Tall Poppies: Let’s Talk About Naomi Watts
The past month has been a strange period in the career of Naomi Watts. The two-time Oscar nominated actress has had no fewer than three new projects premiere, from a starring role in The Book of Henry to headlining her own Netflix series, Gypsy, and a stand-out supporting part in the much-lauded revival of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Her talent is undeniable, and has never been denied by critics, but her choice of roles presents a trickier prospect for fans. Gypsy landed with a thud, dismissed by critics as a turgid slog. Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com called it, “a depressingly bad show for the talent it wastes on horrendous dialogue, unbelievable characters, and the kind of soapy plotting you’re more likely to see on a Lifetime TV movie than prestige drama”, while Todd VanDerWerff of Vox called it “the hottest new show of 2007”.
These reviews were glowing in comparison to the ones received by The Book of Henry, which remains one of the more fascinating catastrophes of the year. Twin Peaks has prevented this Summer from being a total dud for Watts - and she remains arguably the best character in a show with an immensely intriguing ensemble - but a quick look at her IMDb page reveals several years of work best described as “middling”. There are critical hits, a commercial success here and there, but mostly there are films you’ve forgotten ever existed or ones you wish you could forget. Hollywood has never been a limitless fountain of potential for actresses past the age of 35, but it still beggars belief that a talent as stunning and effervescent as Naomi Watts would be reduced to such mediocre work. She never gives less than her everything, but too often you feel that the material doesn’t deserve her.
The first decade of Watts’s career is full of the expected bit parts in material of varying quality, some indie movies from her native Australia, the token horror movie (in this case, Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering), and one huge turkey in Tank Girl. It’s the filmography of any working actress in their 20s, going where the work is, and it’s usually the stuff profiles leave out, unless it’s to make a comparison with the more Hollywood friendly years of success. Yet it’s important to note how consistently Watts worked during this period. For a solid decade, she had roles in seventeen projects, ranging from feature films to shorts to voice work. There are comedies, dramas, horror films, romances, budgets big and small, from Australia to America. Whatever you think of the films, this shows Watts having the mentality of a jobbing actor, happy to go where the work is. That’s something that carries over into her years of higher public visibility, which began with a little help from David Lynch.
Mulholland Dr. is a masterpiece. Originally intended as a TV pilot for ABC, Lynch decided to cut the material into a film after the network dropped the project. Watts was cast by Lynch even though he had never seen any of her prior work. A photograph was enough for him to make the leap, but not before two short interviews with her in-person. The story - or at least what seems to be the story - of a wide-eyed young talent who arrives in Hollywood with big dreams and finds herself in the midst of a mystery was appealing to Watts, who admitted to having similarly frustrating professional experiences in the industry to her character. Like the film itself, Watts’ performance is hypnotic. For a large chunk of the running time, you question yourself as to whether she’s actually a good actress or not, as she trots through Hollywood with Pollyanna glee and a Judy Garland style lilt in her voice. It seems like too much, and then the film peels away at its endless layers to reveal the truth: It’s a stellar performance, and Watts is most certainly the real deal.
It seems reductive to call her work in Mulholland Dr. “daring”, much in the same way it feels almost quaint to call a David Lynch film “weird”. As Betty and/or Diane, Watts swerves between extremes but never loses her grasp of the subtle moments. She’s brazen and doe-eyed, bright then bitter. She looks the part of Hollywood perfection but you never forget that there’s something so very off about her. In short, she’s Lynchian, and it may very well be the performance of the millennium.
She received some critics’ awards and a nomination here and there, but like the film itself, the big prizes were distributed elsewhere. Other than Lynch’s directing, Mulholland Dr. didn’t receive any Oscar nominations, which is all the more galling when you remember the film that swept the major awards that year was A Beautiful Mind. It was enough to get the ball rolling for Watts, and more mainstream work followed, including the surprisingly effective US remake of The Ring, which gave her a major commercial hit. She continued to work with Australian film-makers like Gregor Jordan on Ned Kelly, but stuck mostly to American work, ranging from rom-coms (Le Divorce) to indie dramas (The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Stay) to period pieces (The Painted Veil). Her onus remains similar to her pre-Lynch career: Keep working, try a bit of everything and see what lands. She’d get her first Oscar nomination for 21 Grams, losing to Charlize Theron in Monster.
The Peter Jackson directed remake of King Kong seems like an after-note in the career of one of modern film’s most influential figures, but at the time of its release, it was major news. On top of being the most expensive film ever made at the time, this was Universal returning to one of their major cinematic icons for the first time since an unfortunate ’70s remake featuring one of the most hilariously fake giant gorilla suits in recent memory. This time, the film would be exclusively remaking the 1930s original, paying adoring attention to the period setting but still expanding the story to suit modern film-going sensibilities. That meant a bloated running time, more creepy monsters, Andy Serkis as Kong himself, and a thoroughly modern Ann Darrow.
