Oscar Blindspots: Passion Fish

It might be 30 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1992 through the month of September

Tender and human, but devoid of pity or cliché, John Sayles Passion Fish is one of the lost gems of the early 90s with a pair of dynamite performances at its center.

Mary McDonnell stars as May-Alice Culhane, a recently paralyzed soap opera actress. Unable to use her legs, she returns to her family home in Louisiana where she drinks hard and psychologically and verbally abuses the nurses who come to care for her.

Her newest nurse, Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) is much less inclined to take her abuse. Chantelle helps May-Alice around the house and adjusting to life confined to a wheelchair. May-Alice begins to pry into Chantelle’s personal life, but she doesn’t budge. Meanwhile, Chantelle begins a romance with a suave local named Sugar LeDoux (Vonde Curtis-Hall). May-Alice is equally entranced by a childhood friend Rennie (David Strathairn), who helps as a handyman. As the months progress, the ladies grow subtly closer to move past what holds them back.

The film has every opportunity to turn into something maudlin or boring, but it turns each one of those moments into a chance to breath new life. The audience expectations are constantly being challenged in fun ways. The film never goes in directions you expect, but it all feels true to life, instead of manufactured for the sake of drama. The film never trivializes May-Alice’s injury while not propping it up as an obstacle to overcome. It’s a reality she must live with and the film sinks into that reality.

More than anything, the film preaches patience. May-Alice chases off every new nurse until Chantelle is forced by her circumstances. They do not immediately take to one another, but little victories in their relationship step them closer and closer to being friends. In particular, one scene sees May-Alice’s old actor friends show up. Instead of the pitying two-timing expectations, the scene allows May-Alice and Chantelle a chance to grow closer while giving expanded depth to smaller characters.

McDonnell is able to sidestep either extreme of where her character can go. She is prickly and angry, but quick-witted and sultry. She is never the sunny bit of optimism the world wants her to be, but she isn’t the shut-in sob story others expect. She is deftly able to balance her new reality with an unclear but curious outlook. Woodard is similarly in the middle. Chantelle attempts to keep anything personal a secret while still trying to quietly reach out to May-Alice. She puts on a face of control, but is being torn apart inside by her own selfish desires. The women bring out the best of each other and the actresses step up their game similarly. McDonnell was rightly nominated for Best Actress, but Woodard was egregiously snubbed.

Strathairn proves a welcome romantic fodder for May-Alice, but with an added level of ignorance. He is a vessel of sweetness that the film needs. Curtis-Hall provides a level of charisma that eases many Chantelle’s rough edges. May-Alice’s soap opera friends (including a young Angela Bassett) all do a fine job. In particular, Nancy Mette has a long monologue about trying to make it as a struggling actress that is one of the highlights of the film.

The Louisiana setting is a subtle nod to May-Alice’s lost potential. She sees a life she knew well and a life that would have taken her in a much different direction. Instead, it is a vibrant new environment where she can adapt to her conditions. The setting adds to the story without being the utmost focus.

An underseen gem, the female duo and Sayles are in the highest of form. I cannot recommend the film highly enough to anyone who hasn’t seen it. If you have seen it, go watch it again. It is so, so worth it.

Next week: Woody Allen and Robert Redford do solid, but lesser work in Husband and Wives and A River Runs Through It

All 1992 Oscar Blindspots
1972 Oscar Blindspots: Sounder

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