Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Best Actress Completely Unsuited for the Part

Shows you how much influence I've got.

Sarah Paulson has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.

Paulson, it's generally agreed by critics and fans alike, is the second most annoying thing about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the first most annoying thing being the show's creator Aaron Sorkin's "comedy as a serious business, like periodonture," approach to writing a TV show about writing a TV show, and in a just, or at least tasteful, world she'd have been written out of the script by now and not up for any awards.

Yes, I know the awards Hollywood incessantly gives itself are fairly meaningless as artistic judgments, and the Golden Globes are the biggest joke of the bunch (although at least the people behind the Golden Globes seem to know they're a joke), and yes, I'm about to write yet again about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and I have heard from many of my readers that I've already written way too much about that show. To those readers I say, Patience. This post isn't just about Studio 60. It's also about Cheers, M*A*S*H, and The Unit, and it includes discussions of nudity and sex.

Paulson plays Harriet Hayes, the inexplicably popular fan-favorite and class sweetheart of the "cast" of the fictional sketch comedy show that's at the center of Studio 60. The character, a conservative, evangelical Christian with a bad habit of letting everybody know it at inopportune times, but who substitutes lecturing and scolding for praying in public, is said to have been based on Kristin Chenoweth.

Chenoweth, now wowing them on Broadway in The Apple Tree, is bubbly, brassy, sexy, and funny. Harriet Hayes is none of those things and Paulson captures that perfectly.

As I've said before, Harriet's blandness is not all Paulson's fault. Sorkin hasn't given her much to work with. All her best qualities are assumed by the scripts; as if we have no real interest in seeing Harriet's talents as an actress and comedienne on display, we never get to see her shine, we're just told that she does. And her worst qualities, her sanctimony, her self-righteousness, her instinctive desire to be a wet-blanket, aren't portrayed as bad qualities. They are seen as intrinsic to her being a conservative Christian, and since Sorkin is using Harriet as a kind of noble savage---"Some of my best friends are Indians and Evangelicals, now let's get on with exterminating the brutes"---vices that Christ himself preached against repeatedly are allowed to pass as virtues, proof of her sincerity and therefore shielded from irony, satire, and contempt.

I imagine Paulson could have a whole lot of fun with the part if she was allowed to play Harriet as annoying scold, whose sanctimony was really a hysterical expression of repressed sexuality---the church lady type who is usually found at the end of the play with her heels up, her crinoline around her waist, and a red-faced church deacon on top of her, huffing and puffing away, on the verge of a heart attack as he tries to satisfy her suddenly unleashed libido.

Of course, a leading lady who's an annoying hypocrite would violate the Prime Directive of Network Series Television: Main characters are not allowed to be unlikeable, and how Boston Legal gets away with breaking this one week in and week out is beyond me, except that it suggests that the rule is all in the minds of the Network suits and timid writers and producers and actors and not all that important to viewers.

But Paulson could still approach the part as if Harriet wasn't the saint she, that is, Harriet herself, and Aaron Sorkin think she is, and even come close to making her that sexy church lady, by playing her as one of two types---the Good Girl with a Naughty Streak or the One Time Bad Girl Determined to Repent.

I've written about the Good Girl With a Naughty Streak before, when I wrote about Lilith on Cheers being the Schoolmarm type.

There's something of the Schoolmarm about Harriet, but a true Schoolmarm type has to be in a relative position of authority, at least in regards to the other characters around her. Schoolmarms have a good reason for holding themselves sexually aloof and not becoming one of the gang and not joining in the fun. Lilith has a professional reputation to uphold, plus she is a wife and a mother. Diane Chambers, who acted the part of the schoolmarm, has no good reason to be so superior and standoffish except her own snobbery, which is why she was so annoying and why her character's ultimate exile from the bar made dramatic sense.

Actually, in many ways, Diane was the Sexy Church Lady type, but her "church" was the church of her own intellectual pretensions. Another Sexy Church Lady was Margaret Houlihan on M*A*S*H. And currently one of the wives on The Unit is presenting an interesting, and dressed-down, variation on the type.

Thanks to J. at the Armchair Generalist for calling my attention to this show.

Tiffy Gerhardt is a good and loving mother, a dedicated and even heroic high school teacher, and in most things that count a loyal wife---she's devoted to her husband's "church," the Delta Force Unit and the Army, and she sings in the choir, so to speak, energetically and enthusiastically taking part in the base wives's social activities and self-support work. And she's cheating on her husband regularly with his commanding officer.

The Unit's backstory gives her an excuse. Her husband, Mack, is a good solider but a bad husband, negligent, withdrawn, emotionally stunted, unable to express any feelings around her except anger---he's lost control at least once and beat her and the scripts so far don't give us any reason to think this was out of character and likely to be a one-time mistake. Tiffy is lonely, afraid, deserving of much better from life but bound to her husband by love and a sense of duty.

On top of everything else, she seems to love the commanding officer, tragically, because part of the reason she won't leave her husband for him is that she knows it would wreck both men's careers if the affair ever became public.

Her situation is such that we ought to forgive her and root for her and be glad she has at least something of her own in her life and we do and we are, but, and this is something I admire about The Unit, it's more complicated than that.

As she's written and as she's played by Abby Brammell, Tiffy is sexually eager, even demanding, and there's a definite implication that while she loves the colonel, love isn't everything or even the main thing. She likes, wants, and needs sex, not just because she's young, horny, and lonely, but because she's good at it.

