Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Friday, April 08, 2005

David Edelstein

Gorillas in the Mist is a banalized bio-pic, but it does give Sigourney Weaver a role of some stature, intelligence, and wigginess--and Weaver is a big, smart, wiggy performer, long in search of the right part. She used to think too much on screen: She could seem guarded, noncommital, as if she were harboring some private joke or resentment. Thinking isn't a barrier to great acting, but you have to think in character; Weaver's peculiar blend of goofiness and anger set her apart from the people she played. (She seemed squirmy about her beauty, too, as if afraid it would misrepresent her.) But Weaver is going for broke these days. A new fearlessness has entered her acting--she'll inhabit a part if it kills her. In roles that require steeliness, obseesion, and a thin skin, she has flourished, and she has held on to her sense of absurdity; she isn't afraid to look foolish. As Dian Fossey, she is magnificent. . . .

Gorillas in the Mist views Dian Fossey as a ferocious saint, martyr, and mad-woman, a sort of Joan of Apes. . . . Weaver gets deep inside Fossey's obsession--her fury becomes contagious.

She's in a rage from the start, hammering on Dr. Leakey . . . for a job . . . We don't know why gorillas are thing (the movie doesn't tell you that she's wanted to do this all her life and had already been to Africa), but we sense that this isn't just another strident broad--there's something primal in her bitchiness. The problem is that we're not allowed to watch her work. . . . Apted isn't interested in process--he want results fast. But process is the essence of Fossey's story. The suspense in documentaries of Jane Goodall's life among baboons comes from how she teaches them to trust her, creeping a little closer to them every day; but Gorillas in the Mist glides right over the essential moments, the minutiae. . . .

. . . . [T]o ram the injustice . . . home, there are plenty of sequences in which baby gorillas frolic (to nauseating [?] music) and Weaver grins her wide, little-girl grin.

Weaver's acting is frolicsome, too, and she's more fun to watch than the apes. To make the gorillas comfortable with her, she tries to adopt their mannerisms; watching her lope, scratch, and screech, you sense what makes her special as an actress--she's game for anything. Fossey and Weaver converge here: This could be how Weaver trains for a part. Eventually, Fossey's identification with the gorillas becomes total. . . . Weaver's visage even grows more apelike--the jaw becomes fuller, lumpier. [According to Denby, Weaver used dental templates.] More important, she's thinking like a gorilla. She adopts their mannerisms because they make sense to her--they're the most efficient way to express her rage. (It's lucky that the filmmakers didn't cast a more technically flamboyant actress, because then the metamorphosis might seem a joke.)

Fossey actually went much further than Weaver does here . . . . [The movie] trivializes her achievements (she was an accomplished writer as well as a bitch), and then it trivializes her mental illness. The film goes to great lengths to suggest that for Fossey, Digit is almost a lover--she is submissive to him as to no one else, coquettish, lying supine, her hand outstretched to touch his. She reacts to his murder as an infuriated spouse . . . .

There's something crude about all this--she's Miss Lonelyapes--and yet Weaver pulls it off. It's never a dirty joke about a woman's big-ape fantasies--her expression suggests rapture, and the apes, with their squarish heads and enormous stature, seem worthy of it. The performance has elements of an epiphany--literally, a transformation of a human being into something different. [Sure, we're different from, but how different are we from gorillas?] Those who think of acting as a religion will come away shaken, blessed.

David Edelstein
Village Voice, October 4, 1988
[A religion, now? My.]

David Ansen

"Dian Fossey--one of the most acclaimed and controversial anthropologists of recent times--is a figure of such resonant contradictions perhaps only a great novelist could do her justice. [Streep could have played her well (and have Fonda play Streep's part in Cry in Dark)] Hollywood movie studios, however, do not make their fortunes on resonant contradictions. The big screen has always encouraged myth-making, so it should comes as not great surprise that the Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Mist, stunningly played by Sigourney Weaver, emerges as a figure far more noble than neurotic, a dasing, courageous colossus of animal rights whose methods on behalf of her beloved, endangered gorillas may have gotten a wee bit extreme toward the end, but all in the name of a good cause. . . .

