Frances McDormand Is an Unpredictable Curmudgeon in HBO’s Magnificent Olive Kitteridge

When we first meet the title character in Olive Kitteridge, she considers the revolver in her hands and looks up at the cloudless sky above the woods one last time. The 25-year journey (and the accumulation of mistakes and bad luck therein) that leads the elderly Olive to that moment of despair unfurls in director Lisa Cholodenko’s (The Kids Are All Right) two-night, four-hour HBO miniseries (airing at 9 p.m. on Sunday, November 2, and Monday, November 3).

Olive’s played by Frances McDormand, who optioned Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning novel and, with Cholodenko, has created one of the most captivatingly complicated screen characters in recent memory: a small-town wife, mother, and math teacher with a zealotry for frankness that accelerates her undoing. In possession of an acid tongue that could corrode steel, Olive wears her intelligence like a crown. She even holds up her family’s history of depression to her adoring husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), and resentful son, Christopher (Devin Druid as a teenager and John Gallagher Jr. as an adult), as a badge of superiority: “Happy to have it. Comes with being smart.”

The miniseries allows us to indulge in the unkind pleasures of Olive’s truth-bombs, but it’s also keenly interested in exploring the inevitable results of her callous honesty: her social isolation, her self-importance and self-doubt, and the eventual erosion of her ability to feel compassion. Olive is no simple lovable curmudgeon like the one co-star Bill Murray plays in the current theatrical release St. Vincent. Her tragedy lies not in her imperious mistreatment of others, but in her genuine bafflement when told she’s intolerably cruel, even if her assessments are wholly correct.

Olive wasn’t always so clueless. Cholodenko’s masterful miniseries, told mostly in chronological order with the occasional flashback or -forward, is a fascinating study of the transition from middle to old age, as well as a poignant portrait of hard-to-bridge parent-child relationships. It also paints impressionistic pictures of the kind of New England hamlet where all the smart kids leave and know better than to come back as it changes over a quarter of a century: Chain stores take over; vacationers have to be tolerated. Suddenly it’s no longer fashionable to sew one’s own dress.

But Olive Kitteridge is most powerful when it focuses on the central couple’s mutually admiring, equally wandering-eyed, entirely codependent union. Theirs is the kind of marriage rarely seen on screen — an obviously imperfect match, but a sufficiently functional one nonetheless. The miniseries’ first chapter illustrates how well they work together even while projecting most of their romantic sentiments elsewhere. Henry gives a local depressive (Rosemarie DeWitt) pep talks when she comes in to fill her prescriptions, while Olive visits her at home after school. Meanwhile, Henry nurses a crush on his new, doll-like assistant (Zoe Kazan), whose doe-eyed helplessness makes him feel important, while Olive steals flirty moments with the English teacher at the school (Peter Mullan).

And yet, Olive and Henry’s relationship isn’t without passion, even ardor, at least on his part. Henry buys her greeting cards and flowers just because, and even when she tries to justify throwing them out with the dinner leftovers with explanations like “I already read it” and “you know I don’t like clutter,” she fishes them out of the garbage can and displays it by the kitchen window for his sake. Some years later, he brings her another uxorious greeting card, signed only with a simple “H.” She rewards his spontaneous affectionateness with a deep hug even while wordlessly judging him for his slight effort.

Cholodenko ably blends heartrending drama and black humor, especially when Olive opens her mouth to add her sardonic commentary to the proceedings. (Sometimes she needn’t even say a word; in a delightfully earthy detail, Olive intermittently punctuates a conversation with a burp, especially around those she believes to be putting on airs.) The absolute comic highlight of the miniseries happens to be one of its most devastating scenes, when Olive and Henry can’t help bickering about long-held grudges — which leads to confessions of some potentially marriage-threatening secrets — as they have a gun held to their heads by a robber. Winning an argument for the Kitteridges is graver than a life-or-death situation.

