Over the years, people have posed the question “What is cinema?”
The French film critic wrote a seminal book on the subject (entitled What is Cinema?) back in 1967.
It’s a great source of discussion and debate and the kind of topic that can keep film lovers up until three in the morning with lively conversation.
The categories of movies make up a long list.
You can start with the blockbuster Hollywood feature film releases that have defined American cinema but you soon find yourself branching off into documentary films, short subject films, and independent films just to name a few.
There are movies created to entertain the masses and generate profits for the major studios, and then there are the more modest films that could be considered personal films.
Often, these movies represent someone’s first serious movie project.
It might be a student film or an independently produced film that is made to showcase someone’s talent and love for movies and movie making.
The point of these movies is less about making money and more about making a statement, and making a mark in the ever-expanding, ever-changing marketplace.
Tammy’s Always Dying is one of those movies.
It is the antithesis of a slick Hollywood film.
It’s not going for splash, it’s going for substance. It’s not trying to necessarily entertain or even be uplifting.
It is instead, trying to be honest and truthful and serious.
Typically, these are stories focusing on characters and relationships in a way that is rarely captured in popular entertainment. The stories are sometimes painful and sad.
The dark comedy Tammy’s Always Dying co-stars Felicity Huffman as an alcoholic, borderline suicidal mom living in a run down small town where every day seems bleak and depressing.
Anastasia Phillips plays her long-suffering daughter.
Again, while it is being billed as a dark comedy, it is far from laugh-a minute material.
Parts of it are funny. But much of it cuts to the core for anyone who feels entrapped in an emotionally abusive relationship that is sucking the very life out of them, one drop at a time.
In this case the relationship is spelled out in the opening scene of the movie, in which Huffman’s character walks to a rusting overpass and prepares to jump off.
Her daughter arrives just in the nick of time to talk her out of it.
Soon afterward, they grab a bite to eat at a diner and we discover that the drama we just winessed had been played out again and again, in a never-ending cycles of attempted suicides and last-minute rescues on this same overpass.
While it borders on being funny, it really isn’t. You sense there is something terribly wrong here that uncomfortably binds these two women together psychologically.
The issues underlying this recurring episode are the structural foundation of the movie.
As the title suggests, Tammy is always dying. Or trying to.
She leans heavily on her only daughter, and her sometimes boyfriend, for their support and assistance in dragging her back from the brink.
This may sound a bit depressing, and it is. It’s a murky story.
But what it has going for it are two strong performances from Huffman and Phillips.
To their credit, they tap into the very souls of these two troubled women and bring all the emotional turmoil and suffering to the surface in vivid detail.
Felicity Huffman is unsparing in her portrayal of a woman who has fallen off the grid.
She is aging badly, self-destructing rapidly and struggling just to stay afloat in an uncaring world that offers little hope for redemption.
Roles like this are demanding.
What’s required is a lot of courage to embrace a character that isn’t likeable. You need to be ugly in appearance and behavior.
Vanity can’t get in the way.
You need to take it to the level of performance that lets the audience know that you’re at the very end of your rope, recklessly testing the limits of those closest to you and their capacity for love and compassion.
Their painful struggle to connect is what Tammy’s Always Dying is all about.
It’s not an upbeat film, but is a film that is unafraid to explore the dynamics of a broken relationship. It’s powerful stuff when you get it right.
Actresses occasionally sign on for roles that require them to look unattractive and behave badly or embarrassingly.
It takes some degree of commitment.
A few examples come to mind. I’m thinking of Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) or Nicole Kidman in
You could go back to a classic like Bette Davis’ Now, Voyager (1942).
All were roles played by beautiful actresses who decided to forgo their beauty in order to play characters with more nuance and depth.
You can’t escape the conclusion that they were all trying to prove to themselves as serous artists and that their talent went deeper than the level of genetics and cosmetics.
To play roles like this successfully, you have to be all in. You have to commit.
It was my complaint about Renee Zellweger’s appearance in the recent movie bio Judy.
I know she received an Oscar for her performance, but I really felt that she fell short of capturing the gaunt appearance of the real-life Judy Garland in the final days of her tortured life when her health was failing and she was a mere shadow of her former self.
Serious films like Tammy’s Always Dying need to resonate with audiences on an emotional level.
You’re being asked to come aboard and watch something that may be unpleasant and disturbing.
There is a good chance that the story might not be a positive experience and that the final reel might not offer up the happy ending that might be hoping to see.
What’s left are characters and performances worth the price of admission, as they say.
On that note Tammy’s Always Dying delivers.
Whether Felicity Huffman’s recent headlines will impact viewership of the movie is anyone’s guess. Bad press can turn the tide of public opinion against you.
Beyond that, I wonder how a movie like this will fare in the world of COVID-19.
I’ve had that concern about other independent films that I’ve seen recently.
My fear is that movies focusing on more serious topics may not find an audience this current real-life world of COVID-19 and widespread fear and depression.
At times like this, people may be searching for something else that offers escape.
Tammy's Always Dying is streaming wide on most digital channels.