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From the Vault: Joan Allen as ‘The Contender’

August 20, 2010

Cast: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William L. Petersen, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall

Director: Rob Lurie

“Principles only mean anything when we stick by them when they’re inconvenient,” Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) says after yet another day of being verbally sucker punched during her Vice Presidential confirmation hearings. The principles at stake are rendered somewhat irrelevant given nobody on the confirmation committee gives a rat’s ass about her principles. They want to know about them dirty pictures, which surfaced and Hanson refuses to dignify with a response.

The off screen death of the vice president necessitates hiring another one quick, fast and in hurry. President Lebowski – err, Jackson Evans – has a couple of choice picks, including ambitious also-ran Jack Hathaway, played quite oily by TV’s Grissom! However, Senator Hanson is ultimately his choice. At President Evans’ side is tart, pragmatic, attack dog Kermit Newman – played by a mustache-less Sam Elliot! Meanwhile the stakes are raised by Hathaway’s newly minted status as a hero; he bravely, yet unsuccessfully attempts to save a woman whose car crashed into a lake, allegations against Hanson of college sex tomfoolery – complete with photos – and, of course, Shelly Runyon!

Let me stop for a second and discuss the brilliance that is a virtually unrecognizable and vanity free Gary Oldman as the mean spirited, focused, but not Bond Villain evil Republican chairman of the confirmation committee. It’s tempting to watch his performance and just want to reach though the screen and wrap that microphone cord around his neck, but to do so would be to miss the charm, nuance and subtly of this wicked performance. Hot damn, this is one hateful man! But it is not without motivation and is definitely grounded in something beyond partisan stereotypes and tropes. Trust me when I tell you, in a career filled with intergalactic (and underrated performances) this is Oldman’s finest moment on screen. The only thing that would have made this character a tiny bit better would have been the rounding out of the Lebowski trio with Goodman in the role of Runyon. Fangirling aside, Oldman shut it down.

If The Contender examines politicking through any sort of feminist lens – it does, yet it doesn’t – what was most interesting to me and why I found it such a satisfying film (La Mommie did too! We saw it together!) are the conversations about politics, art, acting, ageism, sexism and narrative structure it generates. The Contender is brilliant in ways other films tackling the subject are not. Laine Hanson is not merely some flat send up of a specific female politician. Rather she is written with qualities reflecting a diverse selection of female politicians on both sides of the aisle. In Hanson’s character I observed shades of Olympia Snow, Ann Richards, Hillary Clinton and even a bit of the microphone command of Margaret “Iron Maggie” Thatcher. In addition, I much enjoyed Lurie’s deft acknowledgement of Hanson’s class and race privilege (she’s the daughter of a wildly popular former governor) and how said privileges have insulated her from the consequences of some of her more ill-advised decisions and actions – none of which have to do with politics.

Everyone smiles a bit at the mention of The Dude as The President. He’s incredibly charming and appears surprisingly presidential. In addition his chemistry with Elliot is enjoyable and they have a wonderful rhythm. This time it’s The stranger doing all the cursing! Bridges is restrained, cheeky and ACTUALLY FREAKING BOWLS! That definitely had to be a shout out to all us Achievers! In a sea of wonderful performances, a fine supporting role by Kathryn Morris should not be overlooked. She’s the bespeckled, inquisitive chick who pops in and out and her character provides the best payoff of any – including Hanson – in the film. Rounding out the cast are character actor stalwarts Philip Baker Hall and upcoming “Who is that actor” subject – Saul Rubinek.

The films flaws center mostly around its treatment of the sex orgy controversy, but not for presenting it, but rather resolving it; but I’ll leave it at that. You’ll need to screen the film to get my drift. The other problem is the inclusion of an ill-cast Christian Slater (hello, nepotism. his mother was the casting director.) Christian Slater is not a bad actor, nor is his character extraneous. His character is vital, but would have been better served by an actor such as 2012‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s much more adept at striking the right balance of idealism and indignation I believe was required of the role. Christian Slater comes across as far too smarmy and foolish. Because of this deficit, his character’s scenes (he’s an eager junior senator) with Bridges come across as far too antagonistic, thus causing a later scene to ring false. Here’s an earlier scene between the two:

Writer and Director Rod Lurie’s attempt at saying some big things is admirable, however, The Contender was not his final word on the subject of women in the upper echelons of power. He continued his examination on the short lived Geena Davis vehicle Commander in Chief, which is where I believe he explored the issue with greater nuance and far more complexity. For all its dazzling performances, taut story telling and complex treatment of sexism in politics, The Contender, is still only a tasty appetizer for a meal cinema has yet to create.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2010 9:30 am

    Thank you for writing up this movie, it has stayed with me through the years, even though like you said, it left me wanting more — it nailed many small things, but there were too many offnotes for a clear winner. The ending! I totally see how he painted himself into that corner, but ack, that just was not satisfying in any way. But, it was enjoyable to watch and opened up so many questions and ideas and induced discussion, so I’d much rather have a juicy discussion after a flawed film than a boring one about a safe movie.

    and [MINOR SPOILER] I know this is super dirty, but I still think about that scene where the woman from college describes the Party Girl as ‘covered in cum’ and because how could I not think about Joan Allen in that state when you say something like that?!? I know, I’m a dirty old man. But it does belie a weakness in the film — a little too salacious. A couple notches up the scale and its Notes from a Scandal up in here!

  2. August 21, 2010 10:15 am

    I agree, Raymond. And who didn’t love Kermit screaming at Hanson when she won’t discuss the pictures. I love Kermit yelling, “I want something SEXUAL!!!” It always makes me LOL.

    I also love the little touches like Bridges antagonizing the White House kitchen with his fatuous meal requests.

  3. August 21, 2010 11:32 am

    also, OMG, my housemate and I tried out that show Warehouse 13 last night (weren’t into it), and when Saul Rubinek came on the screen, we both went simultaneously “awwwww…..that guy!”

    Can I be a guest columnist for Who Is That Actor and do Celia Weston?

  4. August 21, 2010 1:04 pm

    Absolutely! I have a huge list and Weston is on it. Right behind Holland Taylor!

  5. August 21, 2010 5:46 pm

    Wow. To say this is Gary Oldman’s finest moment on screen?! I’m going to have to give this a gander then.

    I remember the interest in the film when it came out, and I remember not wanting to watch a political thriller about a scandal at the time… which is why I never saw it. I guess I’m ready now!

  6. August 21, 2010 6:05 pm

    Oldman is so good, that at first I didn’t even recognize him. It’s a different role for him. I mean mostly he plays these otherworldly folks and this character is completely grounded right here on earth. Also, is Oldman American? I’ve always wondered about that.

  7. hsofia permalink
    August 23, 2010 6:18 pm

    Gary Oldman truly is unrecognizable (at first) because he does play someone so Normal (in terms of politicians in the real world, I guess). And he is English. I thought it was a good movie – I will watch pretty much anything with Jeff Bridges (altho I’ve yet to see The Big Lebowski), and Joan Allen is a strong actress. Often cast as the woman who could be regarded as the severe, cold fish type, but she challenges such notions.

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