Sorry Kristin, you don't deserve a gong just for having fab cheekbones
What is it about actress Kristin Scott Thomas?Why is she so highly rated? Is it the frosty facial minimalism or is it the voice, flat as a Dutch bulb field and rather less colourful? Is it the fact that she lives in a chic part of Paris and makes orthodox noises about minority rights and feminism? Or is just down to slick PR and shrewd (or gullible) producers?
The question begs to be asked after her unexpected — to me, baffling — inclusion this week in the Best Actress nominations for the Olivier awards.There is also the fact that she is about to play the Queen in The Audience, the part first created by Dame Helen Mirren. Will ‘KST’ be able to match the mighty Mirren?
The Oliviers are the London theatre world’s version of the Oscars.They are supposed to celebrate the very best of the West End. This year, the judges could have had a big choice, for we have seen several superb female roles in the past 12 months.
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Why is Kristin Scott Thomas, pictured, so popular?Is it because she happens to live in a chic part of Paris?
Helen McCrory, Eve Best, Sofie Grabol, Carey Mulligan, Fiona Shaw, Fenella Woolgar — they and others would have been on many people’s lists even before the three other fine actresses who were nominated (Gillian Anderson, Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton).
Dame Kristin — and yes, she recently became a dame, although being of Leftish bent she seems reluctant to use the title — is up for www.kwatery-w-augustowie.online the Olivier as a result of her less than universally-acclaimed title role in a production of the Greek tragedy Electra.
A few of my fellow drama critics did, admittedly, rave about that performance at the Old Vic, claiming that she was ‘intense’ and ‘passionate’ as the young woman set on avenging her dead father.One critic, known for his flights of exaggeration, talked of her as a ‘theatrical titan’, even though she has done strangely little stage work.
But other critics regretted the ‘lack of stillness’ and the need for greater ‘light and shade’ in the production. One writer said ‘it batters you for 100 minutes and then suddenly fades’.A performance that does not stay with you, does not keep gnawing you, haunting you, is surely not worthy of an Olivier.
The verdict from the public was even less appreciative. When people have paid good money to buy a ticket they perhaps do not feel so inclined to conform to bien-pensant opinion that Dame Kristin is a ‘titan’.
Take some of these comments from the Theatre Forum website about Scott Thomas’s Electra: ‘was glad when it ended’, ‘KST spent too much of the time playing a sulky teen and shouting’; ‘she was a nothing’; ‘isn’t anything to write home about’ and ‘woefully miscast’.
I’m afraid I agreed with those dissenters.
Dame Kristin’s Electra left me unstirred. Her emotions raced from nought to 60 in no time — and then stayed there, soon exhausting patience. What caterwauling and breast-beating and shrieking and moaning we had. It became predictable, formulaic, unconvincing.
In fact, some members of the audience started laughing.
It is baffling how Dame Kristin, pictured, has been nominated for an Olivier award – the theatre Oscars
Dame Kristin has crossly complained that one night she threw herself in grief at the feet of chap in the front row (which was directly next to the stage) and looked up — in the middle of all her thespy emoting — only to find that the fellow in the seat was thumbing through his programme.Like many of us, he was plainly bored rigid.
So how has she swung this Olivier nomination? Jammy good luck? Or is this a case of the arts elite acting like sheep, no one being prepared to stand up and say that the king (make that queen) has no clothes?
It’s an odd thing, the fame game.Some stars win their reputations as a result of genuinely great performances. Others are famous for their home lives — when fame becomes notoriety. Still others are famous simply for being famous, or in this case, perhaps, for being so loftily remote that people mistake her artistic emptiness for something more noble.
I should make clear that I have never met Kristin Scott Thomas and am more than ready to believe that in private she is a good soul.I do not mean to criticise her personal character. What concerns me is her public persona, her dramatic output.
Theatre is performance art and acting is an attempt to find a public expression of truth.That is where the critic has a legitimate interest.
She was born in 1960 in Cornwall and had something of a tragic childhood. Her father was a Fleet Air Arm pilot who died in a crash when Kristin was five.
Her mother remarried, again to a pilot.He, too, was killed in a crash a few years later. It must have been a ghastly business for the family and no one would wish to underestimate the effect it must have had.
Young Kristin was educated at private schools (academic hothouse Cheltenham Ladies’ College was one of them).She has described how, a few days after the death of her step-father, she was packed off to boarding school and expected to get on with things. That sort of experience may turn you into something of an emotional tortoise, forcing you to develop a hard outer shell.
