Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Acting Up: Evelyn Varden

It is one of my expressed purposes with the Acting Up series to highlight performances that are not generally remarked upon in the critical community. While I will also focus on performances that are justifiably famous as well by well known actors I would like to start the series off with a performance that is generally forgotten or ignored or overlooked but nevertheless is wonderful to experience and one that makes me smile from ear to ear each time I see it: Evelyn Varden as Icey Spoon in The Night of the Hunter.

Varden had a career on the stage for years before coming to film with a minor role in Pinky (1949). She died in 1958 having only been featured in fifteen films. Her biggest movie was probably The Bad Seed (1956) which got better box office and recognition - at the time. But The Night of the Hunter is the better movie and the icing on the cake of Varden's acting career. In a film with as dynamic and creepy a central performance as Robert Mitchum's it's amazing anyone could stand out but Varden, as Icey Spoon, manages to do just that.

When we first meet her character she is working behind the counter of the deli she and her husband, Walt, run, aptly named "Spoons." She's telling Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) what Willa needs to do: "Willa Harper there are certain plain facts of life that add up just like two plus two makes four and one of them is this: No woman is able to raise growing youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two." There is an old saying that goes "Some people think they're very generous because they give alot of free advice." Let's just say that Icey Spoon must consider herself among the most generous women on the planet. Free advice is her forte, it's what she does. After her free advice the shot changes to the train carrying the demented preacher, Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum. Then it's back to Icey and her yammering mouth. "Ain't no question of want it or not want it, you're no spring chicken, you're a grown woman with two little young'ins. It's a man you need in the house Willa Harper."

It's certainly not easy describing vocal inflection in writing but it may be best described by saying that Varden speaks her lines as a combination of a cat whining and a donkey braying. At the end of the previous line the word "Harper" is a good half an octave higher than the rest of the sentence. It may be subtle but it's a brilliant acting choice. A woman like Icey Spoon does not trail off. She wants to make sure she's heard until the final word, which of course she accents, to make sure you're still listening.

Later when Powell arrives in town Spoon is (naturally) smitten with him. Spoon is a women, as portrayed by Varden, so utterly sure of her own righteousness, as well as her own rightness, that she never wavers, never doubts for a second any one of her judgments. Powell is a good man as far as she is concerned and that makes it right. When he comments on her fudge she tells him it's for the picnic and he won't get "a smidgen of my fudge unless you stay for the picnic." Again, think cats and donkeys.

At the picnic, Evelyn Varden ramps up her acting prowess to deliver a series of lines, superbly penned by James Agee, that stay in the mind for... well, forever. First, walking with Willa, she tells the children to go play. "Where?" they ask. "Down by the river, my goodness!" she says. It may sound inconsequential, but she claps twice while saying that, at the same time looking shocked and annoyed at the question, and then immediately reverts back to her smiling yammering self. A woman like Icey Spoon tells people (and children) what to do with a stern look and a heavy hand. When done, expecting absolutely no disagreement or protest, she resumes her yammering. Varden plays it perfectly.

She pushes Willa to talk with Powell and then wanders over to the picnic table to hold court. It is at this moment that Icey Spoon delivers a speech on love and sex that sails clear past the "Too Much Information" benchmark set by most people. As Willa talks with Powell about her former husband, Ben Harper, Icey begins.

"She's over there mooning about Ben Harper. That wasn't love that was just flapdoodle."

(Then referring to the act of making love) "When you've been married to a man for forty years you know all that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to my Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there and think about my canning."

Going on about sex in marriage she remarks, "A woman's a fool to marry for that. That's somethin' for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that. Not really want it. It's all just a fake and a pipe dream. "

Here, Varden does something amazing. After saying it's a pipe dream she chuckles uncomfortably to herself then look out towards Willa and Harry with a curious look before raising her eyebrows almost in a look of longing, as if she's always wanted that feeling herself. And she does all of that combined in about one second. The best actors know how to convey not one but many different emotions or feelings with just a glance or two.

After Powell kills Willa he goes to the Spoons and tells Icey that Willa has left. Icey believes every word of it. When she tells her husband, "Willa has run away" it has a dripping tone of judgment throughout every word. Varden also makes it seem with her eyes that Icey "just knew all along" that something like this would happen. When Powell says he's going to stay and take care of the kids he remarks, "Maybe the Good Lord never meant for someone like Willa to taint their young lives," Varden has Icey give a knowing "hmmmm" as she nods her head and bobbles her eyebrows. Varden sees to it that Icey doesn't go more than five or ten seconds without passing judgment one way or another.

Finally, at the conclusion of the film, after Powell has been arrested it is none other than Icey heading up the lynch mob. "Lynch him!" she screams, stretching the word "lynch" into two or three syllables. Given the strength of conviction that Varden has filled Icey with we are not surprised to see her leading a murderous mob. It almost seems natural for her.

Evelyn Varden received no nomination for this or any other performance from her all too brief film career. You'll find no extensive biographies of her on any website, outside of a listing of her credits. Her theatre career was more extensive than her film career. On the stage she played plenty of friendly neighbors and chatty relatives. It all prepared her for this. This performance. This film. And film has one great advantage over the theatre: It is preserved forever. Moments in time that can be revisited in a thousand years as if seeing them for the first time. It is said that Edwin Booth was a great actor. We have to take it on faith. We have no way of knowing. We could never see and hear him deliver one of Shakespeare's soliloquies. But when someone says that someone in a movie gives a great performance we don't have to take it on faith and never will. We can see it for ourselves.

Evelyn Varden is no Hepburn or Stanwyck or Davis. She may not have had much of a range beyond this role. But for this role she did a fantastic job. And when someone in a thousand years tells someone else they saw The Night of the Hunter and the lady playing Icey Spoon was terrific people will still be able to see for themselves. Edwin Booth may be the acting legend of the stage, but Evelyn Varden is here to stay.