Hothouse Flower

Gillian Anderson Blooms in Edith Wharton’s Tragedy of Manners

Lily Bart, the beautiful socialite destroyed by a ruthless hierarchical machinery in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, remains one of modern literature's most famously complicated tragic heroines. Lily's contradictions are central to the pathos of her plight—scapegoated and out-manipulated by the rapacious blue bloods of belle epoque New York, she is, in the end, fatally undone by her own stubborn idealism and inconvenient self-awareness. In Terence Davies's scrupulous, harrowing film adaptation of Wharton's 1905 novel (opening December 22), Gillian Anderson delineates Lily's slide into poverty (and corresponding elevation to martyrdom) with a forensic precision worthy of her television alter ego. Proceeding from ambivalent coquetry to tremulous anxiety to numb fatigue and finally bottomless despair, the 32-year-old X-Files star, who is in virtually every scene, rises to the occasion with a formidably complex, perfectly modulated, enormously moving performance.

To date known almost exclusively as Special Agent Dana Scully, Anderson, in town for a New York Film Festival screening (and on a 24-hour break from the set of The X-Files), confesses that watching herself in the film has proved something of an ordeal: "With Scully, she seems to edit so much and there's nothing embarrassing about what she does, and if there is, it's minor and fleeting," explains Anderson. "When I have an opportunity to dive into another character and let it all spill out, it just does—and it can be difficult to watch. It's difficult to bear witness to Lily's struggle, the wretchedness of it when she starts to descend. It's not pretty. I feel like I'm exposing aspects of myself to such a radical degree it's almost as if I'm standing in front of an audience naked."

"She reaches genuine tragedy without making it sentimental," says Davies of Anderson's performance, "and that's not easy." Having never seen The X-Files, the director invited her to audition purely on the basis of "her Singer Sargent face." (Unlikely but rewarding casting choices continue to result from Davies's avowed estrangement from contemporary pop culture; outdoing the curious spectacle of Denis Leary in the Deep South elegy The Neon Bible, The House of Mirthis inhabited by such costume-drama improbabilities as Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, and Anthony LaPaglia, each one almost as triumphant as Anderson.) The actress, it turns out, was an avid admirer of The Long Day Closes, the final film in Davies's autobiographical cycle. "I saw it twice and had to get my own copy," she says. "There was something that spoke to me—the emotionality of his camerawork, how he's not afraid of silences." Davies's unfamiliarity with her body of work was, if anything, a plus. "I love meeting people who've never seen the show," she says. "They don't come in with preconceived notions of who you are and what you can do."

"What's so fascinating to me about Lily is that she's not an innocent in all of this."
photo: Chris Schrameck
"What's so fascinating to me about Lily is that she's not an innocent in all of this."

Preconceptions seem unavoidable in this case—a TV star of a cult sci-fi series with minimal film experience in a movie version of a beloved classic—and detractors are likely to focus their disdain on the casting of Anderson. The New York Timesreview, in an empirically disprovable claim, declared her too "big-boned" for the role; she's a petite five foot two. ("That's incomprehensible," Davies snorts.) Wharton purists and other skeptics should note that Anderson's work on The X-Files, counter to stereotype, transcends mere deadpan composure and often involves single-handedly adding dramatic heft and unexpected poignancy to attenuated plotlines. Besides, who's to say that the role of Scully—unflappable poise and noble self-sacrifice in the face of feverish paranoia, sinister conspiracies, and thwarted romance—isn't in essence a dress rehearsal for the brutal tribal blood sport of old New York?

Anderson, for her part, seems highly attuned to the psychology of her character: "What's so fascinating to me about Lily, and I hope it comes across, is that she's not an innocent in all of this. She can be as catty and as judgmental and as wrapped up in the splendor of the material things around her as the next person, and that adds to the tragic aspect of the story. Wharton didn't set her up as a pure victim of circumstance. Lily's fear of completely letting go, her ego attachment, is her tragic flaw. It's a human foible, and she brought it on herself in the sense that we all do. One of the things I love about her is how she continues to make mistakes. She's not perfect; she's not good at the games of the world."

Meticulous as it is, The House of Mirthis notably free of plush, frilly Merchant Ivory distractions, and Davies's severity apparently extended to his direction of the actors. "Terence knows exactly what he wants, and he's adamant about it being that way," says Anderson. "He's incredibly particular about vocal rhythms. He had a lot of opinions about me remaining in the middle register, which gives you access to both ranges of emotions but is also more challenging. It's about not committing and it can also be frustrating or annoying—which is what makes it effective. You get a sense of people never saying what they mean."