She did a brief stint as a drama college student in London, where one of her tutors told her firmly that she would never become a decent actress.She fled to Paris and found the drama teachers there more merciful. They were impressed by her English poise and accent. She became bilingual and married a Paris doctor.
Her first big film role, in a 1986 picture Under The Cherry Moon, was a disaster.She was so bad that it earned her two nominations in the ‘Razzies’, the ‘Golden Raspberry Awards’ which hail the very worst performances of the film year.
But that was before the Kristin Scott Thomas myth (if we can call it that) had been created and burnished by assiduous public relations work.
In 1988, she played Brenda Last in a cinema version of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful Of Dust.Brenda is a cold piece of work, a careless mother, bored adulteress. The role suited ‘KST’. It was almost as if she did not need to act.
She just had to look languid. The mid-Nineties brought the two roles for which she is still best known: frustrated suitor Fiona in Four Weddings And A Funeral and Katharine Clifton in The English Patient.In Four Weddings she was comprehensively outperformed, I thought, by Andie MacDowell and Anna Chancellor (though not by the wooden Hugh Grant!). Her Fiona was a bland, lifeless offering, lacking in sparkle.
In the The English Patient, she was scarcely more animated.The film was gorgeously shot — long, smouldering visuals — but her acting was as slow to catch fire as a pair of asbestos pyjamas. What made this all the odder, perhaps, was that the story was about a plane crash.
Given her family tragedies, it is hard to comprehend how she remained outwardly so terribly bland.
The myth of Kristin Scott Thomas has been burnished by assiduous public relations work
Yet a film camera will reward minimalism and forgive lack of emotional engagement.If you have the right sort of cheekbones, you can get away with very little acting talent and Kristin Scott Thomas has just such cheekbones, along with that strikingly high forehead.
God smiled on her when it came to handing out the physical attributes.She is enviably slender and looks elegant. These are enough to get a woman on screen. But are they enough for real dramatic stature? Are they enough for an Olivier award?
She gained a following of sorts, particularly among directors who were looking for an ice maiden. For them she became the ‘go-to’ woman for fishy-eyed disengagement.Sometimes films do demand such women — characters who convey no more zest and engagement than a shop-window mannequin. A John Lewis clothes horse: is that her limit?
You need more than that on stage, as soon became apparent.
Dame Kristin, finding that the big film roles were going to younger — or perhaps more interesting — actresses, decided that the West End had been starved of her talents long enough.By now divorced (recently, she was reported as dating hedge fund millionaire Arpad Busson, ex-lover of actress Uma Thurman) and less rooted in Paris, she was levered into a couple of Harold Pinter plays in 2011 and she was, well, stiff.
That brow was oddly inexpressive — it reminded me of football pundit Alan Hansen’s — and the voice lacked variety.Oh, some of the critics turned over and waggled their feet in the air like upended woodlice, the impressionable boobies, but the casting felt driven by celebrity rather than genuine stage ability.
Does this matter?Is star casting not always a bit like that?
Fair point, perhaps, but star-casting is unfair to other actors if the star is a plodder. Star-casting does not deserve to work unless the star merits that stardom.
Dame Kirstin also complains about the lack of roles for women over 35…doesn’t seem to stop Maggie Smith
Dame Kristin’s coldness may be just about saleable on the big screen, but on a stage you need different emphases. You have to project some character. It is a more three- dimensional artform than cinema.
There is another problem with Dame Kristin, and it is a sensitive matter: her age.
In both Pinter’s Betrayal and in Electra, she was too old for the part.Electra is an orphan. Playwright Sophocles probably had in mind a girl in her teens. Dame Kristin was in her mid-50s and she would have been better cast as Electra’s mother.
She is aware of this age problem, for in interviews she has often grumbled — as ageing glamour-chop actresses often do — about the tyranny of youth and the shortage of parts for women over the age of 35.But would this really be a problem for a truly great theatrical dame? It has hardly held back the likes of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench or Harriet Walter. A certain level of actress is never short of stage offers.
When ‘KST’ was made a dame a few months ago, was it for genuine dramatic talent?Or was it because she was fashionable? Was it because the people deciding on the honour had little idea as to her genuine artistic worth?
With her version of the Queen about to open for previews, we again return to the big poser: why is this actress so celebrated?
Is she famous because she or her agent have played the system brilliantly and because they know the right people?
Is she famous simply for her looks and her outer poise?Does the stage not demand more than such skin-deep talents? Should artistic honours and Olivier awards not reward something more meritocratic and meaningful than merely a pair of imperious cheekbones?