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Mary McDonnell in Passion Fish

Mary McDonnell received her second Oscar nomination for playing May-Alice Culhane, a paralysed and quite bitchy soap opera actress in Passion Fish. I guess McDonnell was not a major player for the Academy Award in 1992. Although many people must have liked her, she wasn’t famous enough to get ahead of Michelle or Susan. I guess she had to settle for a comfortable fourth placed and she had to say eventually that it’s an honor just to be nominated.
Passion Fish was the most pleasant surprise of the films I’ve seen for this year. I didn’t expect anything but a lame, boring TV movie and yet I saw a beautiful, humorous and lovely film that I would gladly rewatch any time. Everything is so relaxing about it: it’s excellently written (might have deserved the Oscar) and directed plus it has a wondeful soundtrack. Overall, it’s a wondeful experience, especially if we take a look at the performances. Alfre Woodard is nothing short of amazing in her role. In my opinion, she should have won the Supporting Actress Oscar (she wasn’t even nominated). But Nancy Mette’s cameo is also brilliant.
Mary McDonnell (in my opinion) is a really good actress. I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of hers but I’ve never been disappointed by her performances. I loved her as Donnie Darko’s worried mom, she was reat in Battlestar Galactica (at least in the 5 minutes I saw) and I also loved her in Dances with Wolves (I know, I know). So I didn’t expect a towering achievement from her in Passion Fish, only a very entertaining piece of work that relaxes me. And hold on to your seats: she lived up to all of my expectations. In fact, she went beyond them. But more on that later.
McDonnell plays May-Alice, a bitchy soap opera actress who’s forced to live in a wheelchair, depending on nurses and she’s a bit fed up with the whole situation. In fact, none of the nurses is able ti put up with her, except for Alfre Woodard’s character. First we see how they are getting to know each other and such things. Their relationship doesn’t go the way one would expect and yet everything is believable about them. Both actresses are at the top of their game, so they work wonderfully together. I felt no competition between them and they really seemed to be very supportive of each other. They were never trying to play each other off and that’s really great, in my opinion. I think this works mostly with women. I think male actors tend to be much more competitive in movies than female actors and this movie was another proof of that thought of mine. Alfre Woodard is amazing (as I said) but she never overshadows Mary McDonnell and steps over at her big scenes.
Mary McDonnell’s performance as May-Alice (just like Passion Fish) is a very interesting mix of comedy and drama. I would say it’s very bittersweet. When I read the story and the reviews about her, I thought that she was going to be much more bitchy and mean and yet I really liked her character. There was something adorably human about her. I don’t necessarily think that she’s that much of a bitch. Her behaviour was understandable in that situation, I guess. However, the bitchy scenes are nailed by McDonnell. She’s so incredibly entertaining there and the touch of irony that she gives to the character makes it all perfect. I loved the scene where she’s visited by two women who made her life hell at school and then they sucked up to her. McDonnell excells there: the way she says “it was me” or “It’s a joke, precious.” is hilarious.
A somewhat similar scene comes where she meets her castmates from the soap opera. Their conversation is really heart-breaking actually (that “anal probe line” that comes from Nancy Mette is indeed great) and Mary had very much to do with it. The development of May-Alice was best shown there by McDonnell. Somehow, I felt that May-Alice became a different person by her accident. Overall, this character had much more layers than one would initially think. McDonnell was very tricky that way but I did not really mind. It was just excellent.
And I didn’t even mention the tender scenes with her and David Strathairn. I loved how Mary suggested that May-Alice begins to fall in love. And the scene with the passion fish is indeed great. Somehow, May-Alice seems to be much calmer and kinder in time.
Overall, this is a wonderful performance that I loved from the beginning to the end. Although it’s not a mindblowing piece of work, it’s still exceptional and should be much more often talked about. Mary McDonnell created a very memorable and much more layered character than one would expect. She excellently shows this character’s pain plus she’s a real treat to watch.
Final prediction time! :)