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PARKER POSEY - 1990s' QUEEN OF INDIES

by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor  [May 31, 2011]

 

 

 

[HollywoodInvestigator.com]  Independent films were once truly independent. The term referred to films financed without money from a Hollywood studio. Such "indie films" were usually low-budget exploitation efforts. Roger Corman and Ed Wood were typical examples.

Today "indie film" refers to a genre, one which arose in the 1980s. New revenue sources (foreign sales, cable, video) were attracting new investors, so that it was easier for films to earn back their costs without wide theatrical distribution. Such indie films relied less on "surefire" exploitation content (sex and violence), and instead told smaller, more personal stories.

Examples from the 1980s include Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, Chan Is Missing, and Metropolitan (the latter released in 1990).

These indie films was also a reaction to Jaws and Star Wars, films that spearheaded Hollywood's entry into, and domination of, the exploitation genres. Low-budget, sci-fi thrillers can rarely compete against films like The Matrix, and thus many indie filmmakers began serving the literate, innovative, adult film niche that Hollywood abandoned. (By adult film, I obviously don't mean porn.)

Today, the studios produce $200 million "B-movies," while indie films tell smallish tales with strong, personal points of view. But just to hedge their bets and confuse the terminology, the studios opened "classics divisions" in the 1990s to produce "indie films."

Thus the "indie film" is a genre -- sometimes financed independently, sometimes by Hollywood -- with the filmmaker's degree of independence varying widely. The Independent Spirit Awards honors this genre rather than any actual independence; many of its winning films go on to win Oscars.

 

 

The 1990s were the Golden Age of American indie filmmaking, before being largely co-opted by the studios' classics divisions. And the Queen of Indies was actress Parker Posey, who today continues to cross between Hollywood and the indie world.

Posey is not a star. Stars play themselves. Posey is an actress. This is a distinction not of fame but of range. Stars overwhelm their roles with personality and charisma, whereas actors disappear into roles. Val Kilmer is an actor, despite his star fame and charisma.

The 1990s were not only a Golden Age for indie films, but for Posey's work. Her best roles and films are from that decade. She portrayed varied characters, so it is difficult to identify a "Posey type." She had several, albeit some overlapping.

Perhaps the most prevalent Posey persona of the 1990s is that of an insolent rebel whose jaded affectations hide some injury, insecurity, or vulnerability; whose callous cynicism masks a desire to be understood, accepted, and successful in conventional terms, professionally and romantically. She stops sassing only when she feels safe. In Suburbia, her brazen A&R executive mellows when she finds a man who she thinks understands her.

 

 

 

In her key films, Posey's rebellious irreverence covers the pain of being a loser. In Party Girl, her first leading role, Posey portrays Mary, a twenty-four-year-old slacker desperate for career and romance, despairing of being worthy of either. Mary's flighty exuberance at a dance club masks her low self-worth. Hiding her pain with feigned indifference, she enthusiastically proclaims to her godmother: "What do you expect, I'm a loser!" She rejects her lover’s respect because, she tells him, "You don’t know me."

Still, Party Girl is a comedy, and a light one at that. After hitting rock bottom at a rave, Mary pulls herself together, persuades her godmother to rehire her at the library, resolves to attend college, and accepts her lover's respect. Plot points are all-too-quickly and unconvincingly resolved, but Party Girl remains enjoyable largely because of Posey's portrayal of a young woman's discovery of her abilities and self-worth.

Posey’s 1990s "loser oeuvre" darkened with the more mature and literate Clockwatchers, an ensemble film with a stronger cast (including Toni Collette and Lisa Kudrow). Posey plays Margaret, the brash leader of a quartet of office temps. Although irreverently cynical about office politics, Margaret wants desperately to advance in her career; to "go permanent" after years of temping.

Like Party Girl's Mary, Margaret is hurt by the fact that relatives consider her a loser. But whereas Mary ultimately breaks down and cries, Margaret stays tough, despite her darker fate. Unjustly fired and betrayed by her friends, she goes down fighting, foolishly incriminating herself further with her reckless but endearing bravery.

 

 

 

Posey can play a character serenely (as in The Anniversary Party), but she’s usually physically demonstrative, facially expressive, energetic, and exuberant. In Party Girl, she break-dances and does cartwheels. In Clockwatchers, she uses her physicality not to express elation but to intrude into others' spaces, demanding attention. She springs from behind a cubicle to loudly address Toni Collette; she rides her chair into a corridor, arms and legs akimbo; she strides toward a group of hushed temps in the office closet, loudly demanding answers.

Margaret is loud and expansive throughout Clockwatchers, giving the impression of having grown up ignored and, feeling left out, having learned to demand attention -- like many a 1990s woman brought up by Baby Boomer parents who divorced while the children were young. She eventually irritates everyone, yet her abrasiveness wins our sympathy.

Although Posey has been admired for her catlike eyes and pout (her feline features are enhanced by a pronounced widow’s peak), she is not a conventional beauty. Short, small, thin (almost scrawny), many of her characters suggest having been ignored as children, demanding attention through exuberant, even reckless behavior. These are difficult women, yet charming for their audacious determination to claim what life seems to have reserved for others.

In a Sundance Channel interview, Posey interprets her Daytrippers character as "wanting to be noticed by her boyfriend" and flirting with infidelity to catch his attention. (Yet in the script, Jo makes a sincere effort not to be caught, contradicting Posey's interpretation of Jo's motivation as a desire for attention.)

Posey can effectively demand attention onscreen, partially because of her husky voice (incongruous for her small frame), which enables her to portray angry, even bullying women (Dazed and Confused, Mixed Nuts), without sounding squeaky or shrill.

 

 

 

House of Yes is Posey’s darkest film, a very black comedy about murder, suicide, and incest. Despite her wealth, Posey’s Jackie is another loser, spoiled into helplessness and insanity by always getting her way, raised in a "house of yes." (Not until the final shot is it implied that she did not initiate the incestuous behavior she pursues so aggressively.)

Posey matches the film’s extreme darkness by heightening her own traits, becoming louder and more animated than in previous films, more insecure, more hurt, and more fragile. Morose in past films, in House of Yes she is positively suicidal. Previously shouting, she now shrieks. Previously acerbic, she is now cruel (mocking another character’s poverty, for example).

 

 

 

Posey played yet another angry loser in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool. Fay is one of Posey’s trashier rebel losers, yet beneath her impudent sluttiness, Fay too is hurting and yearning to improve, professionally and morally. Like Mary and Margaret, Fay is capable of meeting a challenge if called upon. Initially resentful of having to provide for her mother, Fay soon takes pride in her humble résumé and Fotomat job. She matures into a protective mother and, although a caustic wife, she proves devoted and reliable in bad times. (Even more so in Henry's Fool's unworthy sequel, Fay Grim.)

In her Hollywood films, Posey’s characters are less troubled and complex, and more successful, if not always happier. Hollywood generally casts Posey in one-dimensional supporting roles, usually as a petty villainess. Posey played a flaky starlet in Scream 3, a catty recording executive in Josie and the Pussycats (who, nevertheless, hides a pained, if silly, vulnerability beneath her brash exterior), a shallow girlfriend in You've Got Mail (whom Tom Hanks exchanges for Meg Ryan), and an evil subordinate vampire in Blade: Trinity. In each of these films, another actress plays the lead heroine; Posey ends up dead, jailed, or dumped.

In You've Got Mail, Ryan and Posey are an effective Ms. Right and Ms. Wrong, respectively. But while it's doubtful that Ryan could have overcome her "star glow" to play a Margaret or a Fay, Posey the actress has excelled in the sort of romantic comedy roles that Ryan usually plays, albeit usually opposite quirky or flawed characters.

Party Girl hinted at Posey’s romantic comedy talents (as when Mary bashfully tries to impress her Lebanese beau with a translation book), as did Waiting for Guffman (when Libby Mae sings "A Penny for Your Thoughts"). They were fully demonstrated in the clunky Misadventures of Margaret and the gently quirky Dinner at Fred's (a stealth Christmas classic).

In Dinner at Fred's, Gil Bellows (of Ally McBeal) plays a harried executive who, afraid to fly, sets out by car for his snotty fiancée’s mansion for Christmas. Waylaid by a snowstorm and taken in by a bizarre rural family (shades of Cold Comfort Farm), he falls in love with the couple’s daughter, Celia (Posey), who rekindles his childhood passion for magic tricks. Through her, he realizes that love, family, and the spirit of Christmas trump money and a beautiful but cold fiancée.

It's a surprisingly traditional tale and theme for a Posey indie film: unexpectedly meeting one's true love, in the most unlikely of circumstances -- at Christmas time, no less. Shamelessly sappy, shot in a winter wonderland, the film pushes all the right buttons to get viewers to break out the Kleenex. Yet its heart-tugging magic works despite its obvious audience manipulations. Celia is a turnaround for Posey: guileless, trusting, simple-hearted, open, generous, optimistic, with a childlike faith and an adorable glow equal to any of Ryan's romantic leads.

The Misadventures of Margaret opens with Posey's Margaret meeting and marrying a Brit in Paris. We flash forward to their "seven year itch" and various unfunny hijinks that result from it. Trapped in 1990s materialism and sensuality, Margaret is a frustrated writer/translator who frets that she has missed something by marrying the first man she slept with. Unlike Celia, Margaret's romanticism is tempered by jaded Manhattan sophistication; she and her husband even invite her potential French lover to dinner.

Part bedroom farce, part comedy of manners, Misadventures is peppered with disjointed bits of just about everything, unevenly veering from zany antics to brooding observations to treacly sentimentality. Yet as the film wanders to a conclusion, Posey has moments where she is charmingly funny or endearingly heartwarming.

Posey's work this past decade has been less interesting. A mix of television, Hollywood supporting roles, recurring parts in Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, amid some roles in indie films (not all of them good films). Her strongest indie work of the past decade is in Broken English, in which she plays a woman entering middle age, tired of dating, yet still hoping to find love in the Manhattan singles scene.

 

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