Still, the spectacle of Sigourney Weaver hunkering down with a family of real gorillas is quite irresistible. That one is admiring Weaver and the crew for their fortitude as much as Fossey at these moments doesn't diminish the breathtaking charm of these scenes. The audience, falling in love with the apes as she did, naturally gets emotionally sucked into the Fossey cause . . . But by turning the poachers into convenient villains the movie irresponsibly evades the tragic complexities of the tale. . . . [This may be true, but do critics say this whenever humans treat other humans unjustly? There's another side, then, too.]

"Gorillas in the Mist" is well worth seeing for Weaver's gutsy, beautifully shaded performance, for its African landscapes and for its glimpse, however incomplete, into a fascinating woman whose virtues and vices are still being hotly debated. It's odd, however, given how passionately the movie champions Fossey's work, that one comes away with so little hard knowledge about gorillas. . . .

David Ansen
Newsweek, dat

Stanley Kauffmann

. . . . [Dian Fossey] was the American naturalist who . . . went to Rwanda to study gorillas . . . [and] became (one can say) a friend of theirs . . . In the course of her increasing infatuation with the gorillas, Fossey became angrily protective of them . . . She very soon appointed herself the gorillas' guardian and got in various broils with the law throught her passionate arrogance.

This progress, from scientific-humane interest to near-mania, is well-enough drawn by Sigourney Weaver, as Fossey. But WEaver is handicapped by a script that clutters Fossey's impulses with movie mechanics. . . . [LO] Even her concern for animals is made suspect. When a zoo agent captures a baby gorilla, she is enraged, opens the agent's van, and takes out the small caged creature. But she leaves a bird and a snake in their cages. Don't they count? [whatever, it's not exactly equivalent, is it? or is it?]

The film has a peculiar undertone about sex. Fossey has reached the point where she can go out and sit amid gorillas and be treated as a companion. She is particularly fond of a big male. At one point when he approaches, she lies down on her back. He does nothing futher, but what if he had? (Weaver herself, with Stanislavskian subscription, writing of her experience on location in the October Life, says of a particular male: "If a female from the Suza Group doesn't transfer to him one of these days, I'll be surprised. I certainly would.") Fossey's sexual views are further bent. . . . [Kauffmann notes Fossey's anger at the two students she catches in bed, although Fossey herself has an affair with a married man.] Only she, among humans, is permitted sex in gorilla country?

Weaver's success in becoming friends with the gorillas is the only really interesting element in the film, but even this intimacy sparks suspicions. Was all of it genuine? All those close-ups of gorilla hands in hers? No special effects? The program credits five mime artists and their choreographer. What did they mime? Gorillas, perhaps?

Stanley Kauffmann
New Republic
fill in?

David Denby

“It's been said that to play tragedy, an actor needs to be tall; and by the same elementary rules of justice, the same should be true of actresses. In this fall's Gorillas in the Mist--the passion play of murdered American primatologist Dian Fossey--Sigourney Weaver has at last found a role worthy of her stature. Fossey . . . saved a species of magnificent mountain gorillas almost certain extinction. But at a terrible cost.

In the early scenes, Dian, in her middle thirties, finds herself on her own, a lone white woman in central Africa, and Weaver, making her tense and a bit angry, does things she ahs done before. But when Dian reaches her mountaintop in Rwanda and finds the gorillas, the performance begins to bloom. At first the animals are wary, holding back from the slender, smooth, remarkably un-gorillalike beauty curled up on the ground. But soon they grow curious, nuzzling her, finally taking her hand, and the chip drops off Weaver's shoulder. By turns she is awed and fiercely protective. Dian Fossey's salvationist role set [sic] her in inevitable opposition to the native poachers who had slaughtered the animals for generations, cutting off hands and heads and selling them to traders as sourvenirs. When Dian's favorite, the silver-backed male Digit, is killed, the rage that has been boiling in Weaver explodes.

Half Medea, half Savonarola, Fossey burns down native huts, kidnaps a child, stages a mock hanging; and through all of this, Weaver's anger grows more scarily self-righteous. As she stalks around her mountaintop, her jaw juts, the color drains from her face, and her mouth is set ferociously (some dental templates help). She is not just angry but dictatorial, inhuman in her fury. "Dian's anger was so cold--a cold blue flame," she says. "By the end, in the scenes before she's murdered, I felt I was on a roll. Everything had built toward the end, and I felt I could let go."