Watts is criminally underrated in this role. As hard as the film works to ensure the centrepiece of the three-hour affair is Ann’s relationship with Kong, they can’t help but be drowned out by the admittedly impressive effects surrounding them at every turn. Still, the pains the story takes to make Ann more than the Scream Queen of old pay off in various ways. We see Ann the earnest vaudeville actress, fighting to keep the glass half-full as the Depression unfolds (Watts seems tailor-made for roles of struggling actresses). We get a chance to witness Ann’s eagerness to please, as well as her questionable acting skills coupled with her growing unease at the fool’s errand of a journey their expedition has mounted. The token screaming damsel moment is there, of course, (and wow are those “brutal native” depictions way more racist than the ’30s film), but once she is alone with Kong, staring up at him with desperate conviction, Watts truly shines. With little to work with beyond a British actor in a green stocking suit, she brings real sensitivity and wit to what could have been a thankless task. Watts brings the necessary quiet to the film, but of course, most people don’t go to see the giant ape movie for that.
The next five years featured some of Watts’s most eclectic and rewarding work, collaborating with major auteurs like David Cronenberg and Michael Haneke, always a compelling on-screen presence. Other opportunities to work with big names weren’t so fruitful, including Clint Eastwood’s unintentional camp biopic J. Edgar, where Watts and company find themselves swamped under clay-like old-age makeup. Jim Sheridan’s Dream House is a turkey that exists only to remind people it’s how Rachel Weisz got together with Daniel Craig. Even with the spirit crushing Movie 43 on her CV, perhaps her biggest misstep was Diana, a wildly misjudged biopic of Princess Diana that seems more concerned with being a Bridget Jones sequel without the laughs. As hard as Watts tries with what is a shoddily conceived role, this may be the first time she is close to bad in a role. She’s not awful, but she trots through the cheerless film like she’s wearing a suit two sizes too small for her. Princess Diana is simply too recognisable a persona for her to inhabit with any degree of realism, although maybe she would have had a better chance if the material weren’t so odd.
After a disappointing year - including a Razzie nomination - Watts got back in the saddle with real verve, starring in 2014’s Best Picture winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), but bringing her best work to Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. The past few years of her career have been defined by her life-long drive to keep working, and she’s done now fewer than three films a year since 2013. The variety of work remains, from franchises (the Divergent series) to comedies (St. Vincent) to dramas good and bad (the low point being Gus Van Sant’s Cannes turkey The Sea of Trees). If a film is bad, just wait a few months and see if the next one satisfies. Watts seems to enjoy this consistency, asking at one point during a recent interview with Red Magazine, “Which one are we here to talk about?”
It’s hard to talk about Naomi Watts without talking about her good friend, fellow actress and Australian star, Nicole Kidman. The pair, former classmates, starred together in the 1991 drama Flirting By that time, Kidman had already made Dead Calm and Days of Thunder, thus ensuring her future worldwide domination as Mrs Tom Cruise. As we’ve seen, Watts’s career was a slower burn, but not being that level of A-List camera magnet stardom has its benefits. Watts’s love life has always attracted much less attention (she dated Heath Ledger for two years, then spent 11 years with Liev Schreiber, having two sons together before amicably splitting last year); she’s faced far less scrutiny over her looks than Kidman, who many journalists see as fair game for attacks over her botox or rumoured plastic surgery; Watts is allowed to be an actress rather than the central focus for every issue regarding an actress in Hollywood over the age of 40.
Less pressure from the public and press means Watts has a significant degree of control over her own public image. For the most part, she hasn’t been an easily defined type: She’s no “ice queen” like Kidman or girl next door like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts. Even when she was dating men of comparable or greater fame than herself, the “power couple” narrative never manifested.
In recent times, Watts has turned to a more direct route to control her narrative: Instagram. You wouldn’t think it but Naomi Watts is really very good at Instagram. Like January Jones, she uses the platform to choreograph a careful mixture of honesty, humour, glamour and self-promotion. Not only does she use the Snapchat-style stories option frequently, she posts regularly enough to keep her 758,000 followers interested. There are photos of her stepping excitedly into Claridges (hashtagged #homeawayfromhome), adorable pics of her kids compared to school photo-day shots of her own childhood, sweet moments remembering her late father, Pink Floyd sound engineer Peter Watts, and family gatherings with Schreiber.
It is in her control over her separation from Schreiber where Instagram became key. If you followed the pair on their respective accounts during the promotional tour for boxing drama The Bleeder, which they starred in together, you wouldn’t think the pair had already broken up by that point in time. Their photographs are just casual enough to see spontaneous, and both left cutesy comments on each other’s pages like any cheesy couple in love. Even now, she posts Father’s Day photos for him, calling him a “great dad”. He features a lot on her page in dad mode, and it’s almost soothing. Her friend Nicole may have had the divorce of the decade, but Watts gets to have the break-up everyone secretly yearns for.
In a recent interview with People Magazine, Watts talked about Tall Poppy Syndrome, wherein successful people are mocked and derided for rising above their counterparts, saying she experienced this once her career took off. While I don’t question Watts’s own feelings on her life and career, especially from what she’s witnessed first-hand, it is interesting to note how much critics root for her. She’s too damn good an actress not to, and it’s sad to see her with such thin material. It’s not her fault, of course. The industry does all that it can to render women invisible once they pass the increasingly youthful age of supposed desirability. That Watts continues to work as consistently as she does is exciting, because now and then you get those glimmers of glory like her performance in Twin Peaks. If only every director saw Naomi Watts the way David Lynch does.
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