Eighteen years ago, when Anna Paquin was 11, she won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her miraculous, faerie-steeped Flora in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” She should now be contemplating attending the Oscars for a second time, but yesterday morning she missed out on a nomination for her shattering performance in “Margaret,” as she missed out on it every January since 2007. It’s hardly surprising, given the tortuous, lawsuit-spinning post-production saga of Kenneth Lonergan’s drama, which was filmed over three months starting in September 2005.
Lonergan was unable to deliver either the two-hour cut of the film contractually demanded, or one of 150 minutes when the running-time was extended. Eventually he was helped out by Martin Scorsese (who thought the film a masterpiece) and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, whose 149 minute 40 second version Lonergan believes is the best—though it’s not the one was that released in New York and Los Angeles on September 30.
By then the distributor, Fox Searchlight, had cut their losses. They opted not to promote a film already burdened with negative publicity and it was withdrawn two weeks later after returning just $46,495 on its estimated $14 million cost. Only the persistent championing of the film by discerning critics, such as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody and the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly’s Karina Longworth, led to its re-opening at New York’s Cinema Village on December 23 at the request of Ed Arentz of Music Box Films, who books films for the theater. The Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles has meanwhile booked “Margaret” for a one-week run beginning on January 27.
Fox Searchlight did not send out Academy screeners of “Margaret” and it’s unlikely many Academy voters saw the film. But it hasn’t come up empty during the awards season. The Boston Society of Film Critics named it runner-up in four categories and the Central Ohio Film Critics named it Best Overlooked Film. Better still, the London Film Critics Circle voted Paquin joint best actress with “The Iron Lady”’s Meryl Streep. Like “Melancholia”’s excellent Kirsten Dunst, who has picked up two critics’ groups awards but was prevented from winning more because of her director Lars von Trier’s offensive comments at Cannes, Paquin has been short-changed because of circumstances beyond her control.
Twenty-three when she played 17-year-old Lisa Cohen in “Margaret,” Paquin is 29 now. She has played Sookie Stackhouse, the telepathic waitress of HBO’s ongoing vampire series “True Blood” since 2008. Languidly sensual blonde Southerner Sookie is a world away from Lisa – a fuller-faced, brown-haired, Upper West Side Jewish schoolgirl, fiercely intelligent, unnervingly direct, and stoked by a rage she can barely comprehend.
When irked by a female Muslim classmate, as she is in classroom discussions about 9/11 and America foreign policy, her temper accelerates from zero to ninety in seconds, causing her on one occasion to be ejected. She is combative, too, in her relationship with her self-absorbed but well-meaning single mother (played by J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife) and another middle-aged woman, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), whom she befriends because they have a common cause. Though Lisa backs down when they fight, Emily, too, asks this compulsively argumentative girl to leave.
In her relationships with men, she is more exploitative, though scarcely less blunt. Undemanding on the phone with her bland absentee father, who lives in thrall to his second wife in a California beach house, she coldly arranges for one schoolmate to de-virginize her and keeps another, who is painfully smitten with her, at a flirtable distance. Ostensibly seeking counsel from her geometry teacher (Matt Damon), who is troubled by his desire for her, she willfully proceeds to seduce him; the cutting of the film, which hasn’t removed all the visual longeuers but maintains a drifting ebb-and-flow rhythm that rings true to life, probably left a chunk of Damon’s performance on the floor.
What is the source of Lisa’s grief and fury, beyond the residual effect of her parents having divorced? As becomes clear, she is ridden with guilt. Early in the film, she sets out to buy a cowboy hat to wear on a dude ranch vacation with her father. When she sees a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one, she distracts him so much he drives though a red light, crushing a woman, Monica (Allison Janney), under his wheels. She dies in Lisa’s arms, leaving her spattered with blood. To protect the driver — because he’s working-class — she tells the police that the light was green. But the guilt nags at her like a migraine. She changes her statement and starts a civil suit against the bus company with the help of Emily, Monica’s best friend, stipulating that the driver must be fired. But Monica’s grasping out-of-state cousin and beneficiary has her eyes on a lucrative settlement.
The film is a virtual allegory about the American people’s feelings of impotence after 9/11 and the widespread need to prosecute a war against the perpetrators — or anyone guilty by association. As expressed by the movie through Lisa, there are elements of culpability and wrong-headedness in that need, which can visit suffering on those who are not guilty (in the story the bus driver’s innocent family). Paquin doesn’t take on the mantle of collective frustration, of course, but plays a callow teenager dealing with a microcosmic equivalent of mass murder — and lashing out, especially at her mother, because she can’t accept the blow fate has dealt her. Watching her is like watching the emotional equivalent of a thunderstorm from a few yards away; it is a stunning performance, not least because Lisa elicits our empathy without being the remotest bit endearing. Paquin fully earns the film’s title, taken from Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” (1918), which, recited in Lisa’s English class, ends with the lines, “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”
No matter that Paquin did her work on the film six years ago, her portrayal of Lisa should’ve brought her an Oscar nomination this week. But as it passes into history – doubtless to be rediscovered and celebrated with the rest of the film on DVD and the Internet – it’ll likely be one of those that constantly reminds viewers that a prize chosen by the few is not the most important consideration there is when assessing an actor’s worth.