It was perhaps the boldest letting go thus far for an extremely elegant woman . . . .

David Denby
New York, Fall Preview, date?

I can think of few recent performances that have dominated a movie as thoroughly as Sigourney Weaver dominates Gorillas in the Mist. Through its first half, . . . [a] heroine stuggles against reversals to perform a great deed. But then the obsessional side of Dian Fossey's character takes over, and Weaver becomes a hurricane. Fossey enters her own heart of darkness, from which death is the only release.

Early on, as Fossey approaches the great naturalist Louis Leakey . . ., Weaver seems a little stiff; and when Fossey arrives in the Congo and suffers her initial problems . . ., Weaver makes her tense, huffy, a rather dislikably self-centered woman who, in our eyes (though perhaps not in the filmmakers'), prsumes a larger degree of cooperation in a war-torn country than she probably should. . . . [T]he movie is entirely incurious about the native cultures Fossey is busting into and attempting to instruct. Only Fossey's drives and needs matter. [The point, of course, is that the gorillas' drives and needs matter, too.] That the poacher who slaughter the gorillas for profit might be hungry and have no other way of earning aliving isn't an issue anyone raises.

But all is forgiven when Dian Fossey . . . comes into contact with the animals . . . .

[After Fossey's lover, the photographer played by Bryan Brown, leaves,] the true Passion of Dian Fossey commences. Fossey becomes the surrogate mother of a species. Fighting the Batwa poachers and the white trader who hires them, she sustains the kind of rage that enhances and diminishes a human being at the same time. Weaver stalks around her mountain domain, her jaw jutting out, her shoulders hunched forward. She looks more and more like a gorilla, though far less gentle, giving full rein to Fossey's prudishness, censoriousness, cruelty. Could Fossey have saved the animals with diplomacy or by finding other ways for the Batwa to make money? The movie doesn't ask: perhaps it shouldn't. This Dian Fossey is a tragic figure. She is to be feared and pitied.

David Denby
New York, October 3, 1988

Pauline Kael

“As the anthropologist Dian Fossey . . ., Sigourney Weaver storms into a large hotel restaurant in central Africa, stalks the length of the room, delivers a strident tongue-lashing to a Dutch zoo broker who's having lunch with his friends, and, cursing loudly, makes her exit--all the while carrying a good-sized baby gorilla in her arms, holding it tenderly, with awe. Weaver's phystical strength alone is inspiring in this move, and there's a new freedom in her acting. She's so vivid that you immediately feel Dian Fossey's will and drive. Weaver's Dian is ecstatic when she steps off the plane in Afreica, and she's enraptured when she's perched high up on a mountain, crouched down opposite a giant gorilla, mimicking his language and gestrues from the inside--trying to think the way he does. Weaver is something to see. What happens between her and the animals is really happening (or, at least, appears to be), and there's joy in it. It makes everything else--all the acted-out passion and heroism and melodramea of Dian Fossey's eighteen years on her mountain--seem tired.Error! Reference source not found.

. . . . [W]e never see Dian learn much of anything about primates or about our origins. Instead, we see her arrive in Africa, form an emotional attachment to a gorilla family, and cut herself off more and more from people, until she's a fiercely maternal harridan who can't work with anyone. By then, Weaver's jaw juts out stubbornly; in her mania, Dian becomes apelike. Yet when she thinks of happy times with her favorites, her face is transformed. She blooms. Weaver acts the way she's built--she's monumental.

. . . Michael Apted . . . and . . . Anna Hamilton Phelan . . . probably want us to be inspired by Dian Fossey as an activist heroine--a woman who made a difference. . . . But they didn't find a way to fit this inspirational idea into their account of Dian Fossey's becoming convinced that she was the only one who knew how to protect the gorillas, and operating like a half-crazed terrorist. (In her later years, she probably damaged her cause.) . . . .

Pauline Kael
Movie Love, pp 5-6

Tuesday, January 18, 2005