Sunday, September 29, 2019


More than any other actress of the last fifty years, Jessica Lange's career is a series of nonverbal, iconic moments.  Even in a film where she is largely wasted, CAPE FEAR, she emerges with a silent moment that haunts you long after the rest of the film has faded.  In CAPE FEAR, it's Jessica seated before her bedroom mirror, smoking a cigarette.


Maybe because she studied mime early in her career, she is able to bring so much more physicality into a performance?  In THE POLITICIAN, she has an iconic moment in front of the juke box as Shirley Bassey's "Where Do I Begin (LOVE STORY)" plays.

The new NETFLIX series from Ryan Murphy desperately needs that moment and every other one that Jessica provides.  The eight episode series is about three episodes too long.

Like us, Ryan's apparently a big fan of Michael Lindsay-Hogg's NASTY HABITS starring Glenda Jackson, Sandy Dennis, Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Meara and Anne Jackson.  That film took Watergate and set it in a convent.  The characters were so strong you wanted to spend more time with them -- more than the film's 94 minute running time.

The problem for Ryan is that his cast just isn't as good as the actresses who made NASTY HABITS work.  The biggest problem is Ben Platt.  He is a nice background player -- as demonstrated in the PITCH PERFECT franchise.  But he really can't carry a film or TV show.  He was actually out of his element and struggling on WILL & GRACE's "Who's Your Daddy" episode where he was a young guy who picked up Will.  It wasn't just that Will began to lecture Platt's uninformed Blake that let the episode go sour, it was also that Platt just wasn't interesting enough for you to care whether Will would stop teaching Blake gay history and take him to bed.

He clearly has some talent.  But he's not a star.  He lacks chemistry, he fails to draw your attention even when he's a tight close up.  Yes, even when not sharing the screen, he can't hold your interest.

He's like so many lackluster young males studios cast in films like HEAVEN HELP US in the 80s.  That doesn't mean there's no hope for him.  Patrick Dempsey was in that film and a lot of other lackluster 80 films.  His entire 80s output was one big question -- specifically, "Who the hell is he screwing to get these parts?"

But, by the 90s, he was actually able to summon charisma that previously didn't exist.  You could see this new quality when he guest starred as Will's closeted lover Matthew on WILL & GRACE.  By the time he showed up for GREY'S ANATOMY, he held your attention.  The same could happen for Ben Platt but he's not there yet.

And it really hurts the series.  It doesn't help that the 26-year-old is playing a teenager.  Or that so many non-teenagers are playing teenagers -- and playing them poorly -- in THE POLITICIAN.  That includes David Corenswet who's not just supposed to be a teenager (he's not) but he's also supposed to be the heart and heat of the series (he's not).  Like Platt, Corenswet needs someone to draw him out.  Casing him opposite Platt is like casting Richard Gere opposite . . . Richard Gere.

A lot of stage actors -- that would include Platt -- show up and fail to deliver.  That would include the 31-year-old Laura Dreyfuss who plays a teenager.  All these actors may inspire on the stage.  But put a camera on them and they add up to nothing -- minutes and minutes of nothing.

In fairness, we should note that even Bette Midler fails.  Nathan Lane in THE BIRDCAGE didn't mince and mug as much as Bette does in her small role here.

This is a soap opera done as high camp so it's hard to go too far over the top but somehow Bette manages to.  She's so far out there, it's as though her scenes were filmed on Neptune.

The show has a nice look, probably the best look of any Ryan Murphy series so far.  But it's got nothing to say.  Setting the first season (NETFLIX plans for there to be more seasons) in high school was a huge mistake because the actors playing teenagers are clearly not teenagers.  They're also clearly not actors for the camera -- again, they may work wonderfully on stage but they underwhelm when a camera can zoom in.

If this was airing on FOX (or even FX), Ryan never would have gotten with this cast.

Or with the writing which keeps trying to churn up drama by featuring more and more talking.  Yes, Ryan, that's what this slow paced show needed -- even more dialogue.

The series comes off like a radio play.  The dialogue never ends and you're left wondering why you're being told things that you, as a viewer, already see.

We've noted Jessica Lange creates a full bodied character.  Does anyone else?

Yes, Judith Light, Dylan McDermott, Martina Navratilova and Joe Morton inhabit characters and bring them to life.  And Gwyneth Paltrow deserves praise for doing a lot with a nothing role.

But the real question -- actually there are two real questions.

First, this is the series that the press was all excited about.  Specifically, it was the series that was going to bring Barbra Streisand to TV.  She was going to play a part.  In the end, she decided not to.  That much is known.  Where it gets confusing is the claim that Barbra was going to play the role Jessica Lange is playing.  Barbra would never have played that role.

A grandmother who is poisoning her daughter so that she can get sympathy and gifts?  A grandmother who previously poisoned and killed her own daughter?  A woman who shoots a young man?

Barbra hasn't tried to stretch acting wise before the camera except for ALL NIGHT LONG.  It's not in her.  She plays a variation of the star persona she has, that's all she ever does.  We could see her being pitched the Judith Light role but there's no way she would have signed on for the role Jessica Lange is playing.

And there's no way any other actress could have delivered what Jessica does in this role.  Not even Barbara Hershey, who has played similar roles and played them very well, could have hit the notes that Jessica does.  Jessica, a strong actress always, has become one of the greats in the last years.  That's probably why she thrives in THE POLITICIAN where so many barely survive.

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