#2 — Judy Davis as Caroline Chasseur in The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994)
Judy Davis radiates strength. There’s an edgy intelligence in her eyes and forthright authority in her manner. She comes across as someone who will never quite get backed into a corner, but could manage to shove someone else into that position with a little more than a few withering glances. She’s imposing in the brittle exactitude of her domination of a scene. That is not, however, the entirety of who she is onscreen. She’s just as lucky to use that personal potency to heighten the vividness of her character’s vulnerability, carelessness, her own private aches and drifting hopes. Her strength enriches her weakness, makes it more real and tragic and moving. It’s a measure of her value as an actress that these qualities are in full evidence whether she’s playing the most grueling of dramas or the blithest comedic diversions. Great as she is in it–and I think she turns in one of the finest supporting performances on the nineties–there are probably several actresses who could have worked wonders with the abrasive contradictions of of Sally in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. When I want to reminded of just how special Judy Davis is, I turn instead to Ted Demme’s comedy The Ref.
When The Ref came out it was pitched as little more than an extension of the attention-getting bumpers featuring Denis Leary that Demme directed for MTV, perhaps the death rattle of people gaining celebrity on that channel because they flaunted their place on the fringe rather than pandered to the inane and the inept. The movie offered some opportunities for Leary to unfurl his patented ribbons of aggression–manifestos as stream of consciousness rants–and, for the especially observant, even a hint here and there of the dark, daring actor he’d eventually become. Most important and more impressively, it offered a caustically riotous portrait of familial acrimony. It showed the ways in which deep knowledge of a loved one can easily become a well-stocked quiver of arrows, each pointed projectile of angry words having an unerring trajectory right to the heart. There’s formidable work all across the cast–Kevin Spacey, Christine Baranski and Glynis Johns all boast stand-out performances–but it’s all anchored by the deceptive gravity of Judy Davis’s turn as Caroline Chasseur.
In the ongoing verbal boxing match that is her marriage, she gives as good as she gets. She is susceptible to her husband’s scalding remarks, but she knows where his weak points are too, and she’s not afraid to stick her nail in and twist. The inspiration of Davis is that she grounds her nastiness in palpable pain. It’s the wrongs turns in the partnership of their marriage that have brought them to this point and she holds an equally understanding of the ways that she’s been betrayed and the ways that she is culpable for their shared misery. That understanding informs every bit of Davis’s performance, giving a tremulous quality to even her sharpest moments. It’s not just because she’s trying to develop some sympathy for a character that, in other hands, would be inherently, perhaps irretrievably unlikable. It’s because she understand the absolute necessity of taking that approach, that the underlying pain is the reason for anger. Playing the anger without the pain means goofing around with a caricature instead of building a character.
In some ways, that’s most clear in the scenes around the dinner table, where Caroline has laid out an ambitiously unique holiday feast for her impatient and intolerant in-laws. All the parts of herself that are threatening to wither away are represented on that table. Her creatively, her originality, her boldness, her ambition all dished out on little plates. When it’s dismissed by her family, it’s as if they’re dismissing her, unlocking her self-pity and stirring up her grand loathing for those who turn away from her, refuse to even try to understand her. It’s a defeat that emboldens her. Davis plays it like a fierce awakening, which isn’t tempered in the slightest by the fact that she’s also playing it with a happy battered drunkenness. This is a key turning point that sets the film towards a happy ending that seems unlikely and phony on first viewing, but further study makes it look more and more like a natural outcome of these scenes. Davis’s Caroline Chasseur is a fighter, and somehow through the momentous happenings of this particular family holiday she figured out how to fight for something instead of against everything. It’s just another indication that strength comes in many guises. And strong performance come in many guises too.