Fish out of Water (SJP in Family Stone and Other Actressy Pratfalls)

I’ve been watching Family Stone while cleaning — a friend lent it to me is my only thinly veiled excuse — and what strikes me most is how bad Sarah Jessica Parker is. I never thought she was terrible on Sex and the City. As Carrie Bradshaw, even if she stumbled a bit when a strong emotion was called for, her physical comedy harkened back to old Broadway in the very best way. She threw out vaudeville one-liners with panache. She tripped well. She wagged. She mugged. She arched her eyebrows with the best of them,

But she is God-awful in this film. I mean shite and shinola. Parker is no more a terrible stage actress than she is a terrible television actress, but now that I consider the body of her filmwork, she truly fouls up celluloid every time she crosses its path, except for maybe in Footloose. Pictured on a big screen, her long face and wiry body resemble those of a 1950s drag queen, which is hardly her fault. That she overreaches and stammers is. She falls so out of step with her fellow actors that she comes off as more humanoid rather than fully human. Someone get this woman a musical. Just ban Aniston from the same fate.

For I’m stuck on the idea that not every actress is suited for every medium. Film requires a level of honesty that the small screen doesn’t, but television requires a level of give and take and an insouciance that the long incubation of moviemaking often renders impossible. And stage requires a level of engagement and vibrancy that almost inevitably proves too much for any sort of screen actor. Of course there exist the likes of Glenn Close, who rarely falters, not even in The Shield, of all things. Kathy Bates, in town for a reading of Eve Ensler’s Necessary Targets, is smart, honest and accessible in every medium known to man. And God knows Helen Mirren never misses. British broads basically are equipped for everything, all attendant metaphors applicable.

But can you imagine how dreadful Meryl Streep, who excels on stage even more consistently than she does on film, would be in a sitcom? She’s already almost too larger-than-life for the big screen. (To be fair, she turned in the best performances of her later career in Angels in America, but HBO hardly counts as TV anymore.) Or take Catherine Keener, a star on stage and big screen whose snide demeanor would merely come off as a lack of affect on TV. Maggie Gyllenhaal is such an ideal film actress that I can scarcely imagine her in any other medium. Jennifer Aniston has flatlined in every movie she’s ever appeared in except for Office Space, in which bad acting was actually the point, but she sported genuine comedic chops on Friends. Julia Roberts really is a decent movie star, if a limited film actress (a whispering Mary Reilly will forever haunt my dreams), but her sputtering guest turn on Friends flailed and Broadway ate her for breakfast with forgivable glee. Some actresses whom I’ve seen shine on stage over the years have never made it to screens of any sort (save the requisite Law and Order episode) not only because their looks didn’t translate but because they couldn’t stop pitching to the back of the house.

The list goes on and on — and I haven’t’ even tackled the European actresses. It’s like a missing lesson from the Free To Be You and Me soundtrack: Not every actress is suited to every medium and, hey, that’s okay.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy