DOUBLE TAKE is a series within Cinema Quarantino that touches upon an actor’s career through a selected list of movies to watch. Not to be taken scholarly or seriously.
Though she’s been in the acting game for a while, Australian actress Toni Collette became headliner-buzzy after her showstopping performance in 2018’s Hereditary. There she plays the modern horror icon Annie Graham, a miniatures artist grieving over the loss of her mother. Trouble lurks in the details, and Collette’s flair for explosive monologues and holding the lid on boiling tension made sure that the surprises were as infernal and somber as Ari Aster’s script needed them to be. Arguably, Hereditary would not be what is is without Collette’s hand.
This could be said for many of the films she’s worked in. Her mom-ness has also been recognized in Sundance darling Little Miss Sunshine and Diablo Cody’s series United States of Tara. In both, she plays a matriarch presiding over a dysfunctional family, without either overpowering others or underselling herself. Many times over, Collette has been in a position to pick and refuse roles. For this first installment of Double Take, I thought it would be interesting to talk about someone who fits into familiar roles (ie. the Indie Mom in all and any scopes of human activity), but who doesn’t seem to seek or settle into a specific wardrobe of outfits. Last year, she starred in both Charlie Kaufman’s anticipated I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a blizzard-set thinker toying with mental collapse, and Dream Horse, a film about fundraising for a race horse (which is as fruity-tooty as the studio that brought you Wild Mountain Thyme would suggest). I’ll try not to use the meme about actors doing a vast arrangement of roles as “understanding the assignment,” but the question that lingers in my head is: What’s her aim?
I would argue that she has had two breakout roles that created a divergence for the rest of her acting career: the marriage-lustful titular character in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, and her first Oscar-nominated role as Lynn in 1999’s The Sixth Sense (incidentally, M. Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis liked Muriel’s Wedding enough to get her into the movie without the studio seeing the audition tape with her recently shaved head, which may have seen as unmarketable). This two-pronged launch– she can take pleasure in roosting in small-budget roles while flourishing in the backdrops of thrillers and all-star casts– creates the comfort of an actress who can do almost whatever the fuck she wants. All the same, there is a congruence in all of her roles that makes one believe that she genuinely cares about her characters in the way that a mother could love her child. While there might be a discrepancy in how enjoyable the actual film is, no reasonable person would ever say, “Well, Toni Collette sucked in that role.*”
As such, there is no such thing as Toni Collette phoning it in. She’s satisfied holding the ladder to others’ outstanding performances, but doesn’t dare bend and succumb to the smallness of her own parts. She bestowed to us the Eye Roll, one of the most recognizable facial expressions on modern screen that has generously accompanied her world-weary sigh/dropped shoulders combo or prefaced the great tide of tirades. Unless she finds herself in a particular mood, I don’t think we’ll find her gunning for awards attention. However, I do believe in the hackneyed expression that something can fall on her lap without any more extraordinary effort than what she’s been doing all along. While her sole Oscar nomination might seem an injustice, I truly think she (or I) couldn’t care any less.
For this mara-Toni, it’s about introspective women in the world that we live in. Maybe there’s a love story or two somewhere in the mix.
1) MADAME dir. Amanda Sthers
2017 | 90 mins | trailer | available on Amazon Prime, Kanopy, & Tubi
“To keep a woman, at some point, you have to satisfy their neuroses.” – Bob
A precursor to Collette’s IG-obsessed Joni Thrombley in Knives Out, American-in-Paris Anne Fredericks extends her torture to maids who hate to lie in this French mise en place comedy. Anne stress-lives in luxury, and she is dismayed when her floppy-fringe-haired writer stepson Steven is invited to her small dinner party, pushing the even guest numbers to a discouraging 13. In a hurry, she asks her maid, Marta, to pretend to be a guest of stature (“HBO, not ABC,” she suggests in a series of non-ironical sentiments).
The film pokes fun at the old conventional gears dressed in frills and lace. In Marta’s earnest contributions to conversations and love for Hugh Grant in Love, Actually (a diametric opposite in maid treatment, I suppose), Anne can be seen sinking into desolation (peep how she freezes into fear and embarrassment in mid-wine sip once Marta, in the midst of a joke, asks, “Dad, how many kinds of boobs are there?”). Anne’s bureaucratic rudeness is leveled into a character capable of unclaimed jealousy, acute discernment of the differences in conversational laughter, and keeping a presence at the end of her antagonist’s journey.
