit back, relax, and sigh with deep and reverent relief that — no matter the lapses in storytelling, the dubiousness of politics, or the haphazard efforts of other actors — I am in the hands of at least one supremely assured and eternally convincing performer.
As someone who missed Aaron Sorkin’s infamous Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and the extensive list of sitcoms and serials she appeared in from the mid-nineties to the late-2000s (not to mention her numerous stage roles and occasional film appearances), my Sarah Paulson fandom is fairly recent. Of course, like many, I’d seen and admired her wry gal pal in Down with Love, which remains a fun but frankly flaky memory.
But truthfully, I wasn’t fully onboard the Paulson bandwagon until 2012, when she offered American Horror Story’s peak Asylum season a truly new and refreshingly tough-minded depiction of devastated-turn-mobilized female victimhood and then, a year later, sauntered into Steven McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as one of contemporary cinema’s most memorably unrepentant villainesses, terrorizing Lupita and manipulating Fassy with ferocious, bone-chilling conviction.
When I heard Paulson had joined Carol, I took another of those deep and reverent sighs of relief, as if to say, 'Alright, this film will actually be as perfect as I need it to be.' [More...]
Paulson’s involvement in a Todd Haynes ensemble makes perfect sense, not just because Haynes has extraordinary taste in actors and pays amazing attention to every performer who graces his projects, but because he is an auteur who excels at modern-minded period pieces and Paulson is an actress who plays “period” with such unfussily lived-in, moment-to-moment truthfulness that she doesn’t so much “act” the era as much as she cleanly cements herself into it. There are a handful of actors who would’ve excelled in specific past eras of moviemaking: Oscar Isaac in the 70s, Anne Hathaway in the 50s, and Paulson in any decade of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when character actresses weren’t only tossed into whatever available, marginalized part needed filling, but actually had roles built or tailored around their idiosyncratic abilities, which were indeed desired, even feted.
One of the more depressing ramifications of Rooney Mara’s needless Supporting campaign is that it has fully eliminated any and all chances of Paulson’s richly-deserved awards attention for her pristine Abby Gerhard, one of the most beautifully and veritably supporting performances in recent memory. I’ve seen Carol six times now (which means, yes, I can plot the correlations between what the characters say and what they feel) and with each viewing, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold my applause when Paulson spits out “You’ve got some fuck-ing nerve ordering me around” with such palpably flabbergasted outrage to Kyle Chandler’s trespassing Harge, or to prevent myself from throwing roses at the screen when she later reloads and fires Chandler away with that brilliantly glacial reading of the line, “I can’t help you with that.”
But to watch Paulson’s Abby is to relish in the performance’s quieter, non-“YAS KWEEN” moments, all of which comprise a woman whose particularities, preferences, and mysteries have been indelibly laid out for us over the course of roughly five or six scenes. Paulson makes perceptible every single thing that’s on Phyllis Nagy’s superb pages and so much more.
Thanks to Paulson, we get an Abby who approaches Carol with instinctive care but also the sort of name-calling camaraderie that stretches this friendship past the screen’s confines. Every time Abby calls Carol a “stoop” or a “nitwit” it signals something different and deeper about Carol and Abby, who clearly harbors an unrequited ardor for Carol, but has (happily? not-so-happily?) resigned herself to the reality that it will eternally remain so. In subsequent viewings, Paulson’s interactions with Mara grow even more intriguing, nailing not just the gently jealous wariness of Therese that Paulson indicates from as early as her very first scene, but also the kind of concerned but unsentimental pity that Abby simply can’t help but feel for this lovesick young woman who is at once her rival, responsibility, and reluctant comrade.
In short, Paulson’s a wonder as Abby, a role that probably didn’t need this much colorful detail or flawless technique to make its necessary impact. It’s also admittedly awesome to see an actress who has long been out — my earliest memory of Paulson might actually be her kissing then-girlfriend Cherry Jones at the 2005 Tonys — play a queer character, however sidelined she may be within the larger scope of Carol. It’s a testament to Paulson’s talents that we barely notice just how far on Carol’s periphery Abby lies. She's on an undeniable hot streak that's all the more exciting because it still feels like we've seen only a generous portion of her full potentials.
At this point, I’m right behind her no matter where she travels, although I can’t help but wish it were with more guides as formidable and original as Haynes and McQueen. She remains the lone reason to enter the garish and gluttonously derivative worlds of Ryan Murphy, whose ramshackle work I’d bid farewell to for good were it not for my total inability to look away from Paulson whenever she strides into a frame. She may very well be her own best guide when it comes to exploring her various character’s interiors, finding emotional resonance in every single one of her wonderfully diverse array of roles, even when they’re crudely written or briefly glimpsed. She’s a terrific advocate of these characters’ importance and I love that she has seemingly no interest in playing any token love interests. I love that I can’t even picture her playing any token love interests.
Even when she's so clearly superior to the project or part at-hand, Sarah Paulson always earns our piqued curiosity and undiluted attention. No matter the destination, she singlehandedly makes the journey worth it.