Jon Cryer. Demi Moore. Even in 1984, when I was still seeing just about everything that came to town (I was living in Medford, Oregon, at the time, so seeing everything that came to town was a relatively easy task), the prospect of seeing those two in a movie together was not the most tempting of dangling carrots. The movie was called No Small Affair, and I have to say that even then the movie’s medium-high concept-- nerdy photographer falls for slightly older rocker girl who becomes his best friend and has one night of sympathy sex with him before hitting the road, leaving said nerd with enough bittersweet memories to last at least through the closing credits—wasn’t the biggest reason I finally did see it. No, even at age 24 I was pretentious enough to tell myself that the real attraction was the fact that the movie was directed by Jerry Schatzberg. Schatzberg, a well-known photographer who began making films in the early ‘70s, was known to me primarily from his first three movies, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973), none of which I had actually yet seen, and one movie which I had-- The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1978). Just knowledge of the subject matter of those four films made Schatzberg seem, to these eyes, an unlikely choice to direct a fairly typical ‘80s coming-of-age story like No Small Affair. I ended up relating to the movie perhaps more than I cared to—I was still smarting from some unrequited love pangs myself, and the movie’s sad-sack wish fulfillment, topped with that bittersweet parting, felt familiar enough to me to make up for the fact that I hadn’t much interest in either of the actors in this would-be romance.
There was one good thing that came of seeing No Small Affair, however. The supporting cast, though not always well used, was exceptionall good for a comedy of this kind—Ann Wedgeworth, Jeffrey Tambor, Elizabeth Daily, Hamilton Camp, George Wendt were all featured, as well as a young Tim Robbins, two years before Howard the Duck nearly sabotaged his future in movies and four years before Bull Durham assured that he would have one. But the real jewel in that ill-served supporting cast, the one hidden behind a giant perm and even bigger glasses, was Jennifer Tilly, making her film debut as Mona, the plain Jane (!!) friend who is obviously a better fit for Cryer yet who remains in orbit around his soft, chewy center while he misguidedly moons over Moore. Even having never seen Tilly before, it was obvious to me that the filmmakers were pulling a classic dowdy-down job on this actress. Made up to look like a more bookish, more fashion-conscious Ally Sheedy, Tilly never gets her take-off-the-glasses-and-let-down-my-hair-and-suddenly-the-lovestruck-hero-can-see-what-he’s-been-missing-all-along moment. But the joke is, she doesn’t need one. Even someone as primed to buy into the movie’s mopey puppy love as I was couldn’t believe that Cryer didn’t toss Moore over at the first opportunity in favor of this obviously stunning girl with the baby doll voice whose adolescent hostility masks a heavy thing for him, even if she wasn’t the star of the picture. For me, Tilly was the most memorable attraction in No Small Affair, so naturally I assumed Hollywood wouldn’t have a clue what to do with her and that I’d probably never see her again.
Tilly, Tim Robbins and Jon Cryer in No Small Affair
But she showed up the same year as Gina Srignoli, a mobster’s widow who strikes up an unlikely romance with bow-tied, stuffed-shirt cop Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) on Hill Street Blues, and this time she got to turn up the spigot full blast on the sweet-tempered sexuality and slightly tarnished innocence that would become one of her hallmarks. The relationship between Gina and Henry remained fairly guileless and bittersweet, largely because of Henry’s self-awareness that he could never reconcile his work with the criminal element that came attached to his interest in her. But what is interesting even this early on is how aware Tilly is of the possibilities within the ostensibly limited range of the bimbo mob moll. One of the persistent myths of Tilly’s career is that she specializes in busty, sexy, brainless twits (just as persistent as the myth that presumes these twits are an extension of her own personality.) But the great personal signature on her hallmark character type is that Tilly never plays Gina, or any of the other similar types of women she has played in her career, as a hopeless idiot. She’s simply too smart an actress to take that relatively easy, low road, something that was evident even this early on. One gets the sense that Gina, as does Olive Neal in her Oscar-nominated performance in Bullets Over Broadway, is keenly aware of her physical attributes and the places they might take her, and she is as in control of using that image to her advantage as one could be. The fates of both Gina and Olive are both unfortunate, and it’s a tribute to Tilly’s talent (and the writing of both roles) and our empathy with her as a performer that they should carry with them such a sting.
