There’s no disputing that Glenn Close‘s snippy and snarly performance as “Mamaw” in Ron Howard‘s Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix, 11.11) will snag a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. It’ll happen. Definitely. And for three reasons.
One, because the conviction she brings to her character, the brillo-haired grandmother of main protagonist J.D. Vance — the real-life author of the 2016 book that the film is based upon, and who’s played as a young adult by Gabriel Basso and as a pudgy teenager by Owen Asztalos — feels raw and real.
Two, because “Mamaw” is pretty much the hero of the film — the blunt-spoken, tough-love butch boss who saves Vance from the horrific influence of his angry, drug-dependent mom (Amy Adams).
And three, because Close is now oh-for-seven in terms of Oscar wins (her first nomination happened 37 years ago for her Jenny performance in The World According to Garp), and everyone knows this narrative can’t be left hanging in the air.
As for the film itself, well…it’s well-crafted. And earnest. It has some good portions, some decent currents. If you’re fair-minded enough to ease up and cut it a little slack, you could give Hillbilly Elegy a passing grade. I certainly didn’t come away from it saying, “well, that stunk!” I came away saying “okay, it may not be a personal top-tenner, but it is what it is and does what it sets out to do.”
Several weeks ago I began hearing that Hillbilly Elegy was a problem, but when I finally saw it I couldn’t help but say “okay, it has issues and Adams’ downswirling mom is a terrible person to hang with, but the story is the story — how J.D. escaped from Southern Ohio and learned to walk his own path despite a dysfunctional family upbringing and dispiriting cultural influences…so at the end of the day it’s not that bad, or not by my standards.”
The other day I called it a “familiar-feeling people movie” — a personal-struggle thing that lets the audience know right away that things will work out for poor J.D. How do we know this? Because of Hans Zimmer and David Fleming‘s score. It tells you “this movie is going to behave in a certain way…it’s going to observe certain boundaries and deliver certain emotional satisfactions.” And that it does.
Said satisfactions are also rooted in the mellowish story-telling instincts of director Ron Howard. His films have always had a considerate, carefully measured quality. Despite the Hammer horror current generated by Adams’ Beverly Vance character (which drives and occupies most of the narrative) Hillbilly Elegy ends up in a place of assurance and stability.
I can’t think of anything more to say, to be honest. I’ll add to this if something comes to mind.
“Nihilist Hillbilly Dumbshits — A Brief Literary Visit to Trumpland,” posted on 8.1.16:
Yesterday a conservative-minded ex-girlfriend suggested that I read Kyle Smith‘s N.Y. Post review of J.D. Vance‘s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” The review (which also includes interview quotes) is titled “Why ‘White Trash’ Americans Are Flocking to Donald Trump.”
Vance is a successful blue-state guy (a “principal” at a Silicon Valley investment firm, lives in San Francisco with wife and family) but he comes from a hillbilly rustbelt town in Ohio, and apparently knows whereof he speaks about downmarket lifestyles and despairing Appalachian culture. A key passage from Smith’s review:
“When Vance returns home these days, he sees yard after yard festooned with Trump signs. Trump’s attacks on the media and political correctness make Vance’s people stand up and cheer. From the Democrats, they draw the same sense of condescension that struck Vance when, at Yale, another student said she couldn’t believe he was in the Marines because he was such a nice guy.
“Trump’s me-against-everybody combativeness, his refusal to back down, his vows to disrupt Washington deal-making are giving the hillbilly class a feeling they haven’t had in decades, [which is] that they’ve got a friend at the top.”
Economic background summary, according to Smith’s review: “Manufacturing shed 5 million jobs after 2000, giving way to welfare, drugs and despondency. The number of Americans receiving welfare of one kind or another exploded from 42 million (or 18.8 percent of Americans) in 1983 to 109 million (or 35 percent) in 2012. As America added 83 million citizens, then, it added 67 million welfare recipients — during a period of massive wealth creation. (Per-capita income rose from about $30,000 in 1983 to over $52,000 in 2012.)
“But Appalachians evidently have mixed feelings about [this]. They do want to turn back the clock, but not because they’re racist or afraid of modernity. They want to go back to having good-paying jobs. They want to go back to being proud of themselves and the things they produced. For years, they’ve essentially been told to sign up for welfare and shut up.
“Vance said he noticed as a child that his peers seemed to fall into two groups: ‘My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.'”
I got into a snippy Twitter discussion with the ex-girlfriend after reading Smith’s piece.
Me: I’ve read the review. These yokels would rather live in hell than wake up and get a clue. Lowest life forms.
She: You’re out of touch.
Me: And…what, you’re in touch for relating to or sympathizing with rural, under-educated, drug-addicted trash?
She: You expose yourself. Nothing for me to say.
Me: Save yourself, [name]. You’re better than this. Don’t take the James Woods path. It leads only to darkness.
She: Maybe you should write an article for your site or something, and stop insulting books and whites.
Me “Insulting whites”? Not me. Rural, hopeless dumbshits, okay, but not “whites.” They’re my tribe.
She: Right. So get a clue and stop insulting your tribe.
Me: Rust-belt, Oxycontin-inhaling, trailer-park Okies from Muskogee are not my tribe. I come from a culture of moderate middle-class values, hard work, education, erudition. You’ll forgive me if I don’t subscribe to your notion of race war or race division.
She: Blindspot! Blindspot!
11 hours ago Todd Alcott posted the following on Facebook: “I’ll say it again: Trump’s supporters don’t care what Ezra Klein thinks, they don’t care what Doris Kearns Goodwin thinks, they don’t care what George Stephanopoulos thinks. They don’t know what government is, they don’t care what government is, they don’t LIKE government. The New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times can publish a thousand think-pieces about how Trump is a dangerous idiotic sociopath between now and November, [and] none of it will reach his followers or change a single vote.”
My reply: “That’s unfortunately true about Trump supporters. Their lives have steadily been changed for the worse over the last 25 or 30 years, leaving them embittered by industries leaving the U.S. for cheaper labor overseas, and they’ve become enraged yokel nihilists without a smidgen of social conscience or perception.
“The dregs of society, furious, in many cases drug dependent….pathetic, really. No life, no hope, no faith in anything, cynical, no apparent allegiance to uplifting, positive-minded social or humanitarian values…just fretting about themselves and how shitty things are…fretting about ‘the other,’ consumed by a sense of futility and a sense of vague terror borne of a permanent downward spiral.”