My current Top 5

My current Top 5

8/28/2010

Best Actress 1985: Anne Bancroft in "Agnes of God"

Anne Bancroft received her fifth and final Oscar nomination her performance as Mother Miriam Ruth, a Mother Superior who has to deal with unexpected happenings in the movie version of the Broadway play Agnes of God. The story centers on a young novice nun, Agnes, who has given birth and apparently killed the child – and she insists that her pregnancy was the results of a virgin conception. A psychiatrist, played by Jane Fonda, who is sent to investigate the murder and the character of Agnes clashes with Mother Miriam about how to deal with this case and about more general themes like religion and science, life and death.

The character of Mother Miriam is a very surprising one – she is not the kind of woman one would expect in a movie like this, with a plot like this, with characters like this. She isn’t a strict, unforgiving, humorless and domineering woman who terrifies the nuns into blind obedience like Meryl Streep in Doubt. Instead, Mother Miriam is a warm, concerned, caring and almost down-to-earth character who doesn’t turn a blind eye to the needs and worries of the nuns around her, who takes charge when she has to and knows how to deal with ‘the world outside’ just as much as with ‘the world inside’. Anne Bancroft underlines these features by refusing to play Mother Miriam like a stereotype but instead leaves the viewer constantly wondering and speculating about her real intentions and her knowledge about the night when Agnes gave birth. The way she leans over a waste basket in Agnes’s room and reacts with a combination of shock and grief about its content seems already to suggest that she maybe knows more about what happened in her monastery than she is willing to admit.

By deciding to underplay Mother Miriam, Anne Bancroft certainly avoided the trap of overacting or incredibility and her own warm, loving and likeable screen presence helps to turn her character into a woman that seems warm, loving and likeable but also constantly surprises the viewer when she suddenly pulls back and fights Dr. Livingston about Agnes and about the interpretation of what happened. The two develop an interesting love-hate relationship in which Mother Miriam is the domineering part as she is the one who is laying the rules and constantly defining their levels of cooperation or rejection.

All this certainly sounds very impressive and Anne Bancroft certainly chose and interesting way of brining Mother Miriam to live but at the same time it seems that she let a lot of possibilities to widen her character slip by. The truth is that in the triangle of Mother Miriam, Agnes and Dr. Livingston, Mother Miriam is the most uninteresting and unimportant character who constantly slips in the background whenever a scene doesn’t precisely focus on her. Agnes is the true central character of this story and Meg Tilly gives a surprisingly effective and show-stealing performance as this naïve and mysterious woman and even Jane Fonda, even though her material isn’t the best either, makes a bigger impression than Anne Bancroft simply because her character is, next to Agnes, the second motor who keeps the story going. Mother Miriam, even though a strong influence in the proceedings, doesn’t get the same chances to become an active character. And by deciding to underplay her, Anne Bancroft didn’t really do herself a favor as Jane Fonda and, especially Meg Tilly, know that Agnes of God is the kind of movie that simply needs some overacting, some histrionic moments and that way easily put all the attention on themselves. Anne Bancroft circles around the story and the monastery like an eagle, paying close attention and watching everything with her sharp eyes, but she hardly comes down to become a part of it. Jane Fonda and Meg Tilly play in the arena while Anne Bancroft is like a member of the audience who is invited to join them for a special number. And while I usually lack the imagination to think about what other actors might have done with a part, it’s impossible not to picture the actress who originated the part on the stage, Geraldine Page, who was born to play this kind of character and whose tics and mannerisms would have suited the role perfectly and made Mother Miriam a much stronger presence in the structure of the story and resulted in a maybe predictable, but more interesting performance.

But even though Anne Bancroft underplayed a little too much and allowed herself to be outshine a little too often, she still did a lot of things right. Her exaggerated friendliness when she meets Dr. Livingston for the first time which quickly turns into mistrust and rejection when the questions become too much is already a very effective introduction and shows the characters most important features. Like Meryl Streep’s character in Doubt, Mother Miriam was married before her life as a nun and so is able to use her own experiences of a ‘normal’ life to run the monastery with a combination of religious and secular methods. She doesn’t believe in useless suffering for the sake of religious enlightenment, she calls nuns who believe in beating and strict discipline ‘stupid’, she swears when she has to and tells the other nuns that they should not be ashamed of their menstruations. Anne Bancroft plays all these things in a way that make her character very easy to relate to but at the same time she seemed to focus a little bit too much on the modern and ‘secular’ sides of her character – sometimes it’s easy to forget that Sister Miriam is still a nun. The balancing of her characteristics sometimes didn’t fully work out for the best. She is arguing in favor of the Catholic Church in all her discussion with Dr. Livingston, who left the church years ago, but it sometimes appears that Anne Bancroft wasn’t too convinced of Mother Miriam’s beliefs herself…

But even though Anne Bancroft tended to over-simplify her character, this worked well in the context of the overall movie because that way her Mother Miriam became an unexpected island of calmness, almost the only ‘normal’ person in the story and because of that Anne Bancroft’s scenes tend to be the most quiet ones, even when she is fighting with Dr. Livingston, some welcome moments of peace and sanity in a world that seems to have forgotten about this. It’s mostly these unexpected sides of Sister Miriam that Anne Bancroft portrays the best. Especially the moment when she and Dr. Livingston are secretly smoking together, talking and laughing, forgetting about their disputes and talking earnestly, is one that Anne Bancroft plays with a wonderful mix of drama and comedy and the right amount of gentleness while not forgetting who she is or what she wants.

The most interesting aspect of Anne Bancroft’s performance as well as the character of Mother Miriam is her relationship with Agnes, a young woman who believes in all the things that Mother Miriam would describe as nonsense, like starving or suffering. She wants to help Agnes to have a more modern vision but at the same time she isn’t able to escape the strange fascination that Agnes creates. Mother Miriam wants to do her best to keep Agnes away from the dangers of the world outside the monastery but at the same time she doesn’t fully understand her or know how to handle her. She wants to be an insider but remains an outsider like everyone else, no matter how much she knows or understands. The mystery of the situations has apparently caught her as much by surprise as everybody else but she is the one who has to stay strong and do her best to protect Agnes, maybe even from herself.

It’s a competent and sometimes very appealing performance that unfortunately never becomes truly memorable or outstanding because of both the writing and the acting by Anne Bancroft which tends to let too many chances go by. For this, she gets

9 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

Very nice performance...

joe burns said...

I think she'll come in fifth. Can you do Streep next?

Fritz said...

No problem, Joe! I only want to save Goldberg for last to keep the suspense alive! :-)

hey deanie said...

Haha, yay, you liked my darling Jane ;-) Awesome review! I still need to see "Agnes of God", tbh...gah. I really can't wait to see what you'll say about Lange.

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot, deanie! I try my best (even though I am never completely satisfied...)

If you're a Jane-Fonda-fan you should see it. I wouldn't say that I liked Jane's performance myself but she didn't bother me either.

I can't wait to see what I'll say about Lange either. This is one of those years where I have no idea what I will write until I sit down and start writing...

dinasztie said...

This must be interesting. Would you give the win to Meg Tilly?

Fritz said...

I wouldn't give her the win even thoug I would put her above Anjelica Huston. I would give the win for Margaret Avery.

Robert said...

Meg Tilly was really something special in this film, wasn't she? And I think you hit the nail right on the head with this review - Anne Bancroft did some really stellar things in her choice to underplay it but that also worked against her.

Fritz said...

Yes, Meg Tilly was really good which surprised because somehow I had expected a really terrible, over-the-top performance but it all worked really well.