As a fan of classic 30s and 40s films, I delight in the movies that pay tribute to them, and no directors have been more glowing in their homages than the Coen brothers, with their nods to predecessors Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and even Stuart Heisler. Their gloriously fun The Hudsucker Proxy was attacked for lacking “heart,” for being no more than a stylish imitation of favorite classic films.
But critics praised Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as the typical classic film reporter, noting, as did Todd McCarthy in Variety, that she plays the role “with a Katharine Hepburn accent, Rosalind Russell’s rat-a-tat-tat speed in ‘His Girl Friday’ and Stanwyck attitude….” Occasionally, reviewers admitted that Leigh’s character, Amy Archer, wasn’t “quite right,” as McCarthy did, but they never attributed the film’s failure to the actress.
Yet to me, Leigh’s performance is the one thing that takes away from my enjoyment of this exuberant movie. Paul Newman is marvelous as the bad guy (Sidney Mussburger). Tim Robbins is terrific as the naïve Hoosier (Norville Barnes) who comes to work in the big city. His supposed stupidity makes those trying to lower Hudsucker’s stock prices quickly usher him into the presidency, yet his creativity manages to foil their plot. Archer (Leigh) plans to expose him as an idiot, much like Saunders (Jean Arthur) before her in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
But Archer’s later guilt at this character assassination and developing feelings for Barnes are utterly unconvincing, largely because her whole performance is.
One gets the feeling that Leigh only watched the films in which Stanwyck, Hepburn, and Russell were speaking at that “rat-a-tat-tat” clip and therefore missed the obvious: these actresses didn’t talk at such speeds in most of their films. They simply imagined themselves the kind of women who would be thrilled by breaking stories. Their words nearly run together not just due to the scripts, but because their characters are excited.
Leigh takes on the inflections and even some of the gestures of these actresses, but she becomes a mimicry of them rather than a believable character because the passion that infused the others’ performances is entirely absent in Leigh’s.
Hepburn, Russell, and Stanwyck come across as born reporters; their confidence makes them thrilling to watch: Hepburn’s assurance in mixing with dignitaries in Woman of the Year, Stanwyck’s daring plan to manipulate her employer in Meet John Doe, Russell’s masterful interview in His Girl Friday.
Archer, in contrast, is clearly aping rather than feeling confidence, and because Leigh plays her as shrewish rather than cynical, her quick transition into affection for Barnes merely looks like bad acting, which is surprising given the caliber of most of her work.
Admittedly, the Coens made Archer terribly insecure, a woman whose sole joy is one upping others with her Pulitzer. This was a serious mistake. How could the Coens, Hawks enthusiasts, have missed that the overlapping dialogue they’ve borrowed from His Girl Friday was not meant to be an affectation, as Archer’s is, but a reflection of the characters’ energy and enthusiasm? The film centers around Cary Grant’s excitement about being a newspaperman, and his various ploys to prevent Russell from leaving the business stem from his knowledge that she can’t resist it any more than he can.
The two films, in fact, have much in common: they’re all about the joy of the con—Barnes, in convincing the company he’s a fool (unwittingly), Walter Burns (Grant), in keeping others so occupied they miss his hilarious ruses. Both movies are a blast to watch. But The Hudsucker Proxy bombed at the box office, and I can’t help but blame Leigh, whose Archer is a drag to watch, and whose union with Barnes I rooted against. What does it matter if an actress nails the shell, if she loses the soul?