A case could be made that Reese Witherspoon should have been have been nominated for an Oscar in 2000 for her role as Tracy Flick in the Alexander Payne film Election. The film, produced by MTV and distributed by Paramount, was released with a “standard high school comedy” trailer campaign that was in such stark contrast to the actual satirical product that the pairing is almost now as funny as the film itself. This, combined with Witherspoon’s then-as-yet untested resume and the relative box office failure of Payne’s earlier film Citizen Ruth, might provide the rationale necessary to explain Witherspoon’s Awards Season snub. It’s possible that it took filmgoers a while to “get it.”

But, no matter. Not only is Election and Witherspoon’s performance highly regarded by film fans and critics today, but, in a sort of corrective compromise by karma, every subsequent Alexander Payne movie has yielded at least one Oscar nominee in an acting category. And, of course, this metric of success excludes Payne’s revelatory discovery of young Shailene Woodley in his film The Descendants.

You might often hear it paraphrased that the biggest part of being a good director is just “letting your actors act.” Frequently, this modest platitude will be offered by really good directors. The truth is, a performance can not be appreciated independent of the writer/director any more than we might appreciate an athletic performance before the playing field is established and constructed and the rules of the game are invented and enforced.

The performances given in Alexander Payne’s movies are so frequently powerful because, as much or more than any other working filmmaker, Payne understands how to structure his narrative architecture within his cinematic landscape, economically establishing story with just the right amount of just the right pieces to elicit the inclusion of the viewers’ empathy without interrupting the viewers’ entertainment. Consider the two now-trademark scenes that demand consideration anytime his last two films are discussed as comedies.

In The Descendants, the comedic image is that of Matt King (George Clooney), a middle aged attorney and the trustee of a major Hawaii island property, sprinting desperately down an uncooperative landscape, fighting for air, his flip flops thudding beneath him. That’s the first impression of witnessing this scene. It’s absurd in construct, and thus, funny. Even with an astute analytical eye, the secondary takeaway might be the obviousness metaphoric imagery: a sharp downward turn that must be traveled because, as the sign indiscreetly points out, there is behind him “No Outlet.” Because of the prominence and volume of these first two perceivable elements (the comedic reality and the symbolic visual), we may not immediately accept the third major element of this scene: character motivation. This entire scene is informed by Matt’s confusion over having discovered his comatose wife’s recent pre-coma infidelity, a narrative development that carries with it tragedies both personal and universal.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Similarly, in Nebraska, Payne’s most recent and arguably best film, one scene seemed ready-cut for trailers, preview, and the announcement of June Squibb’s eventual awards nominations. When Kate Grant provides her son Will (Will Forte) with a tour of the cemetery, narrating in freely sexual terms her former relationships with the deceased, she punctuates the unexpected exchange by lifting her dress over the grave of a former suitor. Meanwhile, her barely living husband takes a tour of his own behind the central dialogue of his family. Though shot in color, Payne filmed his movie with the lightning and conscious intention of making the black and white transfer. This scene is, essentially, a play staged upon a flat horizontal plane. There is nothing in this scene beyond the bare, minimalist landscape, the characters, and Payne’s storytelling touches. We know we that Woody has always reluctantly played his role as father and husband in this family; in another scene of comedic fabric, Woody openly confesses to having never wanted kids and struggles to find an affectionate thought about his wife. And here we see the man in the late stages of his life, floating away from his family toward a graveyard, the universal symbol for mortality.  Again, we are immediately served classic comedy, followed by heavy screen symbolism, and only then do we casually observe (perhaps even unnoticeably) the drama of interpersonal loss, human regret, mortal despair.

Paramount Vantage

Paramount Vantage

In each instance, this tertiary element is not immediately felt, but rather invested. Dramatically-intended scenes in the third act of each film yield the emotional payoff for this early strategic effort. When Matt King’s wife Elizabeth passes after being removed from life support and forgiven by her husband, when Woody walks as a ghost through his childhood home, and when Will allows Woody to revisit his dignity by driving his truck along the main street in town, the pathos and the sorrow and the small spiritual victory arise here not as something new, but as an unconscious connection from these first and second act illustrations.

Without Payne’s invisible, giant, yet unobtrusive structures of narrative truth, the amazing performances would not not really performances at all. On their own, Tracy Flick would be just an empty satirical vessel and a stand in for a high schooler type, Matt King would be a smug-if-quirky attorney with massively first world problems, Kate Grant would be just a stereotypically shrill Midwestern wife, and Woody Grant would be just an old grunting curmudgeon. Under Payne’s control, we have instead three very human characters who, in spite of continually failing and hurting (sometimes maliciously) all those who care about them, earn immeasurable sympathy where in the hands of a lesser filmmaker they would solicit none.

Alexander Payne turns 55 today. It’s reasonable for fans to think that he might just now be hitting his creative peak. It’s not unreasonable to think that he might hold that stride for a very long time, perhaps decades. Between Election and Nebraska, Alexander Payne has taken a really good thing and somehow made it really better. Currently, in Payne, we have a saintly empathetic human, a filmmaker who is coming to understand that emotional and moral nuance isn’t exactly an antonym for character complexity, and a storyteller who moves gracefully within the sliver of space between human folly and character fuck up. Even if he never improves another inch, we already have that. And that’s a reason for any film fan to celebrate his work.


Featured Image: Sideways, Fox Searchlight Pictures