My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1988: Sigourney Weaver in "Gorillas in the Mist"

Making Oscar history is always something special. Luise Rainer did it when she became the first person to win two acting Oscars. Katharine Hepburn has the most wins, Meryl Streep the most nominations. Fay Bainter was the first person to be nominated for both a leading and a supporting Oscar in the same year. In 1988, Sigourney Weaver also wrote Oscar history but I am pretty sure that she would have preferred not to – on Oscar night, she became the first double-nominee to lose twice. In the supporting category, she lost for her performance as manipulative business woman Katharine in Working Girl and she also had to remain seated when the winner in the leading category was announced where Jodie Foster’s rape victim prevailed over Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of real-life zoologist Dian Fossey, who studied Gorillas in the Rwandan mountains and was mysteriously murdered, in the drama Gorillas in the Mist.

Gorillas in the Mist luckily never pretends to be a scientific documentary about gorillas in their natural habit but turns out to be a surprisingly balanced look on the life of the controversial researcher that mixes reality with the expected ingredient of Hollywood melodrama. The movie never tries to turn Dian into either a saintly hero who tried to protect endangered animals or an unapologetic activist who went much too far in her quest but gives fairly even view that lets the audience decide for themselves. Of course, the movie suffers from the fact that only parts of Fossey’s life could be portrayed and that way a clear simplification of her actions took place but even despite that, it’s still a gripping, touching and shocking story that provided a formidable central role for an ambitious actress.

Sigourney Weaver remarkably inserted her performance into the tone of the story as she, like the story itself, tries her best to keep her portrayal as balanced as possible, always swinging to one side or the other, never making Dian static but keeping the constant flow in this woman alive. Sigourney Weaver had the not easy challenge to live up the script’s demands and bring this mysterious character to live while also making the story perceptible as it wants to touch both the mind and the heart of the viewer for which it needs the character of Dian and the performance of Sigourney as its vessel.

Sigourney Weaver is an actress with an overpowering screen presence, not only because of her physics but simply because of the stern determination she brings to her characters and that is always perceivable in her face and body language. Right from the beginning she excels in showing the passionate determination that Dian possesses and controls her life just as much as everybody’s around her – she is such a stern and strong actress that when she looks serious, the audience immediately knows it is serious. Her childlike wonderment and excitement about the miracles of nature combined with her strong and withstanding decisiveness when she is fighting for a position in Africa already lays a wonderful foundation for what is yet to come. It’s a foundation that still seems undecided about which way to go which works well for the character – who is this woman? What is her past? What are her reasons? These questions are unanswered and Sigourney Weaver does her best to let them remain so and solely focuses on the present and future and that way creates a very intriguing because never fully explainable woman who constantly seems to slip away from understanding even if her reasons and intentions seems perfectly clear.

Despite her strong determination, Sigourney Weaver also succeeds in portraying a certain naivety in Dian as she arrives in Rwanda – a newcomer to this place, not used to the realities of African life, a woman who seems very unpractical about everything as she is mostly concerned about taking a shower and having all her luggage brought up the mountains. While these moments contrast effectively with later scenes that show a much more experienced Dian, Sigourney Weaver sometimes overdoes her performance in the beginning. But what works very well in her interpretation is the fact that Sigourney Weaver is the kind of actress, regarding both her physic and her talent, who seems to belong in her surroundings, who makes it believable that a women like her not only wants to be in this place, but rather belongs in this place. Even at the rocky beginning, Sigourney Weaver is already able to show a certain fascination in Dian, a wonderment. Just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she suddenly enters a colorful and exiting new world. Later, Sigourney Weaver does a wonderful job in showing Dian’s attachment to her new life, how she learns to bargain on the market and becomes accustomed to a new way of life.

The biggest task of Sigourney Weaver is to make the excitement about this new world and her encounters with the gorillas believable and noticeable for the audience at home. While it’s up to the cinematography, art direction and direction to create the feeling of 'being there', she has to create the fascination of this place, of her work, and evoke an understanding and desire in the viewers for being there themselves. And Sigourney Weaver is fully up to the task and is able to bring the allure, the once-in-a-lifetime-feeling, the simply overwhelming happening to the audience, an almost intimate contact, a private moment, captured on a camera for everyone to see. She has to make these encounters as believable as possible in order to make Dian’s own feelings and later obsession understandable. In these early scenes, she builds a second foundation for scenes and events again yet to come. She has to bring the audience on her side and later, just as easily, pushes those back who may not agree with her. Just like her co-nominees Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver gives a performance that both brings her character close to the audience but also alienates it again.

Sigourney Weaver’s performance sometimes has to take a step back and suffers from occasional bad writing and directing but she still carries the production and gives it life. She also glides through the story with a welcoming lack of self-importance. Even though she is obviously telling an important story, Sigourney Weaver never seems to highlight this fact and instead gives an honest and subtle performance, even in her loud and showy moments. Surely not a lot of actress could have handled the scene when Dian jumps around in her hut, imitating a gorilla. Instead of appearing laughable, Sigourney Weaver makes the scene surprisingly effective and exciting as she demonstrates Dian’s growing fascination and obsession but she is also able to combine it with a sense of comedy when Dian realizes that she is being watched.

