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The Oscar race is loaded with story lines featuring fresh faces, old pros, front-runners, long shots and years in the wilderness, but few combine more of these elements than the one starring the two actresses nominated for their performances in Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom”: Sissy Spacek (best actress) and Marisa Tomei (best supporting actress).
Spacek and Tomei make an unlikely pair. Spacek is from Texas, is seemingly easygoing (although not about her work) and speaks with a gentle Southern accent. Tomei, from Brooklyn, is jittery and edgy, and occasionally slips into Brooklynese. Both women are more resilient than their manners suggest--which is why they’re here.
“We’re god-sisters!” Spacek says.
An unstated, though much discussed in the industry, factor in these nominations is that these two have been “away” for so long. It’s been 15 years since Spacek’s last nomination (for best actress in “Crimes of the Heart”). In the interim, she’s raised two kids and kept her hand in by taking one or two roles a year. Tomei has had a sturdy if unspectacular career on stage and in films--both studio and indie--since winning a best supporting actress Oscar for 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny,” but no nominations and certainly nothing high profile.
“I think it’s funny, because I sound like the broad who’s been in vaudeville and come back around and now she’s going to do the talkies,” Tomei jokes. “So there’s something very old school about it that I like. I’m still young, so I guess it’s all good. I’ve been doing lots of plays, lots of other movies. It’s really rare to be in a film that I like so much and that people are responding to.”
Tomei and Spacek became joined at the hip first while making the movie and then while promoting it, and themselves, in the year since it premiered to acclaim at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Now the Miramax-supported marketing that followed their Oscar nominations has only intensified this relationship. It helps too that they aren’t competing in the same category. Then they’d be more like real sisters.
“We see each other more than we see anybody else,” Spacek says, seated next to Tomei in a restaurant near Lincoln Center. “What’s weird is that we’ve gotten to know each other in a different way since the movie is finished, because when we were working it was very intense and we were these two other people, Ruth and Natalie.”
“And let’s face it,” Tomei points out, “Ruth didn’t like Natalie too much.”
In the film, Ruth (Spacek) is the tightly wound wife of Matt (Tom Wilkinson, Oscar-nominated for best actor) and mother of Frank (Nick Stahl), a college-age kid who’s having a summer fling with Natalie (Tomei), an older woman with two kids and a violent, estranged husband. Ruth disapproves of their relationship because Natalie is from the wrong side of the tracks, carries too much baggage and threatens to divert Frank from his future prospects. Subsequent events prove Ruth right, although that doesn’t make her any more sympathetic or Natalie any less so.
Despite the bleakness of the material, both actresses say they had fun making the movie, aside from the fact that it was made for less than $5 million and was shy on creature comforts.
“There was no tension,” Tomei says, “because you know there’s a foundation for you, and when you’re in a scene, you know that you’re throwing the ball back and forth. There’s a relaxation because you trust all of the elements that you’re working with.”
“I think also that we were all really excited about the script and our roles, and we were really genuinely happy to be there,” says the 52-year-old Spacek, who seems to be the kind of person who’s really genuinely happy about a lot of things. “And it’s so rare that you make a film [in] Maine. It was a beautiful place and a real special time. Todd made me feel, and I bet he did you [Tomei] as well, that it was the center of the universe. Nothing else was happening outside of Camden, Maine.”
Clearly one of the things that distinguishes “In the Bedroom” is the performances, which the academy has recognized--for a lot of reasons. One may be that Spacek and Tomei played convincingly against type.
Over the years, Spacek, who has been nominated for Oscars five times before and won a best actress award for playing country singer Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter"(1980), is associated with down-home characters. Ruth, on the other hand, is rigid, controlling, upper-crusty New England. Tomei is best known for her Oscar-winning turn as a vulgar, street-smart auto enthusiast in “My Cousin Vinny.” By contrast, Natalie is vulnerable, endearing and, finally, heartbreaking.