The first installment also boasts a sizable body count, with a pair of violent deaths in the first hour and a couple of possible suicide attempts in the second. There’s no need for a dead blonde to wash ashore in a plastic sheet — ordinary life holds plenty of mysteries and misfortune. “Save us from shotguns and fathers’ suicides,” reads a note at the local bar, quoting the poet John Berryman. Since the narrative skips over months and years, the miniseries occasionally feels lacking in any other momentum than the inexorableness of death, especially in the first half. But the changes in Olive’s relationships with Henry and Christopher reveal just how crucial that overall sense of storytelling over two decades and a half is to where our protagonist ends up — and how she might survive it.

The passage of time isn’t as visible on McDormand’s face as it is in the costumes and sets, but otherwise the Fargo actress is superb: formidable as a mountain and moody as the sea. Her droll one-liners land in the most cutting way possible, and she manages a kind of pugnacious verbal tango with Jenkins, who movingly evinces Henry’s innocence and emotional neediness, as well as his inadequacies as a spouse.

“People are never as helpless as they think they are,” declares Olive at a funeral, partly to reassure a mourner that she’ll survive the death of her loved one, partly so she can be done with comforting that mourner already. Just because she’s self-reliant doesn’t mean Olive can’t use all the help she can get.



When Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature film, High Art, came out in 1998, The Advocate said, “It just might be the film that wins the lesbian crossover success sweepstakes.” The gay mag got the film wrong, but the filmmaker right. More than a decade later, Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right scored a Best Picture Golden Globe and has just garnered an Oscar nomination. While it tells the story of a family feud in an otherwise fully functional lesbian home, High Art dove into the dysfunctional world of the early-’90s girl-on-girl junkie art scene. Ally Sheedy is captivating as Lucy Berliner, a former star photographer who takes a young photo editor under her wing and into bed; Patricia Clarkson plays Lucy’s lover, a washed-up German actress. The film screens tonight as part of the series “Before They Were Nominated.”

Thu., Feb. 3, 7:30 p.m., 2011


Year in Film: Girl on Girl Action Gets Screwed

”It’s not about lesbians—it’s about family!” one straight critic and friend corrected me during a brief discussion of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, one of the year’s most critically lauded films, placing #21 in this year’s Village Voice Film Poll. Her remark, meant as high praise of the film’s universal (read: non-lavender) appeal, bugged this tetchy dyke—until I realized what out director/co-screenwriter Cholodenko herself had made invisible, or at least joyless: lesbian sex.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), the long-married couple of Kids, try to stave off bed death by popping in a DVD of ’70s-era gay-male porn; Nic watches impassively while Jules, buried under the duvet, goes to work, vibrator faintly whirring and her head bobbing ever so slightly. A snafu with the remote makes it cunnilingus interruptus, though on their TV, two dudes have just begun some sweaty ass-pounding. The writhing of the porn actors, however, is no match for the gymnastic rutting Jules will later enjoy with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the sperm donor for Nic and Jules’s two teenage children.

“Human sexuality is complicated, and sometimes desire can be counterintuitive,” Jules explains to her 15-year-old son, who, after discovering his moms’ secret stash of blue movies, wants to know why they like to watch two guys get it on. This didactic explanation—played for laughs but also a main premise of the film—could also apply to Jules’s affair with Paul; she may have a penis in her vagina, but she still unequivocally identifies as gay.

Yes, Cholodenko’s well-written, exceptionally performed film is smart and bold enough to address some uncomfortable truths about the fluidity of sexuality using graphic representation of . . . man-on-man and man-on-woman couplings. But why must a crossover film by a lesbian director about a complex lesbian couple be devoid of lesbian lust?

In 2010, as in years past, onscreen sapphic sex appeared in the form of softcore girl-on-girl action served up as queasy titillation in stories about straights. The “steamy” same-sex sex Moore wasn’t enjoying with Bening in Kids she does have with Amanda Seyfried in Atom Egoyan’s ridiculous marital thriller Chloe. But shortly after Seyfried diddles Moore in a hotel room, she will reveal herself to be what several cinematic lavender leaners have been in pre-Stonewall decades past: mentally ill. I’m not sure which DSM-IV code best applies to Natalie Portman in Black Swan: Did the howling orgasm Mila Kunis’s tongue provided really happen? Or was Portman’s cracked dancer, Nina, actually going down on herself? (Note to the American Psychiatric Association: Reconsider the markers for narcissistic personality disorder!)

