There’s something that happens to actors as they age. No, not Botox. I’m talking about something magical here. If they’re talented and they stick with it, churning out films year after year, they start to radiate a certain on-screen glow. Acting becomes a second skin to them. They slip into their characters with the ease that you or I slip on a shirt. They aren’t just comfortable with the camera. They make love to it. They dominate it. They hold it captive in the palm of their hands. They understand how the perfect facial expression at just the right time can make that magic something that just glues your eyeballs to the damn screen.
This is all one rather long way of saying that Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are simply phenomenal in “Big Little Lies.”
Yes, there is such a thing as critical auteur theory, which dictates that usually the director should be given credit for a truly great work. And yes, in TV, most creative decisions are made by the lead writer, who decides everything from the costumes to the casting. But screw all that. Series writer David E. Kelley hasn’t made a notable show since “Boston Legal” — and when was the last time anyone talked about “Boston Legal”? And director Jean-Marc Vallee is an overly sentimental journeyman who hasn’t made a truly great work his entire career — and I’m not even convinced his directing entirely works on this project.
No. If you really want to find the two auteurs that make this work click, the creative voices that turned the novel “Big Little Lies” into must-watch television, then you have to come back to the stars. They are the ones that are elevating a passably entertaining series into a hypnotic work of art. Without them the dialogue would be catchy, but weightless; the plot entertaining, but contrived; the characters relatable, but generic. And if you don’t believe me when I say that removing an excellent cast of acting veterans can have a far-reaching, devastating impact on a great TV show, re-watch “True Detective” season two.
“Big Little Lies” (the mini-series) follows three separate but equal (or almost equal) Monterey moms during a particularly turbulent period for their community. Madeline Mackenzie (Witherspoon) is an energetic, overbearing social butterfly trying to manage an insolent teenage daughter and a precocious five-year old one. Celeste Wright (Kidman) is a seemingly perfect former lawyer with seemingly perfect twin sons who’s hiding a very troubled relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård, throwing caution to the wind as he fully inhabits a pitiable, vile human being). And Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is… Well she’s there.
Okay. That’s a little harsh. Chapman is actually the character most central to the overall plot of the story. And as Chapman, Woodley gives a relatable performance as a young adult trying to take charge of her life and young son after a particularly traumatic event years earlier. If you are capable of empathy, you’ll feel for her character. But there’s a difference between giving a relatable performance and giving an entertaining one. Witherspoon and Kidman manage to do both.
But that’s the ineffable power that comes with being an acting pro. You’re no longer bound to just creating a believable character. You mastered that ages ago. Now you can focus on letting your character breath. You can let your character roll their eyes, cluck their tongue and do all those weird little idiosyncratic things that turn a character into someone you want to spend time with, week after week.
The marketing department at HBO has billed “Big Little Lies” as an upscale, cinematic beach ride — a frothy tale of rivalries, lies and deceit, with A-list stars. And I don’t blame them. The show certainly delivers on all the petty feuds, pithy putdowns and petulant backstabbing necessary to warrant the description.
But somehow these A-list stars find a way to take the feuds and the putdowns and the backstabbing and ground them in real, honest, empathetic, riveting characters. Characters that would normally be background players in other works, supportive mother figures without any real voice or personality. And for investing these normally overlooked characters with so much humor, depth and interiority — and for getting some of the best actresses working today to play them — “Big Little Lies” deserves recognition. In short, “Big Little Lies” is an excellent mini-series, and it is highly recommended.
Contact Raymond Maspons at raymondm ‘at’ stanford.edu