As I said, many have made the mistake of condescending to Tilly as an actress, taking their cue from that voice and her unmistakable comfort with her body and her image to presume that the effusiveness of her characters, their occasional shallowness, is representative of her limitations as an actress or worse yet, her own intelligence. Such a presumption is, of course, as dumb as presuming that Gregory Peck could have held his own in a courtroom, or that if she wanted to Barbara Stanwyck could have seduced any man into killing for her. Tilly’s version of the sex bomb is one in which she delights in her own effect on men—one gets the sense that she’s affected in the same way she affects them—and that it never occurs to her that she may not be perceived as smart along the way. She’s buoyant in this way in a movie like Joe Pytka’s Let It Ride, a would-be Altmanesque romp-- California Split lite-- that benefits from the presence of Tilly and Allen Garfield in much the same way that she helped keep No Small Affair afloat. And it’s fun to see her cut loose even working in small parts like her tear through Neil Jordan’s ill-fated High Spirits (1988) and , of course, the way she grabbed the screen away from Jeff and Beau Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989).
Tilly sat in on the remake of The Getaway (1993) as that piece’s Stockholm Syndrome poster child before her flirt with Oscar in Bullets Over Broadway (1994). But roles like those, or her low-key turn with Stockard Channing in Edie and Pen (1996), did little to prove to many that she was anything more than the sum of her parts, that she was in on the bimbo joke instead of being the passive butt of it. Instead, it was three movies released from 1996 to 1998 that really ended up expressing the comic-dramatic range at Tilly’s disposal, each of them riffing heavily on her perceived image as a dynamic, sexually-charged presence lacking crucial self-awareness. In the first of her two iconic appearances that would emerge from the tail-end of the ‘90s, Tilly took gay and straight audiences on quite a wild ride when she teamed with Gina Gershon in Bound (1996), the debut film from the Wachowski Brothers, who would turn the box-office upside down in 1999 with The Matrix and the visual language of the movies inside-out with Speed Racer in 2008. Bound finds Tilly as Violet, the none-too-happy girlfriend of middle management mobster Joe Pantoliano who engages sort-of butch handywoman Corky (Gershon, butch in comparison to Tilly, anyway) in some hot sex as a way of manipulating her into helping steal millions in mob money and pinning the blame on Pantoliano. One suspects that Violet is far more conventional as written on the page than as Tilly embodies her. Nevertheless, Bound not only gave Tilly one of her best parts to date—arguably a better one than the one for which she was Oscar-nominated—but her directors encouraged her to turn on the charm to a level that avoids camp by a hair’s breadth, probably because she and Gershon are so believably attracted to each other and so sympathetic in their relationship. The movie probably did more for mainstreaming the heterosexual attraction to two women making love than any movie since The Hunger, and in the process both Tilly and Gershon became gay icons as well, riffing off of Penthouse-infused film noir imagery to achieve one of the ‘90s great orgasms of movie enjoyment.
Opposite Jim Carrey’s compulsively truthful lawyer in Liar, Liar (1996), she had a great showcase for the darker side of the kinds of characters she’d been playing up to that point—here she’s Samantha Cole, a scheming plaintiff in a divorce proceeding who seems to have a direct line to the Machiavellian impulses of Phyllis Dietrichson herself. Tilly even toys with her look as a way of cueing a response to her character’s nasty underpinnings—she plays Samantha as a close-cropped bleached blonde, a personality tainted by greed and a familiarity with the sensation of a man wrapped around her diamond-studded little finger. The movie is obviously Carrey’s playground, but Tilly’s plays it relatively straight and her presence is strong enough to make an impression even smack-dab up against her co-star’s antics, strong enough to suggest that there was even more surprises up her satin sleeves just waiting for the right moment to appear.