In light of Cholodenko’s frustrating hedging, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s I Love You Phillip Morris seems even more radical in its depiction of homo desire. Based on the true story of a newly out con man Steven Russell (played, in a career-defining performance, by Jim Carrey), ILYPM is also, in a way, a story about a family. Before charging out of the closet, Russell is a devoted dad and husband, even if nightly congress with his besotted wife, Debbie, is done with a chore-like sense of obligation. But even after fully embracing his faggotry—no longer buck wilding with a mustached bottom in secret—Steven remains close with Debbie and a dutiful parent (though some may question the appropriateness of sending wads of unmarked bills as a Christmas present). In its own outrageous way, ILYPM makes its charming horndog sociopath the most multifaceted queer character of the year: one who treasures his family as much as he loves doing it with his boyfriend.

For the 2010 film poll results, go to


The Kids Are All Right

Dir. Lisa Cholodenko (2010)
Serious comedy, full of good-natured innuendo, The Kids Are All Right gives adolescent coming-of-age and the battle of the sexes a unique twist, in part by creating a romantic triangle between a devoutly bourgeois lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and their merrily free-spirited sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). Despite its ’60s rock-and-roll title, it’s a pretty conservative movie-particularly compared to Cholodenko’s previous works.

Wed., Dec. 29, 7 p.m., 2010


Lesbian Family Values in The Kids Are All Right

Serious comedy, powered by an enthusiastic cast and full of good-natured innuendo, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right gives adolescent coming-of-age and the battle of the sexes a unique twist, in part by creating a romantic triangle between a long-standing, devoutly bourgeois lesbian couple Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and the newly identified, merrily free-spirited sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), responsible for both the couple’s teenage children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson).

Normality, as made clear by the introductory family dinner that features two mothers acting all motherly, rules. The kids refer to their American-as-apple-pie parents in the plural, as in “that really hurt the moms’ feelings.” (The moms’ designated kink is their occasional use of gay male porn as an aphrodisiac—although even this gets an amusingly didactic explanation.) Whereas Cholodenko’s two previous features, High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2003), each focused on an innocent young woman swept up in the glamorously baffling sex-and-drugs scene swirling around a charismatic older female artist, the situation here is reversed; unexpectedly drawn in to and fascinated by the ultra-domestic household created by a pair of charismatic femmes, the swinger is the straight man (literally).

A happily hippified gardener-/restaurateur-cum-sex-object, Paul is introduced balling his employees and otherwise spreading his (organic) seed. “I love lesbians!” is his initial response upon coming face-to-face with his grown-up spermatozoa and being informed of their family situation. Although it was the 15-year-old Laser who prompted the father-and-child reunion, he’s a sensitive jock who’s put off by blithely diffident Paul’s lack of enthusiasm for team sports; on the other hand, big sister Joni, still a virgin on the eve of college, finds this groovy stud really cool (as in hot). And so does Jules, especially after Paul engages her to landscape his backyard. (Unlike her workaholic doctor spouse, she has a bit of time on her hands.) We can tell where this is going when she describes Paul’s overgrown grounds as “fecund.”

Cholodenko’s previous features have amply demonstrated her talent for directing actresses. High Art (1998), her genuinely edgy debut, gave aged-out brat-packer Ally Sheedy the opportunity to give her first real adult performance as a reclusive photographer, while memorably showcasing then-unknown Patricia Clarkson as Sheedy’s hilariously Teutonic lover; Laurel Canyon (2003) provided the much-abused Frances McDormand with a rare opportunity to strut her stuff and even extracted a more than default-decorative turn from Kate Beckinsale. Given a reliably stellar duo in Bening and Moore, Cholodenko makes their rapport her key performance. The actresses are loose and funny, trading off big scenes and clearly enjoying themselves throughout. The acerbic Nic gets the best lines (“I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!” she snaps, when Paul presumes to offer her parenting advice) and even gets to drunkenly yowl her way through Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” although Jules has the movie’s pre-eminent solo of truth.

