Volume 92, Issue 11
Monday, September 22, 1998
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Zell sells a True Thing
Photo by Eli Reed
OH WHAT A HAPPY HOME. Meryl Streep plays the "Everything is fine... fine... now go get my prozac" mother role to a tee while she and daughter Renee Zellweger deal with the traumas of life in One True Thing.
By Lisa Legatto
Renee Zellweger proves she can hold her own with some Oscar winning co-stars in her latest film, One True Thing. Zellweger plays Ellen Gulden, an ambitious journalist who has to abandon her job at a New York magazine to care for her dying mother, in the film adaptation of Anna Quindlen's novel.
One True Thing is a test of Zellweger's screen presence. Many young actresses may have been overshadowed by Meryl Streep's performance but Zellweger's strength is consistent in every scene. From beginning to end she creates a genuine character, not shying away from being unlikeable.
Initially, her character is more resentful about giving up her Manhattan apartment than she is about her mother's failing health. The typically bubbly and non-threatening Zellweger emulates a character who is described in Quindlen's novel as someone who'd walk over her mother in golf shoes to get ahead.
This is not the first time Zellweger has pitted her acting chops opposite Hollywood powerhouses. Critics were wowed not only by Zellweger's breakthrough performance in Jerry Maguire but her ability to grab attention away from the ultra charismatic Tom Cruise.
Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep) is Ellen's stay-at-home mom who makes Martha Stewart look like a slacker. Streep is one of the few actresses who has made the transition from love interest to complex mother. From Leonardo DiCaprio's chain smoking, ineffectual mom in Marvin's Room to Kate in One True Thing, Streep is breathing new life into the representation of mothers on film.
In the final months of her life, Kate attempts to reach Ellen in various ways. She teaches her daughter how to perform the holiday rituals and tasks that she can no longer do alone. Kate also appeals to Ellen on her father's terms by using a book club as a way to talk about what she has never been able to express.
The strength of Streep's performance is in the acting out of Ellen's changing perception of her mother. In the beginning, Kate comes across as silly and distracted by details, such as in a scene where she improperly cuts some bread. These rituals take on greater meaning for Ellen as she learns they do not define her mother but represent her life-long devotion to creating a happy home. A vocation that was not without its concessions.
William Hurt plays Ellen's father, George Gulden, a frustrated novelist and English professor. This is not new territory for him, as Hurt recycles his role as the cerebral, cold and detached father from films such as The Doctor and The Accidental Tourist. George passes on the responsibility of keeping his world in order to Ellen when his wife becomes sick. His denial prevents him from making anything more than cameo appearances at his wife's bedside.
Ellen has modelled herself after George and spent her life looking for his approval. Her resentment grows as she learns of his weakness and infidelity. The roles in the Gulden family become reversed when Ellen becomes a parent to her mother and father, a role that she vowed she never wanted. Her mother becomes physically dependent on Ellen as she is ravaged by cancer, while her father's dependence on her mother leaves him incapable of coping.
Director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) envisions a film that focuses on the universality of the emotions experienced by the Guldens, without wallowing in sentimentality. The film does not pull any punches and is packed with emotional turmoil and catharsis. It is an honest look at how we live out our parents' legacies.
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