As memorable as her turns in Bound and Liar, Liar were, it came as quite a surprise that Jennifer Tilly had a scream queen lurking inside the soft frame of those voluptuous curves. But in 1998 her fate in that arena was happily sealed with her dual role in the fourth chapter of the notorious Chucky the killer doll series, the first to ditch the Child’s Play moniker and cut straight to the beating (toy) heart of the matter. Bride of Chucky wastes no time in tracing the parody-fueled connection between the Frankenstein’s monster’s shock-haired mate and Chucky’s titular amore—Tilly shows up immediately, again done up in a blonde wig, bosom-promoting bustier and a leather jacket that could have come from the Bound costume line, as Tiffany, girlfriend of three-times-deceased serial killer Charles Lee Ray. She’s got an idea on how to resurrect her lover for a fourth go-round, but when Chucky comes back he proves to be a bit of a handful and ends up killing Tiffany (in a memorable bathtub electrocution in which The Bride of Frankenstein is directly referenced) and transferring her soul into another doll. At which point the movie becomes part Child’s Play-style horror movie, part domestic drama parody, with Chucky and Tiffany rekindling their romance while on the lam with a couple of hostages, having a lot of anatomically incorrect fun in between gory killings. The revelation here in regards to Tilly is how she brings to life, in the same way Brad Dourif does as Chucky, an essentially absurd concept and invests it with actual emotion. It’s almost as if, divorced from her own body Tilly figures out new contours in that smoky, sexy voice of hers, and as a result she’s able to cut loose like never before. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Jennifer Tilly’s work in Bride of Chucky presaged a decade of terrific, no doubt lucrative work in voice-over acting, because she really proves her stuff here behind the microphone. Soon after the release of Bride, Tilly’s signature vocalizations began popping up in everything from Stuart Little, Hey, Arnold!, Bartok the Magnificent, Home on the Range, Family Guy to even video games and, most memorably, as Celia in Monsters, Inc.
Since Bride, Jennifer Tilly subsequently appeared memorably for director Peter Bogdanovich as Louella Parsons in The Cat’s Meow, for Terry Gilliam in a brief role in his controversial drama Tideland, and of course in many other roles too numerous to mention in any context other than a complete career overview, which this surely is not. (Somehow I missed her appearance in the remake of an old TV-movie favorite, the 2006 version of The Initiation of Sarah.) But perhaps my favorite post-Tiffany Jennifer Tilly performance is her Nurse Alice, who encourages a ninth-grader in his dreams to run the 1954 Boston Marathon in writer-director Michael McGowan’s Saint Ralph (2004). The relationship between the boy and the nurse is a sweet one, and Tilly has fun playing with the unlikely elements of the character that contrast with her familiar persona— Come see Jennifer Tilly pump iron! Empathy with children isn’t something that is frequently asked of Tilly either, and Saint Ralph, for whatever its flaws, recognizes the value in exploring the give and take between this pubescent boy, who sublimates his emerging sexuality into his obsession with running, and the nurse who in another movie might be the object of his burgeoning affections but who here is allowed, believably, tenderly, to relate to him on a strictly humane, nonsexual level. For one who is so comfortable projecting her own sexuality on film, this must still have come as a refreshing pause for Tilly, even as some of us in the audience were more than willing to strain ourselves looking past the relatively butch filigree ornamenting her characterization.
