Sunday, November 7, 2010

Take Three: Kim Basinger

Craig here with Take Three. Today: Kim Basinger


I think it’s time again to give Kim Basinger (remember, it's Bay-singer, not Bah-sinjahr, folks) some major credit. The lady's due. She’s gone from supporting eighties female through a love-hate (but Oscar-nabbing) nineties to her current career bloom as a character actress of some depth. Ms Basinger has always quietly impressed me. Here are three reasons why.

Take One: She loooovves purple.

Basinger’s career was birthed alongside the eighties. Feisty ladies in adventurous circumstances were her trade back then. Although through either slip-ups or fate she was often eclipsed by her male co-stars. In Never Say Never Again, The Man Who Loved Women, The Natural, Fool for Love, 9½ Weeks, No Mercy, Blind Date and Nadine she played second-fiddle female to, respectively, Connery, Reynolds, Redford, Shepard, Rourke, Gere, Willis and Bridges. These regulars of male-patterned eighties flicks manned the screen up to prematurely musty proportions, almost disguising Basinger’s versatile verbal retorts, bright mode of re-routing the drama her way and a daffy manner with a throwaway comic moment. She selflessly supported the fellas, but shone when it mattered.

With Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), she was the lone notable lady on set, and her Vicki Vale was more than mere distraction. Having to both glam-up the air around Michael Keaton’s dour-mouthed dark knight and de-glam the air around Nicholson’s garishly impish Joker was task enough. I've not read or heard of much credit being directed Basinger’s way for Batman, but in retrospect she’s to be cheered as a forceful female presence who cajoled Jack the Joker out of his randy advances. Outside of Michelle Pfeiffer’s ace feline-fatale in its first sequel, Basinger is still the only interesting lady in the Bat universe.

"I've just got to know. Are we going to try to love each other?"

Despite the thin characterization -- this comic strip gal is essentially Bruce Wayne’s Lois Lane – it’s a joy to look back at Batman’s first significant onscreen reincarnation and see a lively actress add a sultry playfulness to such a male-centric film.

Take Two: Not very hush-hush about Basinger’s Bracken

If Basinger blended the femme with the fun during the ‘80s, it’s no wonder Curtis Hanson cast her as Veronica Lake-a-like Hollywood hooker Lynn Bracken in 1997’s brooding Hollywood retro-noir L.A. Confidential. (There’s even a photo of Lake on Bracken’s wall and a clip of This Gun for Hire playing on screen.) It was a critical and commercial hit for Basinger after an early ‘90s career dip which saw four more Razzie noms to add to her collection. Her Supporting Actress Oscar win in early 1998, furrowed a few brows and boggled a few minds, as many thought hers was a slight and un-Oscarish role. (In my opinion the line-up that year wasn’t stellar – her only real competition being Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights.)

Basinger’s goods are initially concealed. Her onscreen skill not immediately apparent from the off. When she sways across the screen in a 1950s gown that's both expensive-looking and homely, it's hard to differentiate her from the flowing drapes in her Hollywood home. But it's in her interactions with her co-stars – often lengthy scenes filled with smoothly-delivered dialogue – where she earns every inch of that Oscar. She subtly, but seismically, cuts Pearce, Crowe and co. down to size with little but a withering turn of phrase, topped off with an elegant tilt of her head, before seducing them with implied tension creeping inbetween her spiky lines of dialogue.

She plays Lynn as a soft but sly soul, knowing but as fresh as the day is long. She’s poised and collected in every scene and well-versed in Hollywood style, but it’s all (intentionally) practised. If Basinger studied Lake’s work in preparation, it doesn’t show as onscreen imitation. And, if the research does peek through at times, it doesn’t matter. This actually enhances the performance. That’s who Lynn was – self-styled, only barely visible under the veneer of someone else, someone famous. As she herself said: “I'm really a brunette, but the rest is me.” And, indeed, that’s all the news that’s fit to print.

Take Three: Hot Damn Mama!

In the otherwise lacklustre arthouse awards bait The Burning Plain (2009) Basinger sizzles. She lifts the film out of its self-important stupor, breaking through its prestigiously wrapped exterior whenever she's on screen. As soon as her character Gina enters in her pick-up, the film comes alive. Gina is a New Mexico housewife and mother who secrets herself away to engage in an affair in a trailer with a local family man (Joaquim de Almeida). This mother comes with mastectomy scars and she's finally giving vent to what seems like years of surpressed passion considering her dull, loveless marriage. It's one of the most sorrowful and likeable performances I saw in 2009.

The aching confusion Basinger conveys in one particular scene – where, her secret having been realised by her daughter, she has to be at once the admonishing mother and the shocked, rumbled adulteress, all whilst pinned to her kitchen sink by her child’s accusing gaze – is nothing less than astonishing.

That nervous, twitchy panic that Basinger often falls back on in lesser films – all deflected glances and lips-a-tremble – is skillful here, chimed in pure accordance with Gina’s situation. The hot shame of a mother caught in flagrante delicto has rarely been so maturely rendered on screen; never has Basinger looked so helpless, so in need of sympathetic intervention. Another actress, given to more histrionic outbursts, would've stopped the scene dead and danced over its corpse, but Basinger hits the mark with each awkward gesture. She was excellent elsewhere in the film, but in this one small scene Basinger gave us her character’s entire life. Where was Oscar nom number two?

Three more key films for the taking: My Stepmother Is An Alien (1988), 8 Mile (2002), While She Was Out (2009)

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