Lifetime Achievement Push

Every year my friends and I vote on and release “The Cribbies”, a companion set of awards to the Oscars. Whereas the Oscars are voted on by the Academy of Motion Pictures, the Cribbies are assigned by the members of The Virtual Crib. More on who they are at some other date.

In any case, one of the nice things about the VC and the cribbies is that we get to occasionally make up categories that serve a particular function in any given year. While Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay and Guy You Most Want To Do It With remain on the ballot annually, sometimes we get to vote on ‘Biggest Lie’ or, a likely award this year for John C. Reilly, ‘Worst Guy To Be Married To’.

This year, I am pushing for a lifetime achievement award for a brilliant and under-appreciated actress, Mary Steenburgen. She is one of those actresses who never really headlines anything, and yet with really simply delicacy and accuracy, she will often be the thing you remember about a movie long afterwards.

She won an Academy Award for a movie called ‘Melvin and Howard’, which I have never seen, but around the same time she was the modern romantic interest for Malcom McDowell in “Time After Time”. This was, by far, my favorite ’80s HBO Played A Thousand Times’ movie. For the next few years, she kept getting stuck in movies where she could be slightly daft, movies that referenced themselves like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy’ and ‘Romantic Comedy’, and she was amazing in both these films, even with a crappy Dudley Moore vehicle being the only thing carrying her.

It wasn’t until the end of the 80s when she stole my heart permanently. Parenthood is one of those perfectly balanced movies, full of stuff for guys, packed with stuff for girls, hilarious and hard to watch, full of lines you find yourself quoting all the time. And it contains several other actors that need to be considered for Lifetime Achievement Awards, but at the center of the movie, the reason it works, is Mary. She is demanding and strong, smart and feminine, demure and powerful. The movie means to be about Steve Martin, but it’s actually about her, about how she manages to deal with him. When they are looking through the trash for the retainer, when she tells him she is pregnant, when they fight before the school play, there is just moment after moment of perfect acting in this movie for her.

Three other performances have to be compared to that one. First, as the aging beauty queen in Miss Firecracker, suddenly that same hallowed frame is filled with a mild desperation, her looks, that you never really considered before, become a clown mask, distorted and angular. Then, and Jesus I love her in this, she walks out of Philadelphia with the most indelible reaction to the whole issue. She is surrounded by heavy weights, some of the best actors alive then, and she has my favorite moment. As the lawyer for the defense you see on her face that she wishes not only that this guy didn’t have AIDS, but that no-one did. Not because it would be a better world, but so she wouldn’t have to think about them having it, and what they did to get it. She is a thousand pounds in this movie. Finally, just a short while ago, she was revelatory in “Sunshine State”, a mess of a movie, but one in which her performance has to be seen to be understood. The depth of her need to do well, her wide swinging powers of love and disgust, are amazing.

She did a lot of other stuff, “Powder” and “The Butcher’s Wife” come to mind, and has been a steady working actor for 25 years. But as a thin beautiful American woman, her best roles are behind her now, her biggest opportunities to shine. I don’t know if her TV show is still on, or if her marriage to Ted Danson is either, but I know that she is one of the people that made me want to be an actor. Her skill and precision are amazing, her beauty and dignity so subvertable when needed, she is the living embodiment that there are no small parts, only small actors.