In 1991 the New York Times marked the “earth-shattering news” that Pauline Kael was retiring by interviewing her. The great iconoclast of film criticism, whose put-downs made her unpopular with publicists but delighted readers of the New Yorker for more than twenty years, nevertheless found much to admire in the latest crop of Hollywood stars. She listed among her favourites Tim Robbins, Annette Bening, Uma Thurman, John Cusack and Wesley Snipes. That this is a list of some of the most significant screen actors of the two decades since Kael’s retirement is a testament to her uncannily splendid taste. That it features one of the special guest hosts for the House of SpeakEasy’s opening gala — Uma Thurman — is merely delightful coincidence!
On the night of the gala, Uma Thurman will be leading guests through “The Tip of My Tongue”. The Oscar-nominated actress will read out selections from three mystery books, all carefully chosen to reflect the theme of the evening (“Plays With Matches”), and invite the audience to identify the title, the author, and the decade in which the books were written. The winner will receive signed books from the authors appearing at the gala.
Thurman began her acting career at seventeen, four years before her anointment by Kael. In those early years she had a small part in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, narrowly escaped a starring role in Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and fell for the insidious charms of John Malkovich’s Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. She was also well reviewed for her performance in Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June, in which she played June Miller, wife of Tropic of Cancer author Henry, caught up in the sexual machinations of her husband and Anaïs Nin in 1930s Paris.
And then came Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction.
Its “154 deliciously lurid minutes” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) probably contain a higher concentration of iconic moments and dialogue than any movie since Francis Ford Coppola’s run of masterpieces in the 1970s. But ask pretty much anyone which scene they found most memorable, and it’s the dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where Thurman and John Travolta boogie on down to Chuck Berry. At my secondary school the VHS of Pulp Fiction circulated faster than rumour and everyone was doing this dance. I realise now, rewatching it, that my every move even today is a shameless plagiarism.
Thurman followed an Oscar nomination for Pulp Fiction with significant performances in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), Gattaca (1997), Les Misérables (1998) and the TV movie Hysterical Blindness (2002), which won her a Golden Globe. And then QT came a-knocking once more.
Warning: violence and language (arguably my favourite MPAA euphemism) follow.
Kill Bill, Thurman’s next collaboration with Tarantino, won her more accolades, including two further Golden Globe nominations. As with her Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, her performance as the Bride/Beatrix Kiddo was immediately iconic. Aside from the physical demands of the role — exemplified by this brilliant clip from the start of Vol. 1 — the Bride showcased Thurman’s facility in tragedy. The great anagnorisis in Kill Bill, when, more than three hours into the story, she comes face to face with the infant daughter she had presumed dead, is profoundly moving. No mean feat in a film characterised by its extravagant stylistic effects and fantastic violence.
The years since have given us Be Cool (2005), Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010), Bel Ami (2012), and an Emmy nomination for Thurman’s guest role in NBC’s Smash.
But what’s next?
Now I’m a big fan of Lars von Trier but I will concede that he hardly rules over a land of critical consensus. Nevertheless, his next film, NYMPH()MANIAC (warning: link probably NSFW), to be released in the US in two parts (on March 21 and April 18 respectively), has received excellent early reviews. Based on five of these, Metacritic currently has NYMPH()MANIAC: Volume 1 scoring at 80% while Rotten Tomatoes, from eight reviews, rates it 100% fresh. Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent picks out Thurman’s “tremendous” performance, Todd McCarthy calls her “ferocious”, while the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks opts for a laconic but vivid “electrifying”. Can’t wait.