There is a certain kind of woman Hollywood likes to cast as the Supportive Wife type. Certainly that’s not all Patricia Clarkson has done, but it’s the kind of role she had in common with the late Glenn Headley. It’s the sort of role Olivia de Havilland used to play—it’s not hard to picture Patricia Clarkson as Melanie Wilkes, really. She has that same Ethereal Beauty That Could Be Mistaken For Plainness that drove so much of de Havilland’s career. For some reason, that ends up with the supportive wife, and I don’t really know why. There it is, though. As is the fact that, in more recent movies, she plays a lot of Supportive Mothers.
Oh, don’t get me wrong—you don’t have to dive too deep into her career to get counterexamples. High Life, for example, where she’s a drug-addicted sociopathic German artist. (The movie doesn’t call her sociopathic, but I’ve seen it, and I do.) But she did get her start in film as Eliot Ness’s supportive wife in The Untouchables—a role that was apparently expanded when Brian De Palma found out she needed to pay her student loans. Officially the sweetest thing I know about Brian De Palma, come to that.
Since then, she’s played the dying wife of a prison warden, the wife of a news correspondent, the wife of a studio executive, and an unhappy housewife in a Woody Allen film. She’s played the mother of Mila Kunis, Emma Stone, and Katie Holmes, albeit not all in the same movie. However, she was also in the lesser YA dystopia The Maze Runner. She was in Shutter Island. (She says she did a little dance on finding out about Scorsese’s wish to cast her.) She was in Six Feet Under and Far From Heaven.
She is, in short, a character actress, and a damn good one. And for women, that category means playing a lot of wives and mothers, because that’s how a lot of films see women. She’s good in those roles, but there isn’t always a lot for her to do with them. Which is why it’s such a good thing that she’s always had independent films to fall back on to let her really exercise her talent. She’s given a lot of good performances within what she gets cast in, but still.
She’s also one of those actresses where it doesn’t take much thought for me to come up with better roles for her, roles that are about her and not the people around her. (Even in most of her independent films, she’s defined by the people, usually the men, around her.) There are so many stories about women that she could do, and there just aren’t the roles. I’d love to see her in a leading role where everyone is reacting to her.