Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Anyone but Andie MacDowell

Two of the last three movies I've revisited have been Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

These are both films I love, but as it happens, they were both chosen by my wife. Four Weddings and a Funeral was her choice from our own DVD collection when we failed to prepare a rental for Valentine's Day. And last night, when I'd carried the taco makings and shells freshly removed from the oven into the living room, she'd tuned the TV to Bravo to watch Groundhog Day. Needless to say, I was more than pleased to watch both. It was probably my seventh viewing of Four Weddings, my fourth of Groundhog Day.
But seeing them both within the space of ten days reminded me of the other, primary thing they have in common. In fact, I've associated these movies in my mind over the years, for one specific reason:

They would both be even better without Andie MacDowell.

Over the years, I've made the argument to whoever would listen that literally any other actress of similar stature could have played these roles better. And most people will listen to that argument. In fact, in my travels, I've discovered that most people have at least a mild dislike for Ms. MacDowell.

On some level this feels uncharitable. She is, after all, a model-turned-actress, and she's only doing her best. Plus, she seems like a genuinely nice person, the kind of old-fashioned Southerner who might believe in old-fashioned Southern hospitality.

But man is she a bad actress.

She seems to be trying very hard, and not succeeding. No matter what expression is on her face, there's always a look of strain behind her eyes. Then again, I guess that could just be how she looks.

And to be fair, I have to admit something a bit sexist here -- I probably wouldn't be quite so critical of her if I were slightly more attracted to her. I think that's the thing that's always puzzled me about MacDowell, as well -- not only did I not understand how she was an actress, but I especially didn't understand how she was a model-turned-actress. In order to do that, you have to first be a model.

And that look of strain, for want of a better way to describe it, is part of her natural appearance. Not only is that a problem for her modeling -- I'd think it would be a put-off to most people, and it certainly is to me -- but it's a problem for her acting, as she doesn't seem to be able to make it go away. Part of being a good actor is that you have total control over your facial features. Andie MacDowell does not.

Yet there's no doubt she has something, something that led her to be cast in Steven Soderberg's sex, lies and videotape (1989). That wasn't her first role -- she had flailed in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and St. Elmo's Fire (1985). But Soderbergh saw some potential in that flailing, and it was after sex, lies and videotape that she started getting cast regularly. I thought she was particularly overmatched in Green Card (1990). I haven't seen that movie since a couple years after it came out, but I still remember releasing a couple shocked bursts of laughter at how poorly she acted some of her key scenes. I guess I was in the minority on this one, or else it's just another proof of the poor judgment of the Hollywood Foreign Press, because this performance received a Golden Globe nomination.

MacDowell's luck continued when she caught the attention of another maverick director, Robert Altman, appearing in a cameo as herself in The Player (1992), and then as a character in Short Cuts (1993). Even though I saw The Player again only a couple months ago, I don't remember her in it. But if I had to guess, I'd say she was probably not very successful even at playing herself. I'm overdue to see Short Cuts again, and will be sure to be on MacDowell watch when I do.

Then came the improbable peak of MacDowell's career, with Groundhog Day (1993) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) in the space of two years. Groundhog Day is considered to be one of Bill Murray's best movies, which is really saying something, and Four Weddings and a Funeral even received a surprise (but richly deserved) Oscar nomination for best picture.

Even as I've savored ever detail of both these movies, the one thing I've never understood is how Murray or Hugh Grant could have fallen head over heels for MacDowell. There are no specific moments of terrible acting in Groundhog Day, but MacDowell basically torpedoes the ending of FWAAF, which might have been its worst part no matter who played the role. "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed," she says, about as unconvincingly as you could image. Then there's the hilarious line where she puts the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble:

Charles: Let me ask you one thing. Do you think - after we've dried off, after we've spent lots more time together - you might agree *not* to marry me? And do you think not being married to me might maybe be something you could consider doing for the rest of your life?
Carrie: I do.

Print doesn't do justice to it, but maybe you remember how she says "I do" here -- with all the emphasis on the word "I" and none of it on "do."

Back to our regular timeline.

By the mid-1990s, the market finally corrected itself for Andie MacDowell. She made prominent features for the next couple years -- Bad Girls, Michael, Multiplicity, Muppets from Space -- but by the year 2000 had pretty much stopped showing up on movie posters. It seems hard to avoid noting that this drop in prominence coincided with her 40th birthday. I'd instead like to think MacDowell was just long overdue to be put out to pasture. Oh, she's worked in the last decade, but you haven't heard of most of the movies. Ginostra? The Last Sign? Tara Road? She was part of the ensemble in Beauty Shop (2005), but it's worth noting that the other most prominent role she had last decade involved her voice only, as Etta the Hen in the animated movie Barnyard (2006).

Like I said earlier, it seems uncharitable to take any kind of pleasure in MacDowell's eventual disappearance from the spotlight. Never would I want to root for anyone to fall victim to Hollywood's cruelty toward its aging female stars. My whole point is that I don't know how she got a chance to be one of those aging stars in the first place. Seeming like a nice person should not have been enough.

Well, who would I like to see in Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral, to make those films even better?

No one.

That's right, for all she doesn't bring to those movies, she's a part of them. And with movies you love, you love them warts and all. You wouldn't change a thing.

Would I have preferred it if Linda Fiorentino had played Phil Conners' kind-hearted but sarcastic producer, or if Madeleine Stowe had played Charles' free-spirited American love interest?

Not if there was any chance I'd like either of these movies a smidgen less.


Milo said...

"Green card", just tragic Andie MacDowell delivery.

moey said...

I'm watching Green Card right now, and oh -- I love this movie. But Andie MacDowell? Tragic, just tragic. I like her! But she *is* a terrible actress.

Anonymous said...

This is the blog post I wish I had written. Thank you, a million times, thank you.

Unknown said...

Watching FW now and couldn't agree more! Team Fiona, Kirsten Scott Thomas outclasses Andie every single time.

Derek Armstrong said...

Totally agree on Kristen Scott! Such elegance.

Unknown said...

Thank you. I’m watching a Netflix series Cedar Cove which she stars in...only because it supposedly takes place where I actually live. I could go on and on, but honestly I can’t get past her bad acting. She’s so “affected.” Like she’s aware of every camera angle. Her facial movements drive me nuts!! So, thank you. I love what you wrote.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks for the kind words! I should note that since I wrote this, she did appear in the Magic Mike sequel and I thought for the first time that she gave a truly relaxed performance. I was impressed. I guess I'll steer clear of Cedar Cove if I want that feeling to remain!