Obviously they are delighted to be back in the Oscar game, but it’s tempered by the fact that Stahl wasn’t nominated. Both women feel the film wouldn’t have worked as well as it has without him. As Spacek says, the audience has to feel the same thing for his character that his parents do, and this has to be accomplished in a limited amount of screen time. Audiences also have to believe that he could be both bookish and mad about this girl who’s anything but. Perhaps Stahl didn’t suffer enough to be nominated.
“I think people underestimate how hard that was,” Tomei says of his performance. “Todd told me that he had looked at many other young men and there were some very good actors, but they all already had irony in their personality. Nick could tap into that pure part of himself in a way that is probably hard for a lot of men, let alone a lot of young men actors. He opened himself up.”
“Watching you two on screen was incredible,” Spacek says to Tomei. “The scenes between you and Richard [William Mapother, who played her husband] were so different. When you’re with him [Stahl], it’s like you were luminescent. You looked his age when you were with him.” Tomei laughs with delight--and a little discomfort. She’s 37. Stahl is 22. Who wants to be reminded of that?
Age and experience do have their compensations, however. For both women, the experience of attending the Oscar ceremony won’t be quite as terrifying as their first ones. For one thing, they’ll have each other. After all, being singled out is gratifying but also scary, and normally there’s nobody to fall back on who is in the same boat. Then there’s the anxiety they feel about whether they belong in the same league as the other nominees, or even the people who didn’t get nominated.
“One of the things that I think has changed for me is that when I first went, and this may have been your experience as well, I felt like an impostor,” Spacek says. “And I didn’t know anybody. You feel like a little church mouse.”
“I felt the same thing,” Tomei says. “I always felt like I should have said in my speech, ‘Nice to meet you.’”
“And now,” Spacek says, “I look around a room and I see these ...”
“Friends,” Tomei offers.
“I think there’s a sense of belonging to the film community that we feel now,” Spacek adds.
“That’s starting,” Tomei says in a small voice. “Not quite there.”
And here the women part company. Spacek is a much-revered six-time nominee who’s been out of the limelight. To some observers, Tomei was an interloper who did not deserve her Oscar, maybe because the character she played in “Vinny” was lightweight, an amusing caricature in a popular but negligible comedy, and maybe because she didn’t have much of a track record or show-biz pedigree (unlike, say, Mira Sorvino, daughter of actor Paul Sorvino, whose 1995 best supporting actress Oscar for a similarly crass character in a similarly fluffy film, “Mighty Aphrodite,” didn’t elicit protest).
In fact, the opposition to Tomei’s victory was so rabid that it was rumored that presenter Jack Palance misspoke when he read off the winner. In other words, the Oscar really belonged to another nominee--which became a kind of Hollywood urban legend and, of course, is not true. This year’s nomination--not to mention her performance--may give Tomei the respect and credibility she earned but didn’t receive with “Vinny.”
The two actresses differ too in their responses--in ways you might not expect--to the industry people they’re suddenly rubbing elbows with at festivals, parties and awards shows. Tomei has spent much of the last three years in L.A., and is visible there and in New York, so she doesn’t attach much importance to “running into the right producer at the supermarket.” Spacek, on the other hand, lives on a farm in Virginia and, aside from the movies she works on, acts as if she doesn’t get out much. It’s not the socializing she’s excited about (although she seems to be enjoying it). It’s the chance to hobnob with people who have projects pending and might have a role for her.
Whatever their expectations, one thing both women have to cope with is the Oscar marketing machine, which is almost as hyped as the nominees are.
Rather than denigrate it, Spacek says she wishes she had Miramax behind some of her earlier films, the ones she liked that didn’t go anywhere. Of course, the media is an enabler here, and it has grown exponentially since Spacek first arrived on the scene.
“Someone mentioned to me the red carpet is so much bigger because there are so many more people,” Spacek says. “There’s so many more interviews, so many more stations, there’s a bigger market. It ups the ante. It’s been a billion people [watching the show] for quite a while. You try not to think about that. You try to think about what this really is. It’s a celebration of moviemakers.”
Asked if maybe this is the best time--post-nominations, pre-Oscars--before there are winners and losers, Spacek, who has won and lost, says, “It probably is. It’s like having a film in the can. It hasn’t come out yet, it has the potential, so you have all this hope for it.”
John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar.