Mildred Natwick in Barefoot in the Park (1967) - Supporting Actress Sundays

End of year festivities, as well as some delightful out of town visitors, have delayed this installment of Supporting Actress Sundays. My apologies, lovely reader. But at long last, I give you...

approximately 32 minutes and 43 seconds
13 scenes

roughly 31% of film's total running time
Mildred Natwick plays Ethel Banks, the well-heeled mother of the bride (Jane Fonda, in a precious but limited performance) in Neil Simon's well-trod newlywed comedy of manners.
Natwick's Ethel arrives, winded and mildly stunned by the climb, to her newly married daughter's 6th floor walkup apartment, in the fourth (and presumably) funniest enactment of the same joke. It's a lame bit -- ooh, isn't it silly and strange where young people choose to live -- at once apt enough and utterly pat. Yet, Natwick maneuvers this bit with the same humane generosity that she does her every step across the schticky floor of this absolutely effective and utterly banal American standard. And, oh the lame things this script asks Ethel to do...
To be mildly flummoxed at an exotic restaurant.
To drink way too much of way too many contradictory liquors.
To take a tumble down the stairs.
To spent a mysterious night with a mysterious man and wake up wearing his less than mysterious robe.
And, to her infinite credit, Mildred Natwick handles every one of these bits with graceful comic aplomb, nailing the comedy of each bit while also sculpting an absolutely credible character arc along the way.
See, Natwick charts this journey with an intelligence implied by, but not explicitly scripted within, the role. A dutiful widow who's recently married off her youngest daughter, Natwick's Ethel begins the role with a resigned, dutiful melancholy; she's happy for her daughter but also sad that her life as a wife and mother is officially over.
Natwick then spins into a whirlwind of giddy nervousness, as she is propelled on her first "date" in more than 20 years, girlishly worrying about her appearance and gamely going along for what is a very bumpy ride. Finally, Natwick arrives to an exuberant confidence in the worthiness of young love, both for her daughter's new marriage and for herself in a new chapter of life. It's an extraordinary, affirming characterization -- one sculpted at the edges of most every scene.
Most every approach to this character I've ever seen hits Ethel hard for broadly comic laughs. Natwick's is the only one I've seen to use the laughs as a scaffolding for a sweetly luminous character arc.
Natwick's Ethel is a sublime example of the alchemy enacted by certain actresses at the edges. The silk purse Natwick spun from the sow's ear of this role? You have to believe it is magic.

1 comment:

Lisbeth said...

Love the blog - and LURV dear Miss Mildred. One of my all-time faves. Your description of her in Bf.i.t.P. is spot-on - "graceful comic aplomb, nailing the comedy" - that was MM every time. Miss her terribly. Wish there were more like her now. Will move on to your blog on Carol Channing - RAAAAZZberry ... another great.
Many thanks.