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FYC: Sarah Paulson, Carol's Best Supporting Actress

The Film Experience is proud to welcome back Matthew Eng for this personal FYC

Sarah Paulson photographed for VarietyThese 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 Storys 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.

More on... Carol | Sarah Paulson | Supporting Actress
More from Matthew Eng. He also gives great tweet.


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Reader Comments (22)

A thousand times yes. Paulson is gold - in this movie and in everything else. Although I don't watch AHS.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Yeah, Paulson is my Supporting Actress win right now. Just beautiful work in this film. That scene with Kyle Chandler is perfection.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Brilliant piece. I love the image of you brushing the screen with roses while admiring Sarah's serene target practice. This actress is a force of nature who rivals the most talented of any scene partner. Only even greater things ahead. Speaking of which: Happy New Year, Matthew!

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Brilliantly articulated, Matthew, and a thousand times yes.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobUK

Matthew: Lovely love letter to Miss Paulson. Congrats!
Still, I am most worried that all the accolades this perfect film receives until the end of the awards season doen't include what, to me, are the two pivotal things that makes everything else shine like it does. I'm talking of Mr. Todd Haynes and Miss Phillys Nagy. Without them in the conversation I think aknowledging their performers (in any form) would be a consolation prize. The worst kind.
That's what I, guilty as I am, keep forgetting what Abby brings to the film, and specially her relationship with Carol (isn't it a beauty when we see her in that MOTEL CHAIR? Her sole precense there speaks volumes about the commitment to the word FRIENDSHIP. And to think there are people unmoved by this film. Unmoved!
In all, i fear most for people like Haynes who, like Linklater last year, keep moving us and exhilarating us without a hint of a fuss or self-importance others directors ara very much awarded right now. They keep making humane, no artifice films with the most giftful set of skills: their vision, talent, and humility. NO CGI pirotecnics or endlessly unbroken takes. Just elegance and extreme thought, care and love for every shot and character portrayed. Very old school, indeed. But modern as you say, too. Look at Spielberg doing THOSE kind of movies. again. He could have gone JURASSIC forever. But he's onto something, clearly. Whether you are moved but their films or not, we need them all. Just to preserve the species. And if they are rewarded for this, the better.
I love Furiosa, for sure. But I also love the restrained anger Abby shows when she slams that door on Harge's face. This anger is pure subtetly and the more trascendent for that. Just like Carol.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

Is it Ok to day I thought Paulson was better than N'yongo in 12 yas.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Zitzelman

Matthew Eng - You are a truly outstanding writer. A wonderful piece.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterScott

The best example of acting on the edges I've seen all year, and I'm not even a devotee of hers. To single out her pivotal scene with Kyle Chandler as her best moment in the movie would be to devalue the brilliant performance she establishes from her very first frame of fillm.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

@Mary: Agreed. Lupita was served up one helluva juicy role and she sank her teeth into it accordingly. But Sarah was given less and made a feast.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Goddamn does Sarah Paulson deserve a loving extended ode like this article.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

OMG, I love this. Moves Paulson way up my list of things I love about <I>Carol. I wasn't an instant convert, either, which is one more reason I love this piece and totally relate to it. Thanks, Matthew!

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Jeez, Film Experience readers/commenters are truly just the best and most passionate. Thanks so much, everyone! Glad we all get to share in our love for Sarah and Carol! And Happy New Year!

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Eng

my favorite thing about this article other than the article itself is that Sarah Paulson liked it :)

December 31, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Rooney Mara being run in Supporting is the true definition of category fraud. How I hope the Acting branch has enough sense to realize that they're being tricked. If common sense prevails then perhaps there will be room for Paulson. The Academy can surprise on occasion : they called bullshit on Kate Winslet, remember?

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBillHeldAnOscar

I thInk she gave the best performance in both Carol and 12YAS! As others have noted, she does so much with so little. I'm so looking forward to her Marcia Clark.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Only 14 days to go until I see Carol. Praise be to Baby Cheeses for this site and it's continued Carol coverage. I may not have survived the wait without it. Thank you Nathaniel and Matthew.

Sarah is tops. I loved her in Game Change.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEz

Love everything about this article and I have high high hopes for deleted Sarah Paulson scenes making their way onto a future Carol DVD. "I can't help you with that." Just kill me.

(On a potentially inappropriate but whatever, very necessary note, it didn't work between Carol and Abby cause they're both tops, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTB

TB -- re: paragraph 1 -- TOTALLY. i bet we do get one at least re: paragraph 2 - LOL. and absolutely.

EZ -- glad to hear it. i know some readers have not been as happy with this much coverage before they've had the chance to see it.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Beautifully written and so true. Sarah Paulson plays with so much intelligence and talent her role. Paulson makes every single word from the script even more resonant and delicious.

December 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLuigi De Angelis

I whole heartedly agree. What speaks to me as a viewer (as well as a writer) are the actors who carry such resonance, such weight and commitment to their character, that you are truly convinced they exist beyond the mere bounds of their scenes. Paulson has ALWAYS done this for me. I have never questioned her devotion as an artist to any role. When Paulson dives in, she goes straight into the deep end without fear. She is someone I want to collaborate with in the future because no other actor seems quite as curious about the limits of the human experience.

As far as Abby goes, I could write for days on that gem. Nuanced. Layered. Badass. She is the only character in "Carol" or TPoS who has anothers interests solely at heart. She's motivated by pure unadulterated selfless love without concern for herself. The best friend any person would thank their lucky stars to have! And autumn headscarves? Um...yes please! Go get those awards Paulson!

January 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaz

So beautifully written... You have a real way with words.

January 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

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