Premiered last January at Sundance, The Kids Are All Right triggered considerable discussion as well as a lively bidding war. The excitement is unsurprising. Despite, or perhaps in accordance with, its ’60s rock-and-roll title, it’s actually a pretty conservative movie—particularly when compared to Cholodenko’s previous works. Given its juicy premise, The Kids could have been played for sitcom, reality show, or soap opera—had it been made in 1970, it might have been an Echo Park Teorema, with everyone winding up in bed together. Ten years into the 21st century, it’s a heartfelt poster for family values. Everything new is old again.


Sizzling Blind Gossip Items for Days!

Men are the worst. In The Kids Are All Right, a lesbian couple finds that their old anonymous sperm donor has stumbled back into their lives, which prompts one of them to tell him, “I need your observations like I need a dick in my ass!” while the other decides she’d love the observations and the appendage.

The result is the kind of trouble that could have made for a glorified sitcom, but this being a seriously made dramedy, with savvy performances by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as “Pony” and “Chicken” and Mark Ruffalo as the jazzy jizzpot, it becomes a stimulating character study, not to mention Bening’s second cinematic endorsement of family this year. (See J. Hoberman’s review of The Kids Are All Right here.)

(By the way, you might even see an echo of her real-life clan. In Kids, Bening’s daughter screeches, “I’m 18 years old!” as she demands the right to make adult decisions for herself—shades of Bening’s born daughter, Kathlyn, the 18-year-old who’s defiantly living as Steve and report-edly transitioning?)

Anyway, at a Rouge Tomate luncheon for the film last week, director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko told me she never had to jump in during filming and tell Bening and Moore stuff like, “A lesbian would never do that!” “That was the amazing thing,” she said. “They’re just really great actors who went beyond the gender identity thing and became three-dimensional people that happened to be lesbians.” (See also Ella Taylor’s interview with Cholodenko here.)

In life, Cholodenko happens to have a four-year-old son, so I jokingly asked if she knows who the father is. “No!” she replied, sincerely. “It was an anonymous sperm donor. The film came about because I started posing my own personal questions like, ‘What’s this gonna be like in 18 years?’ ” This has to be one of the very rare occurrences where sperm contributed to the making of an arthouse classic.

“The couple in the film is like any other couple,” the ever-game Ruffalo told me at the same event. “They’re like me and my wife. I’ve seen it three times, and, quickly into the movie, the novelty of lesbian marriage with the teenage kids and the sperm donor dad melts away, and the audience is laughing because they’re seeing their own families up there.”

Is Ruffalo all right with becoming the face of seed givers for all time? “I’m gonna be the poster boy for sperm donors,” he said, going along with this gambit. “But I don’t know if I’m an example of the kind of sperm you want.” “I’m a gay male,” I cracked. “I want any sperm.” “We’ll let that fall flat,” he generously said, smiling, as I crawled away.

“All couples must be boy-girl” is a line from the 1978 movie Grease, though John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John went beyond the gender identity thing and became three-dimensional people who happened to be heteros. In the disillusioned 1970s, Grease provided a candy-colored, escapist throwback to the far simpler 1950s, the musical allowing the Watergate/Vietnam generation to check their tortured minds at the door and just smile a lot. So it makes perfect sense that in the even more desperate Teens, we’re going back to Grease‘s ’70s view of the ’50s, a double dose of nostalgia to distract from oil spills and Dow plummets.

And there’s a very now twist being added; in this age of social-networking fame for every human on earth, it’s being shown in a sing-along version, in which you’re the star. Last week, I saw Grease Sing-a-Long, which has the lyrics, along with giddy animation effects, guiding you through the numbers, as well as a chorus of voices added to the soundtrack. (That actually made me want to sing less; it felt like the singing-along was already taken care of. But I soared nonetheless on “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” and especially “Greased Lightning.”)

Didi Conn, who played the beauty-school dropout Frenchie, was there to egg the crowd on and explain that it’s a movie about “your first love, your first car, your first heartbreak.” Privately, I asked Conn for her first Grease memories, and she said, “The first things that come to mind are John Travolta’s lips. And looking at the cleft in his chin. Then again, there were Frankie Avalon‘s lips, too. I was a little horny in those days!” Did she even get hot for Eve Arden? “Don’t start a whole thing!” she said, laughing. All couples must be boy-girl.

At Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival of Queer Performance and Culture, ’50s nostalgia came with drag and interracial twists as the Tweed company redid Picnic, the simmering tale of small-town frustration, and made it into the very funny Pic-up! A Summer Romance. In this version, the pretty sister licks whipped cream off the goony sister’s arm, the black drifter mounts people from behind, and he and his old buddy are much chummier than anyone in Grease (onscreen, that is).

Fourteen Blind Items and Some Rhetorical Questions
But enough with overt displays of sperm donation in small towns. Let’s go for the hidden, seamy, big-city stuff, while leaving out the names, to make it extra hideous.

And so: Which fashion publicist texted that gay club regular: “What about our sexy lunch date Friday? Will you be the dessert at my apartment after lunch? Hahaha”? When the sex relationship didn’t work out, which same flack texted the guy epithets involving words like “kike” and “ugly, pencil dick”? Isn’t this even worse than you’d expect from a fashion publicist?

Which departed gay party promoter poignantly enough owed tons of gay rent money when he died? Which composer doesn’t bathe or change clothes much and generally smells like month-old fish? (People who’ve put him up for weekends have noted that—but they’re still honored to have him, mind you.) Which ex-supermodel once threw a pair of scissors at her hairdresser because she didn’t like her ‘do? (She wisely handed him some settlement cash on the spot to avoid any judicial vengeance.)

Which old-time star has emerged as a big lesbian in her twilight years, and no one’s all that surprised? Which monthly magazine that owes a major contributor $30,000 just nobly sent him a check for $500, acting like that pretty much settles it? Which superstar’s son is now a blowsy-looking crystal addict, sadly enough?

Which composernot the one who smells—nixed an all-skating finale to his latest revival? (For the revival before that, he vetoed a big geisha number, even after all the hugely expensive costumes were made. I’m not saying he was wrong, though.) Which Tony winner has a lot of cynics speculating that she was coked out of her mind judging from her behavior all season, though there’s no hard evidence of that? Which smart person who worked on the last Tony telecast is running around blabbing about how horrible Lea Michele was in her performance?

Which hot mess was going to have reality show cameras following one of her recent creative endeavors, but she must have realized they were setting her up to fail, so she didn’t sign? Which stars are more smacked out on heroin than Janis Joplin ever was, and the studio is getting a little worried? Which playwright/screenwriter spends most of his time bitching out the Hollywood system and how it done him wrong? Might he have a point? Can newspapers please stop writing articles about the sudden return of the club kid aesthetic? (It’s been going on for four whole years, thank you!) Why are men such pigs? Please tell me, oh Pony and Chicken.


Talking With The Kids Are All Right Director Lisa Cholodenko

In The Kids Are All Right, two affluent hyper-parents fret about their marriage as well as their teenaged children, the elder of whom is leaving for college while the younger struggles to find his place in the world. Enter a tall, dark stranger to muddy the latently troubled waters, and you have the makings of a big, fat Hollywood hit with comprehensive demographic coverage.

The catch is that Lisa Cholodenko’s hugely entertaining domestic comedy, which opens in New York next week, is rated R, and that its bourgie couple, Nic and Jules, likes to wind down by watching a little gay male porn in bed. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where The Kids Are All Right was greeted with rapture, and in Berlin, where it won a Teddy for Award for Best Feature Film, nobody made a big deal out of the fact that the leads are a lesbian couple, played by two high-profile heterosexual actresses, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Or that their son (Josh Hutcherson) creates havoc by reaching out to the hitherto anonymous donor (Mark Ruffalo) whose high-quality sperm helped bring him and his sister (Mia Wasikowska) to life.

