As Oscar night draws closer, the prognosticators have declared a neck-and-neck-and-neck race between Jennifer Lawrence (The Silver Linings Playbook), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) for the Best Actress prize. Forgive me, however, for feeling that the competition is a bit rigged this year. In the romantic farce If I Were You,University of Texas alumna Marcia Gay Harden delivered a performance every bit as accomplished and unexpected as those that were Oscar-nominated—and yet she never even got the chance to compete.
If I Were You is an independent film from writer-director Joan Carr-Wiggin, a Canadian whose work has mostly gone ignored in the United States. Harden plays a businesswoman named Madelyn who discovers that her husband Paul (Joseph Kell) is having an affair with an aspiring young actress named Lucy (Leonor Watling). Through a series of outlandish but very clever twists, Madelyn and Lucy end up confidantes and then co-stars in an amateur production of King Lear. All the while Madelyn is trying to salvage her marriage and pretend she knows nothing about the affair.
It’s no surprise that the major studios wouldn’t back a project like this; unless Meryl Streep is playing the lead, Hollywood generally pretends that sexually active and emotionally messy middle-aged women simply don’t exist. (And even with Streep in the lead, movies like It’s Complicated and Hope Springs are woefully few and far between.) What is discomfiting, though, is that none of the top film festivals or prominent indie distributors were willing to take a chance on If I Were You, either. Presumably deemed not edgy enough or young enough for Toronto or Sundance, the film instead had its off-the-radar world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival more than a year ago. Save for a few other domestic festival screenings, it has languished virtually unseen ever since.
What really rankles: All that praise critics and awards voters have been bestowing upon Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings—her rapid-fire line readings; her fluid shifts from comedy to pathos; her joyful incarnation of an unabashedly unruly woman—well, Harden does something very similar in If I Were You, only more convincingly and movingly. The central joke of the film is that, at virtually every turn, Madelyn makes the worst choices possible and keeps sinking herself deeper into hot water. That’s the recipe for any farce, of course, but Harden roots her character’s behavior in a painful reality—the anguish and panic of a woman who doesn’t know how to pull herself out of emotional freefall. She generates tremendous laughs, but never turns Madelyn into a cartoon—no easy feat when you’re playing the “scorned woman,” as anyone who remembers such dismal affairs as The First Wives Club could tell you.
This story has a happy ending, of sorts. Earlier this month, Kino Lorber, a tiny New York-based distributor, announced that it had acquired If I Were You for a brief theatrical release, starting March 14. As of earlier this week, you can also find the film on many video-on-demand platforms, including Amazon and iTunes (but not Netflix). At this point, it seems unlikely to make much of a ripple commercially (indeed, thus far it’s scheduled to play theatrically in only three cities, none of them in Texas.) But here’s hoping it finds some kind of cult following. A performance this rich—and a revelation this wonderful, that an actress known mostly for gut-wrenching drama also turns out to be a world-class comedienne—must not be allowed to die a quiet death.