In a career spanning 20-plus years despite her mere 35 years on the planet, Amanda Seyfried has been a fascinating bunch of people. She was an adolescent snark attack in her breakout film Mean Girls, a gleaming chanteuse in Mamma Mia, made erotic turns in Shame and Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, and, for her first role playing a real person, played reluctant porn star Linda Lovelace in Lovelace. She also grabbed the screen despite her small part in Paul Schrader’s masterful, Ethan Hawke-starring tortured Christian pastor in First Reformed, in 2017 (my vote for that year’s greatest film).
But the persona central to Seyfried’s life at present — the present being the moment she is up for a supporting actress Oscar for her dazzling turn in the David Fincher-directed Mank — is Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s lover and a misunderstood singer-actress, made famous in fictional form in Orson Welles’ (or was it half Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz?) Citizen Kane. Seyfried’s Marion, played in sympathetic cahoots with Gary Oldman’s “Mank,” is a standout in a film both proudly anachronistic (as Fincher keeps reminding us) and historical revisionist.
Seyfried seemed a more-than apt candidate for a tribute evening at SBIFF this year, and she got one — via Zoom from her upstate New York family’s farm, that is — in the form of Friday night’s “Montecito Award” presentation.
For this year’s impressive roster of SBIFF celebrity tributes-gone-zoomerific, uber-mensch Roger Durling has gamely been introducing the events assorted costumes and venues, sometimes front a poster of Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in the SBIFF downtown HQ. Two nights ago, he appeared before a faux fireplace in the toney El Encanto in a cream-colored suit nearly mirroring that worn by honoree Sacha Baron Cohen.
For this occasion, he got into the anachronistic, Welles-ian spirit and appeared before a mighty cocktail with black-and-white Mank footage in the background. He channeled his inner vintage Welles impression, intoning, “broadcasting from the Mercury Theater…”
For her part, Seyfried appeared in a glamorous gown and maze-like coiffure, revealed only at show’s end, in her personal studio in a barn on the property. A refreshingly candid actress in the spotlight, who has spoken publicly about her OCD and isn’t afraid to critique her past work, admitted to moderator Anne Thompson that with the current awards season circuit blitz, even virtual, “This level of appreciation is unusual for me and I’m soaking it up.”
She conquered stage fright and performed in Neil Labute’s “The Way We Get By” in 2015 (with her soon-to-be husband actor Thomas Sadowsky), seemingly a turning point. “I did this play and found I really did have stamina and deeper passion,” she said. “It was hard. I did it and I succeeded. I have the passion, I have the compassion and the skill underneath. I have the time and the experience. Why don’t I just fly now?”
In the conversation, she also spoke about her unflinching will to unleash before a camera. “I vomit my feelings very easily. I’m good at creating a filter, that I don’t use enough, as much as my family would like to. Someone said my face was too animated, but I took that as a good thing. I feel things and I want to express them. It’s hard not to.”
When Fincher first approached her about playing Davies — over Zoom — the actress remembered, “It was very obvious that he was interested in my thoughts and opinions. We talked about Marion and Mank and her feelings about where she was in her life, and how she walked through these throngs of white men who had control over her career, in some ways. She felt comfortable in herself, and was liberated, in many ways.”
Presenting her Montecito Award were two key characters in her filmography of the past few years: Ethan Hawk (with charming daughter in two), and Fincher, who gushed about her being “a luminous, fearless, funny character. She is my favorite kind of actor, a feline playdate, who has come not to work, but to hone a character.”
“Over my career I’ve had moments and I’ve had slumps,” said Seyfriend. “Everything is fluid, especially feelings, right? I never wanted to capitalize on a moment for revenue or business purposes. Also, I wanted to do things that were diverse. I wanted to manipulate that situation as much as I could, so I could disappear in roles more easily.”
Somewhere between disappearing and being supremely present, the gift of acting finds its depths, as happened with the Amanda/Marion pact.
NORDIC HIGHS: Of the several thematic and geo-cultural sidebars compromising this year’s SBIFF program, the strongest is undoubtedly the Nordic Cinema Competition — even stronger than in past years. Each film occupies its own niche and brings its own cinematic code of artistic conduct, from the drily comic stuff of the Finnish Ladies of Steel and the utterly poignant, yet comic and understated Icelandic charmer Backyard Village to the edgy business of the Finnish Lost Ones and the painful but ultimately endearing childhood portrait The Pit.
Two wonderful Danish films, which I caught up with only yesterday, also stand out for attention in the dense pack of offerings this year. In Lisa Jesperson’s Persona Non Grata, a writer from Copenhagen returns to her childhood home in the country — in “Rural Denmark,” to quote the title of her thinly-disguised tell-all novel — for a family wedding, encountering simmering resentments and open tensions. A wedding gone dizzily awry reminds us, tangentially, of masterful Dane director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, but hope and reconciliation are in the offing.
Set at the end of WWI, when German forces inducted Danish people from the Jutland border area, Henrik Ruben Genz’s stunning and tear duct-clearing Erna at War finds a mother (Trine Dyrholm, in one of the festival’s most quietly striking performances) going to the great length of posing as a male soldier to protect her son. Gritty realities of trench warfare may remind us of the 2017 British film Journey’s End, but here, the perspective moves to the other side, but not exactly: the Danes were forced into a losing battle they had no stake in, yet another irony in a film which lingers long after the end credits.
No question: SBIFF 2021 has been the Year of the Nordics.
SATURDAY’S CHILDREN: Saturday, being the official final day of the festival, not to mention a weekend (for those who respect weekend-versus-weekday distinctions at the moment), this is a ripe time to take advantage of the free screenings at the brilliant SBIFF-at-SBCC drive-in set-up (ostensibly, one has to reserve a spot online at www.sbiff.org, but just showing up in a vehicle does the trick for entry).
The list includes Erna at War (worth showing up at 8:30 for); Santa Barbaran Neil Meyers’ personal saga of recovery from a traumatic bike accident, Climb; the doc Fellinopolis, a treat for Fellini fetishist like us; the Santa Maria-centric coming-of-age film Coast; and the stage-ready treatment of Rwandan horror once removed, Trees of Peace.
Once again, as in the past recent years, the festival closes out with a toast to the hometown, with a complement of local short films, shown only online. No, there will be no closing night festivities at the Arlington this year. Supply your own gala accoutrements and snacking items in your own homes for this one. Adult beverages are allowed in the venue.