July 05, 2007

Smackdown 1988: Joan Cusack, Working Girl

More often than not, acting is about change. What did this character learn? How did that character grow? Joan Cusack's performance in Working Girl, on the other hand, is all about stasis. Cusack's Cyn is our lodestar, a fixed point of reference against which we measure the transformation of Melanie Griffith's Tess. Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Kevin Wade use Cusack strategically, bringing her into the story whenever they want to emphasize Tess's change.

The movie opens with Cyn and Tess on the Staten Island Ferry, en route to their jobs in the city, and they are essentially the same person: big accent, big makeup, big jewelry, big hair -- and I do mean big hair. There's a four-inch halo of hair surrounding Cyn's face; it's practically a feat of engineering.

By the next time we see Cyn (aside from a quick glimpse at a surprise party), Tess's transformation has begun. She's nearly lost the accent, toned down her makeup and jewelry; she's putting on a glamorous dress, and Cyn is (with great reluctance) cutting off most of her hair. Cusack's makeup in this scene is, if anything, even more flamboyant than in the opening sequence.

When Cyn visits Tess's office, the transformation is complete. The accent is gone and the voice is pitched in a lower register; the haircut is stylish and short (and makes Griffith look eerily like her mother, Tippi Hedren).

To further emphasize Tess's transformation, Cyn is pressed into service as her temporary secretary. "Be me," pleads Tess, and as she awkwardly tries to put on the proper air of professional sophistication, we realize the difference between pretending to fit in to the world of business -- which is all that Cyn can do, and not very well at that -- and geniunely belonging there, as Tess does.

This is Cusack's best moment in the movie, and you can almost feel how relieved she is at getting to do something other than just be the supportive sidekick. Cyn wants so much to say and do the right things, not to embarass her friend, and the desperation is palpable as she searches for the right words.

Cyn is also called upon to point out what she sees as unfortunate changes in Tess's personality and behavior -- "that's not like you," she says about Tess's treatment of her loutish boyfriend, Mick -- and to suggest that Tess will ultimately fail. "Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear," she says. "Doesn't make me Madonna, never will." It's a cruel moment, motivated by fear and anger -- Cyn knows that Tess does belong here, and she's terrified that she'll be abandoned completely, that her friendship will be inadequate to Tess's new life -- it's an impeccable line reading.

Sidekick roles are a bitch, especially roles like this one, where your character's sole purpose for being is to not change, to not grow, to be a one-dimensional backdrop. It's a limited part, but Cusack brings great warmth and humor to the role, and when she's finally called on to do something a little deeper in the office scene, she packs a wallop. There's a long friendship packed into a few lines, and an entire history in a few facial expressions.

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