2) GLASSLAND dir. Gerard Barrett
2014 | 93 mins | trailer | available on Kanopy & Tubi
The choice of this film may have been partly because of the contrast from Madame, but also to show that even with a “starring role,” Collette is largely absent in the film. She is Jean, an alcoholic mother to John (Jack Reynor) who doesn’t comprehend how she’s wrecking his life. Still, her role is so immense to the story that there is a spacial awareness on-screen when she’s gone. The film presents a typical perspective of the bystander to addiction — even with Will Poulter as Ed’s best friend, I doubt that Ari Aster had gone to watch this movie and thought to himself, “Now there’s the mother, bad boyfriend, and annoying friend that I want for my movies.” While the film is not as remarkable as its genre brethren, I’d like to point out how Collette’s ease into this limited role makes for a powerful placement.
3) MARY AND MAX dir. Adam Elliot
2009 | 90 mins | trailer | available to rent
“He said I would have to accept myself, my warts and all, and that we don’t get to choose our warts. They are part of us and we have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends, and I am glad I have chosen you.” – Max
Collette’s cadence is a particular speed of maturity that comes with the numerous amount of mother/grown woman roles over the year. Therefore, it feels like a surprise when she voices Mary, a lonely girl living in New York in this 2009 stop-motion film (though I should say that she voices the teenager-Mary and not child-Mary). Opposite of Mary is Max, voiced by another delight, Philip Seymour Hoffman. This movie isn’t talked about as much, and maybe because it’s of a weird sort: Mary and Max are pen pals from Australia and New York, respectively, and learn how to tolerate their miserable lives through the comfort of each other’s words. It’s also a really fucking sad movie. Voice actors can bring a lot to the table, whether it’s on-brand (a la Jenny Slate with Marcel the Shell), or something even more surprising, like a flighty Kristen Wiig as Lola Bunny. Mary is an extension of Collette’s characters: complicated family matters, personal life asunder, but full of love to share.
4) MURIEL’S WEDDING dir. P.J. Hogan
1994 | 101 mins| trailer | available on Cinemax
“It’s good as ‘Dancing Queen.'” – Muriel
It would be ten criminal offenses to not mention Collette’s breakout role. In the antiquated time of the hopeless romantics in blonde locks and in love, like the Barrymores and the Diazes (both of whom she worked with later in her career as friends or sisters), Collette creates her own neuroses and the teenage girl’s dream of the perfect marriage across the Pacific in Muriel’s Wedding. This movie might actually make you do a double-take, as Collette underwent physical alterations (dyed her hair red and gained weight) to become the “unattractive girl” whose existence seems unbearable to her friend group and her family. The getup isn’t as easy as taking off your glasses, a la She’s All That, and it seems believable that Collette could have endured this kind of bullying or superficial jeering outside the set. But when you look closely, you can see the idiosyncrasies of her career start to formulate.
5) JAPANESE STORY dir. Sue Brooks
2003 | 110 mins | trailer | available on Kanopy & Tubi
“I am listening. Go on.” – Hiromitsu
It’s 2003: the iTunes store has opened, “Freedom Fries” are going to be a thing, and there’s a haters-to-lovers relationship between an Australian woman and Japanese man. The outdated nature of the premise is quite a Thing, and after watching it, the portrayal of an Asian man is a bit cringey, and some of the subtle racism (from the characters, mostly) is what I assume Green Book is sorta about (if I ever dare watch it). But I think there’s something upfront about Collette’s performance, a woman who doesn’t have anywhere to hide in the vast, dry Australian desert. And there is the gorgeous, standoffish Gotaro Tsunashima as Hiromitsu, the prospective buyer into Collette’s geology software program. The inclusion of Japanese Story is for reasons of plot shock value, and to show that in the spotlight, Collette can stand on her own two feet.
6) HEREDITARY dir. Ari Aster
2018 | 127 mins | trailer | available on Amazon Prime and Kanopy
IT’S OVERDONE AND MEMED UP I KNOW BUT STILL
What is there else to say about this movie? I saw this for the first time a year after the hype, and my jaw is still on the floor.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
Little Miss Sunshine (dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006) | I desperately wanted to include this movie in the list, because the soundtrack and the emotional family dynamic really spoke to me when I first watched it. However, I’d say that the movie is bigger than Collette’s performance, which is fine for all parties involved.
Wanderlust (dir. Luke Snellin and Lucy Tcherniak, 2018) | Her TV performances in The United States of Tara and Unbreakable show that the medium is no challenge for her. I wanted to bring up this Netflix original miniseries, which stars Collette as a therapist enduring a breakdown in her marriage. I found it light and enjoyable despite the predictability. Anyways, upcoming HBO Max Original Series, we’re waiting!
XXX: Return of Xander Cage (dir. DJ Caruso, 2017) | Just kidding, haven’t watched it! Like a couple of other films (Unlocked, Imperium), this is just a lost campaign poster of having Collette take on more sleek and shiny roles with a gun holster. Based on their close release years, she must have been having a moment.
* – I did find one comically misogynistic Amazon review for XXX (which I wasn’t going to share on this lovefest for Collette), but I wanted to stress that the key term is reasonable.