January 25, 2014

Miriam Hopkins, Becky Sharp

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I first became acquainted with Miriam Hopkins while watching Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. I think I'll always remember the scene in which she lifts up her skirt and takes off her garters and stockings one-by-one, giggling playfully while doing so. With effortless ease, Hopkins makes her Ivy Pearson completely bawdy and repellent, yet calculatingly sexy at the same time. You're put off by her but you can't deny her sex appeal. On a tangent, Hopkins is also a rather hysterical actor, and she pierces your ears with shrieks so thunderous that you're pretty happy once Mr. Hyde strangles her to death. Four years later, Jekyll director Rouben Mamoulian would give Miriam Hopkins the title role in Becky Sharp, a woman who bears many similarities to Ivy. And Hopkins assuredly sinks her teeth into the iconic Thackeray heroine with the same deafening aplomb--she bites and chomps and chews and swallows for 82 consecutive minutes with tireless persistence. And good God is she persistent.

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It's a wonder how Hopkins got an Oscar nomination, especially as several online sources I've read have pointed out that she was very disliked by her peers. I wasn't aware of this prior to viewing Becky Sharp, but apparently Hopkins had a reputation of being quite the bitch in her heyday, which in retrospect sort of heightens her performance, as that's exactly what Becky is: a manipulative and heartless bitch. I've never read Vanity Fair, but dig around the internet a bit and you'll see that the character of Becky is often described as a sociopath, and I can assure you that Miriam Hopkins goes for broke trying to be just that.

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-24at14442AM.jpgHopkins starts off her performance at an elevated level of energy and very rarely tones it down. In fact, I was pretty worn-out by her a quarter of the way through the film. Like Paul Muni this year, Hopkins attacks this role like a fiend and practically yells every. single. line. during every. single. minute. of her performance, and if you have a low threshold for hyperactivity like me you'll probably dislike her work. And I admit that at first I disliked both Becky and Miriam, but in reflection I've realized that the film goes for a farcical approach, to which Hopkins' shrillness complements well. From her very first line to her very last, Becky is a completely deplorable individual, and while it's exciting at first to see such a cunning and headstrong female character (especially in a year where you've got a despicably meek Oberon, Bergner, and Colbert) playing men for fools, one gets really exhausted by her unabashed audacity when deplorable is just about the only characteristic Hopkins shows. It's all a one-note one-woman show--when she's sassing people she's loud, when she's scamming people she's loud, and when she's completely heartbroken she's loud. It's not so much that her character remains unchanged and unashamed that bothers me--Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter is another static sociopath which I adored--but it's more that Hopkins' hootin' and hollerin' approach really tests even the most devoted admirers of powerful, bitchy, fabulous female characters. She did manage to pull a chuckle out of me here and there, but for the most part Becky is a really unlikeable character and Hopkins is relentless with immortalizing that. From what I could dig up, Becky isn't written in Vanity Fair with any redeemable qualities--she's a monster through and through. But what makes Miriam Hopkins' monster different from other contemptible cinematic creations? I thought about this, and I think it all comes down to her acting. It's a hammy, balls-to-the-wall acting style first seen in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, of which I wasn't a fan, and the difference here between the two is that Becky Sharp is a much larger role and Hopkins doesn't get killed off in the end. I guess Hopkins' acting is symbolic of the very character she's portraying--she's fun and feisty, but too much of her is grueling.


  1. I think I already saw this movie two times but I am never able to remember one thing about it...

    1. Funny that you've seen it twice! It's going to take me a while before I can muster the desire to revisit it again.

  2. This performance is rather awful but, from what I've seen in any of the Hopkins films I've sat through, she is the 'poster child' for over-the-top screen thesping. Here, she's excruciating. Her only gear is full throttle and after a while all I was hoping for was a head-on collision. She isn't even enjoyably campy if that's what one likes (I don't), she's just abrasive and, as you said, LOUD.

    It's interesting that in her private life she was reportedly a cultured, literate and sophisticated person whose interests went far beyond the film world. None of that reads in her work, though, which is unfortunate. It seems that she was far more complex and interesting than what she conveyed onscreen.