The fine folks at Reelweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman's Place are currently hosting what they've lovingly dubbed The Lovely Lee Grant Blogathon, and I'm more than honored to be participating. Grant is an actress I've long admired, even if I haven't seen as many of her films as I'd like. She left a big impression on me as a kid in films like Damien: Omen II, Airport 77, and In The Heat of the Night, to name a few. This blogathon should go a long way towards proving why some of us think she's one of the best actresses of her generation.
|Her fabulousness is almost overwhelming.|
Critics and audiences have never thought very highly of Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)—if they even think of it at all. The plot is a typical whodunnit, featuring a cast of zany characters played by some talented actors like Roddy McDowell, Peter Ustinov, and Angie Dickinson, to name a few. There are completely bonkers car chases and absurdist physical comedy, making for a gonzo-style mishmash of goofy ingredients that never quite cohere into something workable. Yet beyond all of that it remains curiously notable for at least two very important reasons.
One, is that it's only the second film in the career of a young, baby-faced Michelle Pfeiffer. I doubt anyone predicted the impressive heights she would reach soon after this film—her breakout performance in Scarface (1983) came just two years later—but it's still fascinating to watch her, so new, so fresh, literally fumbling and bumbling around with the Charlie Chan's idiot-savant grandson. If not her finest moment, it's at least a charming one.
|Even while being swallowed alive by an out of control fur collar, she's still rocking the look.|
The second reason to check out the film is that it features the sort of performance Lee Grant is famous for—scorched earth, leave no prisoners behind, astonishingly committed, and absolutely brilliant. Frank Langella's blurb on the back cover of Grant's 2015 memoir, I Said Yes To Everything, sums it up perfectly:
Lee has lived her life and practiced her craft with reckless abandon, bravery, honesty and ultimately brutal clarity. You will want to be her friend, lover, child or student, and you will finish the final pages her ardent admirer. A ferocious and fragile woman who unapologetically states: For better or for worse, I’m right here!
Grant brings that reckless abandon and brutal clarity to her role as the widowed Mrs. Lupowitz, a woman who never met a dramatically raised eyebrow she couldn't match with passionate intensity. Few actors could play a scene where they're required to talk to their dead husband's ashes in an urn quite like Grant does. It's one of the film's high points, an utterly loopy and riotously funny moment, the kind this film could certainly use more of. That it was supplied by Grant should be no surprise: she survived the Hollywood Blacklist; conversing with an urn was a piece of cake.
|Baby Pfeiffer, learning a thing or two from the legendary Lee Grant.|
Grant does her best to provide these moments every time she gracefully enters the frame, bless her soul. When she appears, you hold your breath, knowing something great is about to happen. It's the little things that Grant brings to the performance that make it so memorable. A sidelong glance here, a haughty laugh there. A bemused smirk seguing masterfully into mock indignation. She's simply marvelous.
That she turns in such a commanding, assured, and delightful performance in a film this forgettable is, frankly, a minor miracle. It's a testament to her greatness, and it's also something she shares with her costar, Michelle Pfeiffer. The young ingénue wasn't quite Michelle Pfeiffer yet, but maybe it's possible she learned a trick or two from watching Grant on the set. Before Pfeiffer was famous for making any film in which she appeared better than it otherwise was, Grant was doing the same.
If you're ever on the fence about watching one of Lee Grant's films—maybe the plot doesn't interest you, or the reviews were mediocre—just know that if Lee Grant is in it, then it's most definitely worth your time.