I think I first became really aware of Jennifer Tilly when I saw Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway back in 1994. Of course, it would be impossible to see Bullets Over Broadway and not be aware of her. Her outrageous performance as Olive Neal (for which she received an Oscar nomination), the brassy, terminally dim chorus girl/gangster’s moll with a yen to act, is perhaps the most delightful part of a film filled with delights.
Even though she’s very much a member of the movie’s finely tuned ensemble, she captures every scene she’s in. Whether she’s expressing her dissatisfaction with a string of ultra-rare black pearls (“They’re black for God’s sake, they probably came from defective oysters”), bragging about her credentials (“I was in a musical review in Wichita — maybe you heard of it — it was called Leave a Specimen“), or grappling with the pseudo-intellectual concepts of the play she’s cast in (“Enjoys pain? What is she — retarded?”), Tilly is an unqualified — and utterly preposterous — marvel of comedic timing and delivery.
It’s hardly surprising that she chose this film as her spotlight feature for this year’s Asheville Film Festival, where she’ll be receiving a Career Achievement Award. Tilly will present the film, one of four works from her oeuvre being screened at the festival, at Friday’s “Evening with Jennifer Tilly” event.
No overview sampling of Tilly’s career would be complete without Bound (1996), the fabulous debut film from the Wachowski brothers, who went on to create The Matrix series. In many ways, this audacious first work remains their best and most fully realized work, thanks in no small part to Tilly’s multi-layered performance as Violet. As in Bullets Over Broadway, she plays a gangster’s girlfriend, but that’s the sum total of plot similarities between Allen’s madcap comedy and this steamy neo-noir story of crime and betrayal that starts when Violet has a chance encounter with ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon) in the elevator of her apartment building. It’s an encounter that will lead to a romance between the two women and a daring plan to steal $2 million from the mob and pin it on Violet’s boyfriend (Joey Pantoliano).
It’s a slickly made film that wears its attention-grabbing style on its sleeve, but the performances and the chemistry between the two women are what really make it work as drama. These are daring performances in a film that is equally daring in its straightforward depiction of the leads’ sexualities — an aspect of the film that didn’t go unnoticed by either the critical establishment or the gay community, which found the film a significant departure from the usual gay and lesbian fare.
Both Tilly and Gershon are exceptional, but I’d give a slight edge to Tilly because her role is more difficult. She brings Violet to life over the course of the movie. Her character starts out seemingly not all that different from the one in Bullets Over Broadway. She comes across as a not-very-clever embodiment of sexuality, whose only interest lies in her creature comforts. Then, slowly and subtly, she reveals layer upon layer of a truly complex characterization until Violet becomes a full human. It’s a simply stunning transformation from caricature to character.
There’s a similar quality to be found in Jennifer Tilly’s performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow (2001). In this imagining of what actually might have taken place aboard William Randolph Hearst’s (Edward Herrmann) yacht in 1924 that led to the death of film pioneer Thomas H. Ince (Cary Elwes), Tilly plays the young Louella Parsons. Her characterization of Parsons runs the gamut from faux-wide-eyed innocence (gushing over meeting Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) like a goofy fan) to ever-increasing shrewdness — up to the point that she tacitly blackmails Hearst into the “lifetime” contract that would allow her to become the most powerful — and most feared — movie columnist of all time.
As in Bound, her performance is shrewdly calculated to reveal just a little more of the person beneath the facade with every scene. It remains one of her finest screen creations in one of her best films.
In quite a different vein, we have Don Mancini’s Seed of Chucky (2004), the fifth installment in Mancini’s successful Child’s Play series about the psychotic killer doll Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif). Tilly became a part of the series when she played in Ronny Yu’s Bride of Chucky (1998). Here she returns as not only the voice of Chucky’s partner in homicide, Tiffany, but also as herself — that is to say she plays an outrageous caricature of Jennifer Tilly, Movie Star. The results are brilliantly funny with Tilly — the ultimate good sport — having a grand time making fun of her weight and her movie-star status (“How come I don’t ever get any of the good roles anymore? How come nobody takes me seriously? I mean, look at me, I’m an Oscar nominee actress for Christ’s sake and now I’m f•••ing a puppet!”).
The deliciously over-the-top plot follows Tilly’s efforts to be cast as the Virgin Mary (no comment) in rapper-turned-filmmaker Redman’s upcoming Bible epic, while the freshly re-animated Chucky and Tiffany plan on taking over Tilly’s and Redman’s bodies in order to become a normal family for their newly found son, Glen or Glenda (voiced by Billy Boyd). By turns subversively comic and traditionally horrific, Seed of Chucky is one of the gems of the modern horror genre, taking its place alongside other deliberately self-parodying works as Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988).
These four films comprise only a taste of Jennifer Tilly’s career, but they’re a terrific starting point. Viewers might like to follow up by checking out her performances in High Spirits (1988), Let It Ride (1989), The Getaway (1994), Liar Liar (1997) and, perhaps most especially, The Magnificent Ambersons (2002) with her magnificent portrayal of Fanny Minafer, a role and a performance unlike any other in her career.
[An author of several movie-related books, Ken Hanke also writes the weekly Xpress movie review section “Cranky Hanke.”]
To learn when and where Tilly’s films are showing, visit www.ashevillefilmfestival.com, or consult the official guide included in last week’s Xpress.