Then again, film festival audiences are a reliably gushing fountain of liberal sympathy. How will The Kids Are All Right play with conservatives, I ask Cholodenko, who is fielding press at Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel? “I have the feeling that, in spite of themselves, people are going to enjoy it. That was our intention: ‘You know what? You don’t think you’re going to relate to this, but you are.’ ” Cholodenko’s co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, a Hollywood scribe who also wrote Keeping the Faith (2000), tactfully concedes that the far right is “not the film’s prime demographic.” “But,” he adds by phone from New York, “the broad swath won’t be put off, because this is a movie about two bickering, long-married people.”

Blumberg is right. The joke that drives this strategically mainstream comedy is that the parents are an utterly conventional married couple whose vibe owes more to Tony Randall and Jack Klugman than to any overtly gay screen union I can think of. As Jules, a fortysomething overgrown child who has yet to find her calling, Moore may have snagged the movie’s showstopping set pieces. But it’s Bening, a control freak in cropped hair and a critically appraising stare, who serves up its funniest and most savage lines. The actress also makes a compelling case for neurotically take-charge moms who tenaciously hold the household together when its edges start to fray.

With her willowy figure and lengthy résumé of glamourpusses and nurturers, Bening wasn’t an intuitive choice for the abrasive Nic. While casting the role shortly after she and Blumberg committed to a shift from drama to full-court comedy, Cholodenko recalls deciding that Bening’s role “had to be someone who’s like Mamma Bear, sardonic and lovable even though she can be a bitch or a grouch, and, at that late age, still really sexy. There were moments in American Beauty that just slayed me, when Annette was standing in front of the pool having a meltdown as she was trying to sell that house. She has this robust spirit, and she can move between comedy and drama with such ease.”

Bening’s husband, Warren Beatty, reportedly pronounced The Kids Are All Right “avant-garde.” That’s a stretch for a picture as ardently commercial as this one, but the movie does offer an affectionately zany poke in the ribs of that loose, shape-shifting body known as the American family, in all its psychobabbling, navel-gazing glory.

It’s also a pretty personal movie for both Blumberg, who was a sperm donor when he was in college, and for Cholodenko, who started writing the script while she and her partner, Wendy Melvoin, a composer, were choosing an anonymous sperm donor to help conceive their son, now four years old. “The source of so much of my anxiety in life and the tensions in my relationship is my anxiety about my kid. It’s all very abstract and unfounded and ungrounded. We don’t really understand why Nic is so neurotic,” she says, admitting that she and Blumberg see much of Bening’s character in themselves, and in their respective mothers. “Stuart and I felt strongly that the subtext there was: Here’s my first kid, she’s about to go off to college, have I done my job, has having a gay partner been a setback? These ideas of excellence, have I measured up?”

The Kids Are All Right presses lightly on some key chattering-class pressure points, but Cholodenko and Blumberg both play down the political ramifications. “The more casually we treat the fact that they’re gay,” says Blumberg, “the more doable the film becomes.” And it says something about the mainstreaming of gay culture when a man is turned away from the front door of a lesbian home not because he’s straight or because he’s a man, but because his heedlessness has threatened the integrity of a family, and a marriage.

Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a gay marriage, or that the movie comes at a time of intense public debate about the issue. “A lot has come up,” Cholodenko says. “Certainly Proposition 8 and the states that are passing gay marriage laws, and we’re into this whole era when kids are conceived with donor insemination and are coming of age in gay families. These families are everywhere, and we’re hearing their stories. It’s a new era.”

It’s been seven years since the success of Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, a mid-to-mainstream indie about hetero liberation with a mild subtext of fluid sexual identity. For reasons I can’t divulge without spoiling, that fluidity is openly explored in The Kids Are All Right, in a way that may offend not the radical right so much as the politicized lesbian feminists of Cholodenko’s generation (she’s 46) who pioneered the acceptance of gay life. “I come from that place,” she says. “In a different era, it was important that you knew to stay with the women and the cause and all that nonsense. I’m sympathetic to people who feel super-politicized about this, but for me, that just feels dated.”

The Kids Are All Right will play just fine with a new generation of Glee and American Idol watchers who take the fuzzy borders between gay and straight in stride. And how will Cholodenko’s son react to the film? “It’s hard to say,” she says. “I hope he doesn’t see it till he’s old enough to get it, and I hope in some way he’ll be proud and not embarrassed.”