After taking yet another unintentional hiatus from blogging, I thought I’d try something a little different and begin a series of Actor Profiles where I extol the virtues of my all-time favourite actors. For me, there is no better place to begin than Stockard Channing. If she had been around during the 40s, she would’ve referred to as a “tough broad” or a “swell dame”. Her career bio is a diverse and varied range of interesting and unique acting challenges. She seems to have a particular talent for playing strong, yet vulnerable characters with bold dignity and a sharp wit. She’s a triple threat tackling Broadway, TV, and film, and been nominated for the industry’s foremost awards in all three. She’s a stand-out performer in big screen turns as Betty Rizzo in “Grease” and Ouisa Kittredge in “Six Degrees of Separation” (for which she received an Oscar nom) as well as small supporting, yet scene-stealing roles in movies like “Where the Heart Is”, “Practical Magic”, and “The First Wives Club”. Her stage career is even more prolific – I would’ve killed to see her as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. I think the most recent thing I saw her in was a guest appearance on TV’s “The Good Wife” in an episode ironically titled ‘A Defense of Marriage’ – ironic because Stockard herself has been married four times. None took.
So without further ado, allow me to present evidence of why Stockard Channing is the Queen of All That is Awesome:
Seriously, who would want to play boring, goody-two-shoes Sandy when you could play the defiant, sarcastic spitfire Rizzo? The alpha of the Pink Ladies does what she wants, when she wants and who she wants: “I’m gonna get my kicks while I’m still young enough to get ‘em.” But she also has a softer, vulnerable side. She’s a much more complex character than Sandy. And she has way better songs.
Six Degrees of Separation
If you haven’t seen Six Degrees of Separation, you totally should. Not only does it feature Stockard Channing in an Oscar nominated performance, but co-stars Donald Sutherland and a young Will Smith who exhibits the first signs his acting range extends beyond his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” persona. It’s about the Kittredges, a wealthy New York couple (Channing and Sutherland), who encounter Paul (Smith), a charismatic, mysterious young man who claims to be friends with their children at Harvard and Sidney Poitier’s son. The couple regales their socialite friends with the story of their brief relationship with Paul and how it revealed some hidden truths about their own lives and social status.
The West Wing
In my humble opinion, The West Wing still holds up as one of the strongest ensemble casts of all time. Channing had a recurring role as First Lady Abigail Bartlett on the critically acclaimed series and later joined the regular cast in the show’s third season. A headstrong, accomplished physician married to the President of the United States (Martin Sheen), Abbey did not back down from a justified fight and refused to be “managed” by Bartlett’s staff. Channing played her with conviction and dignity – a rarity in female roles on television. Channing was repeatedly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Emmy each year of the show’s run, and took home the award in 2002 for her consistently stellar portrayal.
To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar
In “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”, Channing gives a noteworthy performance in a mediocre movie. Don’t get me wrong, Wong Foo is not without its entertainment value. Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo also turn in solid portrayals as drag queens traveling cross-country to compete in a drag contest in LA. There’s a satisfying, campy novelty to seeing these action stars all made up, but that wears off and there’s still something endearing about their earnest, well-meaning characters. But the plot is formulaic (bordering on trite) and somewhat heavy themes (like violence against women) mix uneasily with the overall light-hearted tone of the movie. As I am want to do, I will defer to the always astute Roger Ebert who said in his review, “I feel like recommending the performances, and suggesting they be transported to another film. The actors emerge with glory for attempting something very hard and succeeding remarkably well. They deserve to be in a better movie.”
The Matthew Shepard Story
Channing earned her second Emmy in 2002 for her portrayal of Matthew Shepard’s mother in the based-on-a-true-story, made-for-tv movie of his life and murder. For those who may not know of the events on which this movie is based, Matthew Shepard was a college student who was brutally tortured and killed near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. He was the target of this crime because he was gay and the subsequent US hate-crime legislation bears his name. Many movies and documentaries have been made about those tragic events. This version is really Judy Shepard’s story and features Channing in a powerful performance of grief, rage, and ultimately love. It is a little difficult to see this important social issue portrayed as a “movie-of-the-week”, but Channing’s authentic and even portrayal supplies the necessary depth of emotion and heart.