I’m mostly with Joey on the potency and immediacy of She Said. A few complaints keep me from being as laudatory as he was. But the movie, taken as a whole, is indeed sobering and poignant and overall successfully communicates the gravity of this story as not just one man who behaved like a pig in front of a few women, but about an exceptionally powerful man who built a machine to facilitate and protect his pervasive abuse.
One of its unambiguous strengths is its ensemble at the margins of this investigation, embodied by committed performers maximizing their short few scenes – or sometimes just one scene – to suggest a fully-realized individual with their own entire lives outside of the frame. Adam Shapiro and Tom Pelphrey gamely play the Supportive Husband roles with a range of implications on how long they’ve been part of this stressful but rewarding marriage that they treat as equal partners. Zach Grenier, that most reliable of That Guy actors, turns in possibly his career-best feature film work as a disgruntled former employee thinking he’s just sharing dirt on an abusive boss and then experiencing the sobering realization that it was so much worse than he imagined. As much as I wasn’t thrilled with the flattering portrayal of craven New York Times Editor-in-Chief Dean Baquet as some stoic dauntless leader, Andre Braugher embodies that inaccurate version of him with a great deal of quiet authority.
But I’m not going to beat around the bush: most of the emotional power of this fraught investigative drama was carried by the committed performances of its actresses. I’m not just referring to Carey Mulligan, who I’ve always liked in nearly every role. Nor am I referring to Zoe Kazan, who I’ve never been a huge fan of but in this film turns in her best acting… really, ever. Nearly all of the women around our two dogged reporters are exceptionally good at keeping us engrossed, too. Patricia Clarkson, for example, is the ideal actress to portray the editor who shepherded this story. She is just firm enough in her clipped line readings to communicate expectations of evidence and on-the-record interviews to guarantee the survival of this news story in court, but softens her demeanor noticeably when her two journalists dance too close to the edge of burnout. It’s one of many small but crucial choices she makes in conveying the kind of boss most people wish they had at their own day jobs.
Clarkson has been steadily working in this consistent register of strong supporting character work for years, but do you know who hasn’t? Samantha Morton! God, it feels so good seeing her back in movies again after her long hiatus due in part to a terrifying health scare. She does not waste her one scene as former production assistant Zelda Perkins. Her rage at a ruined career and dehumanization at the hands of a calculating predator boils over as she goes further and further into the deeply upsetting ordeal that changed her life forever. She’s so compelling on her own, that I wish Schrader had just trusted her to hold the audience’s attention instead of cutting to flashbacks spelling out what Morton was doing a fine job of communicating to us on her own.
If I had to pick one performer who most profoundly moved me, though, I’d have to single out Jennifer Ehle. She is the daughter of O.G. Aunt May Rosemary Harris and has won two Tony Awards for her prolific work on the stage. But here, she has the unenviable task of giving voice to Laura Madden, who indeed was battling cancer when she was grappling with the decision to speak out against the man who brutally made her feel as if she was less than a full person with dignity. Her pain in confessing these lingering feelings of shame is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the entire film, which makes her jubilation at the feeling of an intense weight finally being lifted off her shoulders to a degree that brings her to tears all the more wonderfully cathartic in the movie’s climax.
All of these performers stepped up to treat the solemn task of cinematically depicting these survivors reclaiming their voices with the respect and believability they deserved, and I’m sure many of the people who saw She Said over the weekend would agree with me. It’s likely that they will publicly recognize the true heroism of these real-life figures they only played on film as it continues to be promoted to the press and general audiences.
But what is, sadly, extremely unlikely to happen is any of these women receiving a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the next Academy Awards. Or even considered for one. Because Universal Pictures has decided that promoting this movie for awards requires some cynical gamesmanship, resulting in very obvious co-lead Carey Mulligan being campaigned for this award while Zoe Kazan is treated as the sole lead, despite the fact that their own official For Your Consideration campaign page promoting She Said describes Mulligan as “starring” in the movie along with Kazan. When I said, despite my suspicions, I would withhold judgment on that decision until I saw the movie for myself, I meant it. And now that I have, I can say with absolute conviction that this is indefensible not just on a basic common-sense level, but also in terms of fairness and decency. It’s flat-out mean to shove these actresses aside in a bid to get one of the film’s co-leads an easier path to an Oscar via bankshot.
When I complain about category fraud, I don’t do that out of some tight-assed awards season pedantry. I do it for actresses like Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton. Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor were not meant to be “consolation prizes” for leading performers settling for a “lesser” acting award. It was meant precisely for those thespians who had to make an impression with less screen time and without the benefit of a protagonist’s narrative agency. These shenanigans actively screw them over.
And do you know what the bitter irony of all this is? This underhanded practice of just automatically defaulting to supporting “demotions” of co-leads while the industry and journalists are browbeaten into just accepting it (with rare exceptions) was turned into a standard operating procedure by none other than… Harvey Weinstein. Of course, category fraud existed before him, but it was nowhere near as aggressively pushed as The Way Things Are Done Here™ until he conquered the Oscar beat in the 90’s. And the promoters of the film dramatizing his exposure as a serial sexual predator are, however unintentionally, carrying on his cynical legacy by doing this, just like how Republicans publicly disowned their party’s longest-serving Speaker of the House ever in the wake of his felony conviction while quietly continuing his parliamentary mandate effectively rendering proactive bipartisanship nearly impossible in the United States House of Representatives.
So if anyone on the Universal awards P.R. team is reading this – heck, if Carey Mulligan is reading this – please don’t go forward with this campaign strategy. It is so disrespectful to the numerous genuinely supporting actresses in this film who are every bit as deserving of a real shot at recognition as your two leading ladies are. Support them like they supported She Said.