Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Table of the Round Knight

Those younger viewers amongst us who only know Miss Shirley Knight for her bubbly supporting work in films of varying quality (such as As Good as it Gets, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Grandma's Boy and Paul Blart: Mall Cop) may find it surprising that she was once a) a lovely and trim ingenue, b) the co-star of many notable leading men and c) an actress who fearlessly took on roles that pushed the envelope of the standards of the time.

I first came upon Miss Knight in a 1974 quasi-disaster film called Juggernaut. It's really more of a suspense film concerning bombs placed on a dreary cruise liner and her role is negligible. Later, I found her in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, the utterly ridiculous and tacky 1979 sequel to the original film. Somehow, against all odds, she retains a quiet dignity throughout, perhaps because she is surrounded by a gallery of highly annoying personalities. The recently released DVD sadly neglects to restore several of her scenes which were seen in the expanded TV version, so her role remains rather slight (she might be grateful for this as it is hardly a prestigious addition to her resume!)

She plays the serene, supportive wife of blind novelist Jack Warden and she has several howlingly entertaining moments along the way. Her entrance in the film is classic. A band of survivors is frantically trying to clear a blocked passageway when she reaches, seemingly out of nowhere, to touch one on the shoulder as one might approach a stranger to ask in which direction a certain street lies! Later, she suffers a dislocated shoulder and stretches her acting muscles, allowing her simultaneously stiff and limp appendage to hover to the side like a broken wing. Though no one escaped this film entirely free of career stain, she is far from the most embarrassing member of the cast and comes off as rather elegant, believe it or not.

We know her now as that alternately bubbly or dour, overweight character actress who seems to get nominated for an Emmy or a Golden Globe every time she appears on TV and, had she been given another decent scene or two, she might have copped a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for As Good as it Gets. (Incidentally, she won that role after Betty White turned it down due to implied cruelty towards the scene-stealing little fur ball who finds itself in Jack Nicholson's care.) Shirl deserves credit anyway for convincing audiences that she could possibly have given birth to someone like Helen Hunt!

However, Shirley already had two Oscar noms under her belt for supporting work she did in her early films The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Sweet Bird of Youth (opposite the delectable Paul Newman.) Oddly, she wasn't nominated again once she segued into leading roles, even though she took on some meaty ones and handled them deftly. She appeared, to non-flashy but solid effect, in the female ensemble of The Group, the racially charged Dutchman, the 60s classic Petulia and The Rain People, a film before its time in which she has several luminous moments. She also played Brooke Shields' hippie-ish mother in Endless Love. A Broadway veteran, she can also count The Tony Award as one of her many accolades.

It's telling of my almost complete lack of taste that one of my favorite appearances of hers is in the tawdry, campy mess Color of Night. She has a cameo (two small bits, actually) as Edith Niedelmeyer, the agitated and neurotic wife of a suspicious doctor. Her scene with Bruce Willis in which she wallows all over her living room, reacting to a threat that is never present, should be run on a continuous loop in the Camp Hall of Fame! It's astonishing!

There was no room in Wolfgang Peterson's "who cares" 2006 Poseidon remake for any female larger than a size 2 or perhaps Miss Knight could have played a contemporary version of Belle Rosen, adding a dollop of heart to a film which basically had none. As it is, it's nice to see her continually getting work, though a touch more discretion in projects wouldn't be unappreciated. If that were the case, however, I wouldn't have Edith Niedelmeyer to worship unendingly!


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