If it is the dream for an actor, however, to write the final word on their own lasting persona in the fantasy realm of Hollywood, then how better to do it than blistering self-parody, cruel and hilarious exaggeration directed inward, or rather outward toward every publicly-held idea of your own persona, and from what precisely that persona is crafted? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a funnier, grander act of first-strike self-abasement, of self-directed satire and image deconstruction, than the character of “Jennifer Tilly,” as written by director Don Mancini and acted, to the Norma Desmond hilt, by Tilly herself in the crackling Hollywood horror satire Seed of Chucky (2004). Many of the fans of the Child’s Play series were put off by the outré comedy of this fifth film in the series. But those of us who were tantalized by the comic leanings of Bride (which does rely too heavily on some of the familiar tropes of the genre in the end, to my eye) were happily surprised by the degree to which Seed is given over to Tilly’s act of Thespic bravery. (The movie itself is one to which my own initial response was rather more tepid than was warranted; I have since come way around to see that Seed is one of the most underrated horror movies made in the last 10-15 years, but more on that later…) Tilly jumps in with both feet, in her vocal characterization of Tiffany (which, if you’re listening closely, has the same erotic flutter to it as Tilly’s own voice, but a different rhythm and timbre) and her physical presence. But she shows a remarkable aptitude and eagerness toward skewering her own outsized persona—much of the comic juice in the early part of the movie is directed toward deflating “Jennifer Tilly”’s obsession with her own body image (she’s introduced sneaking a Snickers bar beneath her bridal costume) and the ruthless abandon with which she attempts to steer her career (“The Virgin Mary? I could play that.”)
This is acting for the sheer fun of it, and I don’t recall another instance of a star having so much of this kind of fun at her own expense. It’s a performance that made me wish the Academy had the nerve to give her what she deserved back in 1994—a little gold man to go along with that knockout of a hanger-shaped E! award. There’s true bravery, true fuck-off disregard for what others might think, including the assumed throng who probably advised her against throwing in with Chucky for a second go-round, coursing through Jennifer Tilly’s performance as “Jennifer Tilly” that is as admirable to think about as it is exhilarating to watch. (The Seed of Chucky DVD also features more evidence of the actress’s self-deprecating wit, in the form of a short video called “Missive From Romania,” a heartfelt communiqué from the movie’s set in Eastern Europe to Jay Leno—the piece aired on The Tonight Show-- and Tilly’s brilliantly funny diary, written during the production of the film, in which she skewers the grueling life of a working actress in much the same way her on-screen persona gets roasted.) She has remained a very busy actress even after this role, which less gutsy women probably would have feared would kill their careers, and has even made a name for herself in the world of high-stakes professional poker. Tilly currently has three films being readied for release, including what looks to be a promisingly strange glimpse into the world of silent filmmaking, Return to Babylon. She also recently spent a year on the London stage starring in Wallace Shawn’s acclaimed new play Grasses of a Thousand Colors, for which she received rave reviews and, hopefully, the satisfaction of recognition for doing something which to many people (but not all) might seem unexpected.
But if she never did another play or movie (and I hope she keeps doing them until she can demonstrate just how smart and funny and randy octogenarianism can be), I would be forever grateful for the risks she has taken in her career up till now, to disprove the myth of the brainless bimbo starlet (at least as it applies to her); for her incisive character work in Bound; for the infectious effusiveness of her personality, which tends to bubble through no matter what the part; and for the sheer manic bravado of her appearance in Seed of Chucky, which would be a highlight on any great actress’s resumé. Like Marion Davies, Carole Lombard, Judy Holliday and Barbara Stanwyck before her, all the way up through someone like Eva Mendes, with whom she shares a similar sense of humor and abandon (not to mention joyful carnality), Jennifer Tilly proves that sexy can be funny, funny can be sexy, and the geography in between the two can be as rich as an actor’s wildest imagination.
(Jennifer Tilly will join a panel of her Seed of Chucky colleagues, including writer-director Don Mancini, co-star Brad Dourif, and producers David Kirschner and Corey Sienega—all schedules permitting—Thursday night, October 21, at the New Beverly Cinema, when Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule will co-sponsor a screening of the film, along with Jaume Collett-Serra’s Orphan. The Q&A will take place immediately following the feature, which will lead off the double bill at 7:30 p.m. , and it’s going to be a lively one. Don’t miss it!)
If you remain unconvinced of Tilly's willingness to do just about anything for her craft, check out this great still, initiated at her request, on the set of Seed of Chucky, in which she has a great time lampooning the glowing experience of young motherhood, the progeny of Chucky and Tiffany suckling at her breast. You'll find the entire sequence of this photo shoot right here.