Sunday, June 21, 2015

Birthday Take: Juliette Lewis in "Cape Fear" (1991)

Juliette Lewis
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Juliette Lewis
Born: June 21, 1973 (42 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (nominated) as Danielle Bowden

The Take

There are few things in the acting categories as interesting as child actors who get nominated. While there's strong odds that they will not win, it means that there's something impressive about them that captured our interest. There's been a very few cases where they have actually been nominated, and there's a certain taboo that goes along with it. For instance, many consider the roles immediately following Oscar wins to be a baffling stumble after initial victory. While there's truth there, there's still room to be surprised. While it is rare that the performer will come back in adulthood and be nominated for more, there's been a rare few examples where talent was plucked early and allowed to explore something far more interesting subjects, such as Jodie Foster.

Among those that seem like a very odd pick is Juliette Lewis, whose rise in the early 90's seems a little shocking. Between Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers, she was called upon to play violent, psychopathic children akin to Chloe Moretz in recent years. It is a shocking move that likely bothers adults unwilling to accept children as flawed characters. While Cape Fear isn't necessarily as dark (from her character's motivations, anyways), it definitely has a certain charm to it that feels rather bizarre. While director Martin Scorsese has remained a prodigy who constantly returns to the Oscars, this remake that is also a stylized b-movie doesn't feel like the type of title that Oscar voters would go for. In fact, it isn't even considered top tier Scorsese, though maybe one of Robert De Niro's better performances.

So what exactly was so appealing about Lewis in this film? For fans of The Simpsons, the plot is likely very familiar. A killer is released from jail and seeks revenge against the lawyer who put him there. Along the way, there's a very odd relationship with the lawyer's daughter. It helps that De Niro can do nuanced better than most around this period. It also helps that despite its b-movie trappings, it is a film with a cast committed to bringing the insanity to life with performances ranging from terrified to gullible. In the case of Lewis, she has multiple scenes of questionable behaviors that only makes De Niro's performance more shocking. While it seems bizarre that this film ever got nominated for anything, it is interesting to note that Lewis turned in one of the more unapologetic child actor performances of its time. You definitely do not forget her.

Though if one was to be totally honest, Lewis hasn't changed much as an actress. She may have never returned to the Oscars, but she definitely has remained busy. She may be predominantly known for supporting roles, but she brings a certain charm to them. Much like Cape Fear, she seems to be reduced to the role of shocking, off the beaten path, type of characters who are sort of risque in their behavior. It is refreshing to see someone who is dedicated to being different, even if the cliche sort of makes the rest of her career seem more obvious. Even then, when she managed to turn on the charm, she brought something of value to her roles and made us care in ways few others could. For what it's worth, Lewis doesn't need to be nominated for an Oscar again for us to respect her. She just needs to remind us why being creepy can be effective.

There will never be a good answer for if we should be more willing to nominated child actors. The results are just as scattered as the adults who win in this field. In some cases, we witness a prodigy from an early age. In other cases, we get to see greatness captured in a bottle, unable to be seen again. Film is a tough medium for anyone, and it almost seems unfair to nominate children for the award. However, they bring it upon themselves with impressive performances that not only rattle something bold out of them, but also capture a specificity to acting that older generations don't have. In most cases, it is more impulse than training, and that is something that speaks volumes. As a whole, Lewis may be a sort of one note performer at times, but she will occasionally remind you why you liked her in the first place.

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