2009 Supporting Actress Blogathon: Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
SPOILER WARNING: Please don't read if you haven't seen Up in the Air.
Once again, I'm pleased to be a part of StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress love. Today is the Class of 2009 Supporting Actress Blogathon, where bloggers across the web ruminate on "actressing at the edges" that moved them this year. Please head over to StinkyLulu's site later today and see what other bloggers have to say. I toyed with a few different actresses to write about (Melanie Laurent in Inglorious Basterds, Rosamund Pike in An Education), but in the end by heart belonged to Vera Farmiga. I absolutely loved her in 2006's The Departed, and she truly takes another leap forward this year in Up in the Air.
One of the main things that make Up in the Air a great movie is the way it treats its female characters. While the movie is clearly "about" Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), both love interest Alex (Vera Farmiga) and protege Natalie (Anna Kendrick) exist as fully formed characters with their own lives and motivations.
We first meet Alex (as Ryan does) in a hotel bar, and their first scene is a hilarious sequence of comparing corporate perks filled with sexual innuendo. Farmiga matches Clooney line for line, scene for scene, and even tops him. As they embark on their affair, Alex assures Ryan that their affair is casual and no-strings attached ("Just think of me as you with a vagina.") Farmiga fills these initial scenes with delightful banter and a grown-up sexuality.
For my money, Farmiga's best scene comes when the three main characters (Ryan, Alex, and Natalie) meet up and the two women talk about what they are looking for in a man. Young Natalie has a plethora of demands she puts out. "Older" Alex has resigned herself and is basically looking for someone who is good enough. This scene only grows in power with later information.
Then comes the second half of the movie (Once again: SPOILER ALERT). Ryan takes Alex to his sister's wedding, and Farmiga brings new notes to the performance. These two are sweet and soulful and seem to actually be falling in love. Farmiga plays the role just right, showing her initial hesistation and then enjoyment of the weekend.
Then comes the killer. Ryan decides he needs to find Alex, goes to her house in Chicago, and hears her husband and children in the background. She closes the door and this is (presumably) the last time they see one another, although there is another phone call. The look on her face is absolutely heartbreaking. In the end, Alex is the one who has won Ryan over, but she's also the one who has decided to play by the rules.
It's a testament to Farmiga's performance that the viewer ends the movie having sympathy for Alex and, at least for me, holding no grudges. If her performance wasn't pitch-perfect, she could have come across as a heartless. Instead, the viewer inevitably remembers the earlier scene, where Farmiga talks about what she wants in a man. Clearly, she has made compromises in her life. They're sad, but there they are and she is honest about them. She doesn't exist as a device to solely fill the need for Clooney's romantic redemption.
So the character of Alex needs to be incredibly sexy, extremely witty, mysterious, and able to show vulnerability at a few key moments. Farmiga was the absolute perfect choice for this role. As a thought experiment, try imagining Up in the Air with Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock in the role of Alex. It's easy (but oh so awful) to imagine, and the relationship would have had so many fewer layers. Be thankful we had a master in the role, and a performance for the ages.