I know… February is supposed to be Black History Month.
But somehow, I have been dropped into a melange of blondes whose real life stories apparently really, really needed to be told.
Anna Delvey/Sorokin, Elizabeth Holmes, Pam Anderson, and the late entry, Carol Baskin and Joe Exotic. (I keep Joe and Carol apart in the picture below because they just don’t get along.)
What all four of the limited series share in common is larceny and a softening of the humans we know so well as characters in the previous incarnations of the story.
Also… some of the best performances of the year.
Kate McKinnon was originally expected to play Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout, but she dropped out because of how COVID screwed up her work schedule (at least, that’s what they tell us). I don’t know if that is what kept her schedule open for Joe vs Carol, but I think everyone won as a result. She is perfection as Carol Baskin. She doesn’t smother the comedy or the drama. Carol is just odd enough for her to find the emotional cradle and as a result, she is completely believable.
Meanwhile, Amanda Seyfried gives the performance of her career as Elizabeth Holmes. In a weird way, the previous work that is the closest fit to her Holmes is Karen Smith in Mean Girls. Karen, as you recall, was dumb. So that isn’t the fit. But there was a thoughtfulness to Karen in that film, before she blurted out something absurd, that I see in the Holmes characterization. As she tries to figure her way out of complex troubles as they come, her eyes almost go dead for a time… almost like a hypnotic state… and then, instead of saying something stupid, she makes choices so shocking that she gets away with them, time after time.
One never knows what a great actor might do in an unexpected part. Cate Blanchett looks no more like Lucille Ball than Nicole Kidman, but I instinctively believe it was better casting. And I think Ms. Seyfried brings a kind of madness that is not exactly what you see in Elizabeth Holmes in documentary footage. In fact, I think McKinnon is more what we see in those doc moments. Yet Seyfried, in her rounded features and ability to seem lost and then come out of it very naturally, embodies what is interesting about Holmes more than Holmes seems to herself (in public, at least).
John Cameron Mitchell also takes us to amazing places as Joe Exotic. There are moments when the actor we have known - very much including his Hedwig performances - shines through in Joe. But this is a much rangier character than Hedwig or any other I have seen him play. Joe is an outright, unmitigated, unashamed prick. But he is also a broken child… and a scared lover (the love part, not the sex part)… and someone who is a lot more like Carol Baskin than he would ever admit or probably realize consciously. While McKinnon gives an amazing internalized performance with spurts of big charm, Mitchell is a rock star from start to finish. When Joe goes small and vulnerable, his self-protective response is to go HUGE.
Julia Garner is pretty perfect casting for Anna Delvey. What we know about Garner as an actor going in is that we will watch her think for a surprising amount of time, without words, and still want more. Delvey/Sorokin is a person of secrets. So her power compelling silence is powerful.
Comparing Garner’s Delvey to Seyfried’s Holmes fascinates me. They are both doing much the same thing. Both have the goal of making something greater than themselves, mostly to build themselves up. The context is somewhat similar, as Holmes conned Silicon Valley and Delvey conned the Manhattan royalty.
There is one big difference. If Delvey can get to the end of her con, it might become reality. Holmes’ pitch is enormously unlikely ever to become a working reality. There is no out. And it is the culture of Silicon Valley that lures her into believing that’s okay.
In terms of the actors, Garner may have made a good Holmes, but I don’t think Seyfried could do Delvey. She is a step too traditionally pretty. It’s not that Garner isn’t gorgeous. But it’s how she is gorgeous. There is something just off center about both Delvey and Garner’s portrayal of her that you can see how people would believe the lie. She wasn’t The Most. But Delvey not being The Most is a reason why you believe people would buy that she was real. Delvey uses pushing people away as a tool of empowerment. And Garner has great skill at that.
The Holmes portrayal is a lot about how men really fell in love with her, albeit all from a platonic distance. That seems to have been a part of her magic trick. Weirdly, in doc footage, I don’t really understand why men lost their minds over her. The whole emotional disconnection and deep voice thing is so odd. A lot is made about her blonde hair in the limited series.
I could see Garner as Delvey… but I have never seen her dead-eyed in any performance. And that is needed. Seyfried plays Delvey as so unaware that she is beautiful - except in a few moments, when she finally conciously uses that tool - that she creates a kind of untouchable goddess thing that I believe.
Seyfried also has the advantage of showing us her emotions behind the “curtain.” We don’t get a lot of than from Anna Delvey. And in real life, we still don’t. She is still making some of the claims she made that landed her in jail.
That brings us to Lily James as Pam Anderson, perhaps the most iconic blonde of the last 30 years. It’s a great performance, in part because you completely forget she is performing. Lily James is a true chameleon as an actress.
It’s not that she is ever unidentifiably Lily James. You figure it out. But in almost every film, you kinda need to take a second look. She is one of the cinema’s great beauties who isn’t really hired to be the knockout beauty on screen. From brassy to mousey to charmingly shy, the face and the body are just part of her acting tool box.
Like all the other blondes of this month, her Pam Anderson is, in many ways, a flawed victim. Unlike the others, she is not generally seen as crazy or abusive or, for most, abused. She is not someone who built herself up into a winner who then lost it all when she was caught.
There is enormous joy in the first episodes of the limited series. It is a new romance… even if he is an asshole from get go. The first 2 episodes are sexy, particularly Episode 2. But as “Pam” loses her sense of safety, the entire series becomes less and less sexy, whatever she is wearing or isn’t wearing. The series leaps from the “anything goes” full frontal energy of Episode 2 to almost no nudity from the leads aside from on the tape itself. It’s clearly intentional.
Interestingly, both she and Sebastian Stan have been naked in movies before… yet both of them end up naked by prosthetic in Pam and Tommy. Both did have the skill of becoming quite lean for these roles, however.
The make-up and prosthetic work is quite stunning… because you don’t really see it. Unlike someone like Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (with James in a supporting role), we don’t have a 100% clear read on James’ facial features. So we are even less conscious of the transition when she becomes Pam Anderson, one of the most objectified women in history.
Pam & Tommy positions Pam as The victim of this event, much more so than anyone else. It doesn’t get caught up in the discussion of self-exploitation, except to say that it doesn’t invite everyone into your real life.
Sebastian Stan gets the showy part. Seth Rogen gets what is really the lead of the limited series. But Lily James’ Pam Anderson is the heart of what goes on for all those hours. And like a great magician, you never notice you are being tricked.
There are more blondes coming, as always. But this moment of real-life blondes many not be duplicated for a while. Bridget Everett took us back to Kansas in Somebody Somewhere. Amy Schumer is arriving as a character very much like herself (it seems) in Life & Beth, which she wrote by herself. Villanelle is back for one more round of Killing Eve.
But Blonde History Month has a very clear, unexpected message. Scratch the surface of a blonde you think is in on top of the world and you are likely to find a human being. This shouldn’t be a lesson in 2022. But it is. And if audiences can take this much away from these shows, it will have been a month well spent.