Written by Jeff Sparks
It’s safe to say that everyone loves to see a comeback. And that is the exact path that Fairuza Balk is on. For more than ten years she has either been in B-grade movies like “Hell Is Where the Home Is (Trespassers)” or been relegated to small cameos such as “The Craft: Legacy”. Balk has always been one of the most unique actors in the film industry since her start in 1983. Throughout the 1990s she first proved she was one of the best actresses in the world with an impressive role in “Gas Food Lodging” at the young age of 17. Later on, she had starring roles in high profile films such as “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, “American History X”, “The Waterboy” and her most notable film, the cult-classic “The Craft”, where she starred as Nancy Downes. In the 2000s she continued her career with roles in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” and the impressive independent film “Personal Velocity” alongside Parker Posey and Kyra Sedwick.
Since then Balk has fallen out of these high-profile films, mostly focusing on artwork at home and her music career along with taking a small role here and there. But now with Amazon’s new music drama series “Paradise City”, it appears she may be eyeing a return to more substantial roles. In the new show, she plays a critical role as Lizzie Thomas, the mother of a teen girl who gave birth to a rock and roll star’s child after a night of group sex initiated by the mother, Lizzie. While you might expect her to be a helpful or caring mother, Balk’s character is quite the opposite, and that makes her performance all the more interesting. After living the music life on the road and having an unexpected child herself, Lizzie has been relegated to raising the child in a run-down trailer park outside of Las Vegas for many years and now sees her newborn granddaughter not as family, but rather as a dollar sign.
Balk plays the character cunningly, making desperate moves behind the scenes while presenting a carefree expression in front of her opposition. Whenever she’s on screen she reminds us that she is the master of playing these dark and deceitful characters, all the while making them more entertaining and deep than most other actors could. Balk has a mentality in the performance that is like a freight train coming off the tracks. Compared to the other actors she knows she is in a league of her own in the series and has fun with her role on the show.
In 2020 Hannah Waddingham came seemingly out of nowhere with her incredible performance alongside Jason Sudeikis and Juno Temple as one of the three main stars in Apple TV’s “Ted Lasso”. In the show, Waddingham plays Rebecca Welton, the owner of a professional soccer team that she is trying to run into the ground to exact revenge on her ex-husband who previously owned the team. In the first season, Waddingham plays the character as cold, cruel, and deceitful. She attempts to rule over the organization with an iron fist until Sudiekis’ character, the coach of the team, brings out her warm side by killing her with kindness by the end of the season.
In 2021, she had to rise to the challenge of playing the same character from a different angle, not something many actors could pull off and make believable. Waddingham makes her natural continuation of the character look effortless as she shows a new optimistic side to Rebecca while also throwing in shades of the cruel comedy she utilized in the first season to remind us this is still the same person. She commands every scene she’s in, unconcerned with the fact that she is flanked by a powerhouse actress in Juno Temple and a comedic superstar in Jason Sudeikis.
Part of what makes her performance great is that she is always putting in one-hundred and ten percent effort. In some scenes, you can notice her doing something in the background that adds to the scene. Other times maybe she just gives off a facial expression while someone else is speaking and steals the scene out from under them with her comedic timing. Another reason she was one of the best this year is the believability factor she brings to several subplots that include her character that many people can relate to. The main ones are her struggles with family drama, loss, dating, and reconnection. Waddingham brings a human level to these difficulties that allow the viewer to connect with her more than any other character on the show.
In 2021 Waddingham also appeared in “Sex Education” and “Midsomer Murders”.
Released by Hulu, from David E. Kelley, creator of “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing”, came “Nine Perfect Strangers”. Featuring an all-star cast including Michael Shannon, Regina Hall, Samara Weaving, and Bobby Cannavale, the show gave us a standout performance from legendary actress Nicole Kidman who also served as an executive producer. In the series, Kidman plays Masha Dimtrichenko, the founder and boss of a wellness resort she calls Tranquillum House, in which eight guests visit. Masha is known for her unexplainable ability to cure all visitors of the resort of any life problems, which gives her newest guests a god-like view of her until they begin to discover her methods may not be entirely safe.
Staying with her Russian accent on the set, Kidman plays the character as mysterious and full of herself. Masha believes herself to be a healer of her own kind who can do no wrong. She toys with people’s lives to push the limits of healing, trying to make a new form of medicine no matter the costs. Of course not everyone believes in her, resulting in Masha doing anything she can to hold onto control. Whether it’s the rambling dialogue about her “safe” treatment or locking people away against their will, Kidman shows us that her character is focused on something bigger than the safety of her guests.
In the first few episodes Kidman doesn’t have much room to work. Her scenes are often bogged down by repetition. Kidman heats up in the final few episodes, reminding us she is an actor who can ignite at any moment. Towards the end Masha is fighting for control as she attempts to execute her final plan, attempting to use LSD to form a connection with the living and the dead. Here she is frantic, racing around the resort barking orders and making moves to make her ultimate move as her own crew attempts to stop her. Here Kidman does her most convincing work with the character, especially when she shows us an intimate side to Masha as she slows down, realizing this might be the end for her.
Kidman also starred in “Being the Ricardos” in 2021.
Margaret Qualley and Andie MacDowell
Last but definitely not least are two of the absolute best performances of the year that came from Netflix’s ten-part limited series “Maid” that was released in early October. Based on the memoir by Stephanie Land, the show focused on the dynamic daughter-mother duo of Margaret Qualley and Andie MacDowell. In the series, Qualley plays Alex, a young mother who struggles to survive after escaping with her young child from an abusive relationship. Living in and out of domestic violence centers, she often finds herself in the company of her estranged mother played by MacDowell. Being related the same way in real life, the duo’s chemistry bleeds off the screen, allowing both women to show off their acting prowess without outshining one another.
Margaret Qualley was must see in her performance as Alex Russell. Previously having smaller roles in films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” and “The Nice Guys”, Qualley finally got the chance to show the world who she was. And she did exactly that while playing a lead character that touches on sensitive subjects such as abuse, poverty, trauma, and mental health. Not many actors could handle a performance as well as she did, especially only being twenty-five years old at the time of filming. Since the show first aired I’ve seen many critics claiming Qualley was “too pretty” to portray the character of Alex. I couldn’t disagree more. In her approach to every scene Qualley understood that her appearance was not the reason she was cast but because of her ability to make the audience believe her to be in the situations portrayed on the screen.
It’s easy to understand that two family members would want to work together and that’s what was able to happen when Margaret Qualley recommended her mother Andie MacDowell for a major role in the show after she was cast. In the show, MacDowell plays Paula, who is the exact opposite of most of the characters MacDowell has played throughout her lengthy career. Eccentric and unpredictable, Paula often lives independently and in the moment as she battles with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder that alienates most people in her life. MacDowell plays the character as wild and unconcerned with giving in to the concerns or demands of the people around her. Always a free spirit, Paula is at the center of some of the most interesting scenes in the series. With her daughter coming to her for help, her condition often leads to the relationship being the other way around in a storyline that makes you want the best for a woman that the world doesn’t have room for.
One of the reasons the series is so good is the way the cinematography aids the acting throughout each episode. With the lack of a structure, the camera flows freely in each scene, often being held at medium range which allows Qualley and MacDowell to use their body language as a part of their performance that is often restricted by close-ups. With the work done in “Maid” Qualley has shown she is one of the most exceptional actors in the world while MacDowell has given possibly her best performance to date as we see both women disappear into these heartbreakingly realistic roles.
In 2021 Qualley also starred in “My Salinger Year”.
Also in 2021, Andie MacDowell appeared in “No Man’s Land”.