She is vain, proud of her body and proud of what she can do with it in bed. She's also reckless and she enjoys the threat cheating brings to her life. In fact, in many ways she is very like her husband. Sex is her talent, the way combat is his. They both enjoy expressing their competence and love the thrill and the danger that goes with it.

She is without guilt too. When the colonel, harried by his conscience and concerned about the way his own bad behavior is jeopardizing the Unit's cohesiveness and therefore its security, tries to break it off with her, Tiffy demands and gets a last meeting in their usual motel room. There, she listens to him try to explain himself, scoffs, sneers, dismisses his guilt and his concerns, pushes him down onto the bed, strips off her shirt, and leans her perfect belly into his face, absolutely confident of her power over him, but also angry and insulted that he would even think about giving up the possibility of seeing her naked.

So, like the Sexy Church Lady, Tiffy is vain and sexually adventurous in private and a goody-two-shoes in public. It isn't just the case that she needs to protect herself with a public reputation for being a good girl. It's also that she is as vain of being a good girl as she is vain of being a sexual dynamo. Which makes her a hypocrite by choice not just by necessity.

As I said, I'd find it more interesting if Harriet Hayes was a variation on the Sexy Church Lady type---and for those of you who think I'm just wishing for more scenes of Harriet in her underwear, there are plenty of ways for Sexy Church Ladies to backslide without their always landing on their backs---but that's not in the cards.

It's also a little late to start presenting Harriet as the Bad Girl Determined to Repent. Harriet's past could be full of many episodes of backsliding, but it's really not necessary to the type that she actually be a Bad Girl, only that she think of herself as one. Christianity does a good job of convincing lots of good people that they are in fact bad just for being themselves, so this wouldn't be at all a stretch. It's just that Aaron Sorkin is determined to make Harriet a sunny, romantic heroine type, and not a neurotic mess of a realistic protagonist.

So it would seem that Paulson's best and only option is to play Harriet as the Good Girl With a Naughty Streak, which, based on the way she lightened up in the last two episodes, seems to be where she's headed. Trouble is that her idea of naughty appears to be loving a Jewish Hollyweird atheist comedy writer. This is "trouble" in the usefully dramatic sense. It means that her love for Matt Albie is a serious problem for her in that it means she has to reject or betray her sincerely held beliefs in order to be with him. This makes her very much like Diane Chambers, who could never completely give in to her love for Sam because in her mind it meant she was rejecting her "church" of Art and Culture.

For each woman, then, having the man she loves requires her to compromise herself, no big deal as far as the audience is concerned, because neither Harriet nor Diane is devoted to an attractive belief, in fact, they are both devoted more to their own self-image as a Good Girl than to actually being a good girl. But giving up a cherished and self-flattering opinion is very difficult for most people.

Shelley Long's leaving Cheers saved the writers from having to decide whether or not Diane was capable of changing and what to do with her if she was.

Things will be more interesting on Studio 60 if it turns out that Harriet can't change or has a lot of trouble changing. (There is no reason for Matt to change for her, because he doesn't need to in order to love her or let her be herself, and because he's right.) But it would be even more interesting if it turns out that not only can't she change, she doesn't want to change, because to change would take away what she likes about being in love with Matt---that in loving him she is being naughty.

This is what makes Good Girls With Naughty Streaks dangerous in real life, if you happen to be the object or occasion of their naughtiness.

For one thing, Good Girls With Naughty Streaks are in fact good girls. Being good means being able to resist or give up being naughty, which means that once they decide they don't want to be naughty any more, you're out the door.

But it also often means that what they like about you is that you are what allows them to be naughty and so they will resist any attempts on your part to make your relationship with them less naughty. The Sexy Church Lady can be an extreme variation of the Good Girl With A Naughty Streak and Tiffy on The Unit is a good example. When the colonel tries to break off their affair, he's attempting to return their relationship to more proper terms. Not at all naughty. And Tiffy won't put up with that.

Good Girls With Naughty Streaks can be extremely manipulative then. They will have things their own way. If you mess with them by trying to be something other than they need you to be, they will put you back in your place in a violent hurry, even if it means breaking it off with you in a fit of self-righteous indignation. "How dare you think I am that type of girl, you cad!"

This was the way Diane kept Sam in line. Whenever she threatened to or did break it off with him, she always made sure he understood that it was because he was beneath her. She played on Sam's insecurity and vanity and that way made sure he danced to her tune.

This was also an element in the perpetual threat Margaret used against Frank on M*A*S*H. She always made it clear that he was the cad and the seducer who had taken advantage of her in her loneliness, she was his innocent victim, guilty of nothing more than loving not wisely but too well, and she made it even plainer that if he ever did her wrong this is exactly how the world, and his wife, would see things. She'd make sure of that.

The Good Girl With a Naughty Streak is always one step away from becoming a villainess or at least the antagonist to her former lover's or the rival for her former lover's protagonist.

I wouldn't mind seeing Harriet Hayes being taken by Aaron Sorkin and Sarah Paulson in this direction, especially since Matt and Harriet just aren't clicking as a couple.

But as things stand, and as Paulson is currently playing her, Harriet is one of literature and life's most annoying types.

The Prude Who Wants to be Thought of as Fun.


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