Davies says restraint was the key in steering Anderson through the depths of Lily's tragedy: "Even when she does break down, it's not complete abandonment. When Rosedale [one of Lily's suitors, played by LaPaglia] says to her, 'If only you'd let me help you, you could have wiped your feet on them,' she just smiles and her eyes are full of tears. And I told her, 'But don't you darecry. I want your eyes to fill with tears and that is all.' It's infinitely more moving. For her final scenes, I said to her, 'You've got to play it stoically. The only time you cry is when you go to Selden's—the floodgates open, you just don't care anymore, you touch the absolute nadir." The meltdown in question, a spontaneous expression of naked despondency before her hesitant would-be paramour (played by Stoltz) has a scorching immediacy, though Anderson, a self-described perfectionist, says she's not entirely satisfied with it: "It was better in my hotel room by myself."

Both director and actress at least concur on the power of the extraordinary concluding tableau mort, which they nailed on only the second take. Says Davies, "All I told her for that scene was a quote from Keats: 'To cease upon the midnight with no pain.' " "It was one of those extraordinary moments where everything was suspended in time," says Anderson. "I was very aware of where the camera was, and the camera felt like a piece of me, and we were in this dance together, and everything, moment by moment, was working, down to the smallest details. Afterwards in the background, Terence was up and screaming. It was very exciting."

Anderson's portrayal augurs a successful small-to-big-screen crossover, but for now, she has signed on to stay with The X-Filesuntil 2002, if a ninth season gets under way next year. With David Duchovny sidelined and newcomer Robert Patrick in a strictly subordinate capacity, Anderson has graduated to sole lead. "Things have naturally shifted to where they need to be," she says with a nervous laugh. What pleases her most, she hastens to point out, is a more manageable work schedule, which has this year allowed her to spend more time with her six-year-old daughter, and a greater sense of ease about her character (like Duchovny, she's tried her hand at writing and directing). "When I first started out, I was so naive and so much in a place of survival—just in terms of dealing with being employed—that I wasn't much of a participant in Scully's path. I was just showing up and doing what everybody told me to do. I've settled into her, and more of my personality has gone into Scully over time."

Anderson's rabid fan base should ensure larger-than-arthouse crowds for The House of Mirth—New York Film Festival screenings sold out in record time as X-Philes joined the Film Society of Lincoln Center in droves to secure advance tickets. This comes as news to her, as does the unofficial, oft-repeated statistic that she has more fan Web sites than any other actor ("What do you mean? I do? Oh my god!").

Anderson has picked up a British Independent Film Award for her performance, but she seems somewhat less confident about the reception that awaits The House of Mirth in the U.S. "I'm not sure how it's going to play here—a period piece, no sex and violence, or at least not the kind people are used to." Davies advanced a theory in a British interview a few months ago that Anderson might harbor mixed feelings about the movie. "I have no idea what she thinks of the film because she's not said," he confirms, a little huffily. "It's surprised and hurt me." When Davies's remarks are put to her, Anderson politely but firmly refuses comment: "It's not something I want to address publicly." What she will say is that she "worked desperately hard on this character. I'm so hypersensitive when playing another role to not do anything Scully-like." Which might explain why she's somewhat taken aback by the suggestion that the frustrated ache between Lily and Selden finds an ironic parallel in the long-standing Scully and Mulder slowburn: "I'd never thought of that. Hmm, Scully and Mulder have, I think, made a conscious, silent choice to not be together. With Lily and Selden, it's just not that way; it's their own fault that they're not together. It's almost like a lazy mistake."

Anderson is at her liveliest when discussing options for her post-X-Filescareer—she wants to write and direct, maybe make a documentary, perhaps even become politically active ("I think if we got Hillary Clinton to watch The Contenderand run in 2004, we'd have ourselves the best president we've had in decades"). As for acting ambitions, she reels off a list: "I'd love to do some theater, maybe in London. I'd love to do comedy; I think Christopher Guest and Garry Shandling are hilarious. I've done so little, there's so much. . . . I'd play anything, everything—a Southern belle, a vixen, a drug addict." She laughs at her sudden burst of enthusiasm: "All of it, bring it on."


Plus: Jessica Winter's interview with The House of Mirth's director Terence Davies.

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