Ollie praises the dizzyingly dazzling debut performance of singer Alana Haim in Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming of age drama Licorice Pizza.
Watching the Oscars has become something of a tradition over the past four years for me and my housemates. There is something genuinely thrilling in the ritual, watching into the early hours of the morning, poking fun at the ridiculousness of film at its most institutional. Part of my obsession with the ceremony lies in how it immortalises that which it deems important, perhaps not a barometer of quality but instead the tokenistic courtship of a closely guarded cultural currency. Of late there has been a lot of conversations regarding whether or not award shows have become obsolete in the modern age, the Golden Globes this year being performed behind closed doors for the first time in what can only be assumed to be a strategy to transform the ceremony into an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy so slowly no one notices. The Academy itself has taken steps to impose relevance upon itself through this year’s programming decisions that have been deemed both pointless and baffling, creating the long threatened “fan-favourite” category whilst presenting technical awards, including editing, off-air. Despite scrutiny being levelled at the proceedings and viewership being at an all-time low the Oscars are still held as the pinnacle of achievement within the industry, allowing the winners, for better or worse, to gain resources and notoriety for future projects. It has the ability to shape careers, distribute funding and disseminate credibility faster than you can say “and the winner is.…”.
It is within these parameters of reservation that I was both disheartened and thoroughly bewildered that Alana Haim’s name was absent from the best actress category when the 94th Academy Award nominations were announced on the 8 February. One third of the familial rock trio Haim, Alana gave a star turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, playing an emotionally stunted and seemingly aimless photographer’s assistant/chaperone/waterbed saleswoman/aspiring actress/political campaigner as she attempts to navigate the social trappings of 1973 Los Angeles alongside 15-year-old Gary Valentine, who’s infectious energy lies somewhere between that of a snake oil salesman and an overexcited toddler.
“I was both disheartened and thoroughly bewildered that Alana Haim’s name was absent from the best actress category…”
The phenomenal nature of Haim’s performance is central to Licorice Pizza’s thematic success, conveying a nebulous anger at the ways in which she must be contorted and shrunk down in order to fit into the world she inhabits. Her absence from the nominations has become even more puzzling seeing as how the film itself has been nominated in three categories including best picture. As soon as she appears on screen it feels as though she has made a deal with technicolour, you find yourself transfixed on her even in reverse shots. When Sean Penn’s golden age leading man turned leathery alcoholic says she reminds him of Grace, to which Alana burst out in disbelief “Kelly?!”, he’s not wrong. However, there was another actor whose story runs parallel to the film that seems more appropriate a comparison, that being Barbara Streisand whose then partner Jon Peters briefly makes an appearance. The way in which Anderson utilises Haim’s abilities is similar to the way in which Peter Bogdanovich was able to use Streisand to great effect in one of her early roles (that similarly baffled audiences in its Oscar snubbing), the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc, which was made the same year Licorice Pizza is set. What’s Up Doc’s escalation of gags spiral into the absurd whilst Licorice Pizza’s escalation feels a lot more methodical, a slowly unfolding series of events that gradually reveal Garry and Alana’s dependency on one another. Both films use their leading ladies to be the epicentre of the unfolding chaos, their effervescence anchoring the narrative and allowing them to pull the rug from beneath your feet in a single precise movement. The epitome of this being the downhill chases that crescendo both films, in What’s up Doc this plays out as a chase sequence down the San Francisco streets whilst in Licorice Pizza Alana must reverse the waterbed truck down the San Fernando Valley without petrol in the most riveting action sequence of the year.
It is important to note that Alana performed this stunt herself on the first day of filming. The Oscar category of best stunt work has been one of the suggested ways to give those who have been ignored within the industry their due, and it would not be a stretch to say Alana is equally footed for this category as she is for best actress. Whatever the reason for her snubbing Alana’s performance should be recognised as nothing short of miraculous, added to once you realise this is her first ever time acting. And why not give her dad a supporting actor nomination while we’re at it.