Her voice is deep and rich, like the sauce of coq au vin. Her gaze is calm, nonchalant, spacey. But as you watch, bewitched, a sudden switch: a spurt of sarcasm, a wry twist of the mouth, a trenchant stare. She dishes out a tough "Get over it!" dose of face-your-life reality. Though her characters know vulnerability and melancholy, she moves on mordantly, yet wistfully.
Patricia Clarkson, who dates actor Campbell Scott and lives in Greenwich Village, was born in 1959, in New Orleans, and earned a master’s from Yale Drama School. She began making movies with the studios (such as The Untouchables in 1987 and The Dead Pool in 1988) but increasingly turned down scripts. For her savvy and canny choice of roles, she endured a period of relative obscurity. But it paid off and in l998 she was cast in High Art as the German actress dope-addict lesbian who clings to Ally Sheedy, a role that garnered her notice. Since then, she has gone on to win awards for her portrayal of Joy in Pieces of April, as Sarah in Six Feet Under, of Olivia in The Station Agent, and of Julianne Moore’s bigoted neighbor, Eleanor in Far From Heaven.
Pieces of April is about a 21-year-old drop-out daughter trying to reconnect to her family by making, of all meals, Thanksgiving dinner in her East Village walk-up and whose oven refuses to light. Peter Hedges, who wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, both wrote and directed this, his first film, with a light touch. But he allowed Patricia Clarkson, as the mother who dying of breast cancer, to infuse his seeming comedy with verve, vitality and an acerbic stare at her impending doom. It sounds sentimental and grim, but owing to the crisp editing and the comic sense of all the actors, especially to the fey strength of Clarkson’s character, the film is hilarious.
On the drive through New Jersey to April’s dinner, the family stops to load up on Krispy Kreme donuts. Clarkson’s ability to act with both grit and humor are clear when she retches in a public bathroom, not from the junk food but from the chemotherapy she’s undergoing. She washes herself, including the long red wig she has to wear, and says, "Well, everyone, let’s go experience the disaster that is April’s life so that we can get back into the car and eat more Krispy Kremes." Her sarcastic delivery is unnerving to the core.
In The Station Agent, Clarkson plays Olivia, a wacky artist neighbor of the train-obsessed dwarf Finn, played by the excellent Peter Dinklage (no Hobbit trick photography here) who has inherited an abandoned New Jersey train station. With Bobby Cannavale as Joe, who sells espresso and hot dogs from a van at Finn’s train station, an unlikely, unorthodox trio builds around Clarkson who is grieving for the death of her young son. Her performance is immensely vulnerable and brittle, generous yet abstracted. Clarkson never overplays her character, even when her estranged husband shows up to devastating effect.
In 2004 three more films with Clarkson will be released: Miracle, The Woods, and The Dying Gaul. I’ll be there.
GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.