While we're in that yearly lull before the awards storm, it's a great time for role gathering: collecting interesting performances in large parts or small, from odd or less-than-perfect movies.
"Black Widow" is an ideal starting place. Not a perfect film, but so perfectly cast and fitted out and so beguiling-looking that you are tempted to overlook plot holes until they prove absolutely cavernous.
Its two leading actresses, Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, have not only had the lionesses' share of the reviews, they have earned every particle of praise. Working from Ronald Bass' script, director Bob Rafelson has used Winger's gusty, gutsy identifiability--her ability to put us unquestionably on her side through a combination of perceptible intelligence and ever-so-slight klutziness--as a marvelous foil for Russell's aloof sensuality and basilisk glances. The result is something that has been a rarity until very recently: a film entirely carried by a pair of women.
(Now, of course, we can also point to "Outrageous Fortune," in which Midler and Long, or Long and Midler, depending on which day your ads run, are certainly the lure for the general public.)
"Black Widow's" film makers have had a very canny idea in casting the ill-fated men whom Russell marries: tiny roles but ones that must have real weight to them. To have used a series of pleasant unknowns would have done irreparable harm to the fabric of the film--made it, for all its sleekness and look of class, into a B-movie exercise.
Instead, and heaven alone knows with what persuasion, Dennis Hopper and Nicol Williamson play these husbands and Diane Ladd a particularly crucial sister-in-law. And their presence has resonated with exactly the right amount of force. (The third husband, Sami Frey, who has an equally electric screen persona, is exempt from this category because his role is so much larger than the others.)
But tucked away in "Black Widow" are two other real gems: James Hong as a sleazy, addicted detective and Terry O'Quinn as Winger's balding, mustached Justice Department boss (so strong a performance that you almost expect a little something to be developing between the two of them).
Hong, fast-talking, insinuating, irascible, does what every great actor must do: He lets us feel that our brief minutes with him are only a glance at his character's life, which flourishes whether we are there or not.
O'Quinn is memorable in a quite different way: He's intriguing, attractive, infinitely sympathetic, although, like Hong, he's able to hint at a whole unspoken subtext. O'Quinn, of course, has just had a breakthrough in an almost dual role in "The Stepfather"--as the murderer of his entire family and as a devoted stepfather in the Ward Cleaver mold. He seems to be so much of a chameleon that it's almost impossible to recognize the man from "Black Widow" in "The Stepfather's" press-kit photographs.
(In the wave of national raves for "The Stepfather," its distribution company in its wisdom removed the film before its run was scheduled to end last weekend, so this is, unfortunately, not a personal report on O'Quinn's second role. We can only hope that repertory or second-run houses take up the cause.)
Meanwhile, over at "Square Dance," there's the chance to see a remarkable young actress make her mark with a delicate and difficult performance. Last year, Wynona Ryder stood out astonishingly well in "Lucas" where, with dark, slightly Louise Brooks-style hair, she played the classmate of Lucas' who nurses a crush on him-- almost in vain. But although her hair is now light-chestnut color, there's no missing her here.
Barricaded behind her glasses and her Bible, she plays Gemma, a sturdy, endearing Texas 13-year-old. She's whip-sawed between an isolated existence with her withdrawn, curmudgeonly grandfather (Jason Robards) and life over the gas station with her beautician-mother (Jane Alexander), one of those full-tilt roles that every actress known for her grande dames yearns to play--and perilously few ever should. (Alexander and director Dan Petrie have collaborated on some of her more radiant performances, the F.D.R. series among them, and Alexander co-produced "Square Dance," so perhaps it was irresistible to both.)
Where Ryder's role veers away from the usual rural coming-of-age stuff is in a subplot of Allan Hines' script involving a handsome retarded boy in his early 20s, Rory (Rob Lowe, trying). Alternately lured and repelled by her mother's behavior, Gemma tries on the role of mother with Rory, and as their playing house begins to get into emotionally deep water, Ryder's control and emotional precocity are amazing. She seems to understand completely how deeply a camera can go, and (quite rightly) to trust it; the result is a pure, unclouded, extraordinary range of emotions told without an extraneous gesture or movement. (It should be mentioned that Jacek Laskus, who also did "Parting Glances," was the cameraman.)