The man who watches her is a photographer who will also become the obligatory love interest. But Sigourney Weaver understands the material and the character well enough to not play a woman who is swept off her feet and falls in love head over heels but rather demonstrates that she simply loves the togetherness, the companionship, the fact that they are both interested in the gorillas. In these love scenes, Sigourney displays the subtle joy of life that Dian possesses inside of her and she lets Dian become a much more relaxed person when she is with the man she loves – a man who is her only contact to the realities of life, a life in which she is a co-star and not the Queen of the mountain, a man who keeps her on the ground until he is not able to compete with her other love anymore. Because there is also another love in Dian’s life – the gorillas. As already mentioned, Sigourney Weaver makes this love very believable and realistic and understandable. And that’s why her later scenes, when the poachers kill some of them, including her most beloved gorilla, are so incredibly moving. Her devastation when she sees the beheaded body is devastating, just as her scenes with the dying gorilla baby that she carries into a hotel lobby to confront the rich business man who gave the order to capture it. It’s impossible not to feel with Dian in those moments and Sigourney’s strong performance makes it easy to root for her in – even if one doesn’t agree with her, Sigourney’s strong, honest and charismatic performance makes it hard to deny Dian any respect and sympathy (but I have to say that while I am usually a very cynical viewer and analyze too much instead of just watching a movie, cruelty against animals is one of the few things in movies that is too much for me and so Sigourney Weaver’s acting may have a bigger emotional closeness for me than it might have otherwise).

When a couple of young people come to join her in her work years later, Sigourney Weaver uses these scenes perfectly to demonstrate how far Dian has distanced herself from the rules of civilization. Dian starts more and more to fight the poachers without any rules, burns their houses, puts on a witch mask to scare them away and even fakes executions. The shocked reactions of her co-workers don’t even interest her anymore and she instead shows them that basically, on this mountain, she is now the Queen. She seems to have lost the ability to judge, to analyze her own behavior and she expects the same kind of determination from anyone else. When she finds two of her co-workers in bed together, she seems to be so upset because she has lost her own love but also because this isn’t what they should be there for. Dian mourns the death of the gorillas and she can’t bear the thought that the others don’t do it in the same way.

Sigourney Weaver uses all the scenes of Dian’s anger and shocking actions to show a woman who is not crazy but simply helpless and desperate. Dian is still able to see her own eccentricities but at the same time she seems to have lost control over them. She is a woman who acts very impulsively but at the same time very peremptory. Sigourney Weaver made the wise decision to show that Dian’s determination and strong believes aren’t something that happened overnight. This determination was already visible in her first scenes in the auditorium and the fight against the poachers isn’t something that made her become more and more decided but rather something that aggravated her characteristics. Just as Sigourney never made Dian look crazy for staying with the gorillas, for living there and for devoting her existence to them, she avoids a too simple characterization in these later parts. She shows a woman who uses all the advantages she has in her desperate fight, a woman who begins to think of herself as more powerful than she really is – maybe it may even be a racist view by her, maybe she thinks of herself superior to everyone else around her and that way loses her sense of self-defense and becomes too trustful in her own security. It’s not clear and Sigourney Weaver gladly leaves room open for all kinds of speculations and that way avoided to go overboard with her acting and always stopped before any kind of overacting.

What, of course, shouldn’t be forgotten is the fact that Sigourney Weaver has the help from the fact that the movie makers show very shockingly the cruelty against the gorillas and that way, as mentioned before, Sigourney’s character is easy to relate to in her anger and fury. What, unfortunately, diminishes the impact of her performance somehow is the fact that sometimes she isn’t given the best material and her character sometimes lacks a certain depth. While the change in character and her arc is portrayed impressively, the mystery of Dian Fossey is never really as mysterious as it could have been. Sigourney Weaver wonderfully plays all the different aspects of her character but she often doesn’t really combine them and instead plays them one by one. It’s a strong, challenging and ultimately difficult part that Sigourney Weaver handles with apparent easy and impressive dedication but she doesn’t quite achieve the result by herself – it seems that it’s the situations that help her performance achieve a high level instead of the other way around. A dying gorilla baby is always moving by itself – Sigourney Weaver does mourn gracefully in scenes like this and her reaction shots perfectly mirror the feelings of the viewer, but it seems that she is very often given nothing else to do but react to the situations instead of creating them. Ultimately, it seems that she is sometimes overshadowed by the story itself – and the gorillas. Maybe this was intended but it doesn’t help Sigourney Weaver.

But in the end, it’s a very strong and unforgettable performance in which Sigourney Weaver always lets Dian keep her dignity – a respectful portrayal of a sometimes controversial person which gets


Louis Morgan said...

Good review, I like how you related her performance to three of the other nominees with their way of connecting to the audience.

Fritz said...

Thanks, Louis!
Yes, it was just something I noticed about them. Melanie alienated me, too, but for different reasons... :-)

BTW, I just saw The Hustler and I think that 1961 would be a great year for you to do (either leading or supporting).