Film

Film Poll: How Tiffany Haddish Turned the Comic-Relief Sidekick Into the Star of the Show

The “Girls Trip” actress has emerged as a spirited force in Hollywood — even as the comedy-averse Academy predictably passed her over

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Tiffany Haddish’s Oscar fate was sealed the second the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tagged her to co-host their nominations announcement show on the morning of Tuesday, January 23. Granted, her inclusion as a nominee was something of a long shot to begin with, but the odds were bettered when she won the Best Supporting Actress prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. And despite the Academy’s general disdain for comedy, Supporting Actress is one category in which the Oscars can bring themselves to feel charitably about laughter. Haddish’s announcing duty was a shrewd yet calculated move: It guaranteed that fans of her glorious turn as Girls Trip’s Dina would tune in at the crack of dawn Pacific Time hoping Haddish would call herself by her own name, while also serving as a convenient, cover-our-asses consolation prize for the Academy if she didn’t.

Haddish (number three in the Voice poll’s Best Supporting Performance category) wasn’t tasked with reading the category in which she would ultimately not appear. But that didn’t stop her from owning the show. She mispronounced director Luca Guadagnino’s name, but made up for it with the impassioned vocal flourish she employed whenever she said his film’s title, Call Me by Your Name. Her improvised asides were funny and real, especially when she acknowledged her mistakes. It was refreshing to watch her take the piss out of the industry’s most pretentious, navel-gazing event, while simultaneously offering the usual reverence. And for those of us who had hoped for a Dina-style response if the Academy didn’t honor her portrayer — well, it was there if you were paying attention. As soon as everyone realized there was no “H” in the alphabetically listed space between Mary J. Blige (nominated for Mudbound, number nine) and Allison Janney (for I, Tonya, number six), Haddish offered up a barely audible “hmph,” as if to say, “Don’t think I didn’t see that.” Her subtle commentary was perfectly timed for my purposes, coming as it did just after I screamed at my own screen: “Gurl, you wuz ROBBED!”

On the surface, Haddish’s Dina appears to be the standard-issue loose cannon who amps up the hijinks in the buddy-movie/road-trip genre Girls Trip inhabits. As the film introduces its characters, we can see the familiar patterns taking shape. Even Dina’s hilarious first line, “It’s chlamydia, girl! That shit you can cure!,” hints that her role may simply be that of the hit-and-run, raunchy-one-liner variety. But the movie’s not ten minutes old before Dina appears in one of the most violent (and funniest) product-placement scenes ever filmed. Not only are her words about her colleague stealing her Go-Gurt extreme, but her actions are as well. Suddenly, there’s a hint of danger to go with those snappy, sidesplitting retorts. All this is presented at such a high level that one thinks Dina’s intensity can’t possibly be sustained for 122 minutes.

And here’s where Tiffany Haddish shatters our expectations — because Dina’s opening scenes are just an appetizer. Haddish has at least four more courses of hilarity to feed us, followed by numerous after-dinner drinks. And this is not just a “turn on the camera and let me run roughshod over the movie” type of performance; every single twist and turn of this runaway roller coaster has been perfectly calibrated so that it never flies off the rails. Haddish knows what the great screen comedians knew: Laser-like precision is required in order to pull off a performance of purely chaotic comedy. As the Bard once wrote, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

A great example of this is the sequence where three members of the Flossy Posse (the moniker the central quartet of women have long adopted for themselves) discover that their leader’s husband, unbeknownst to his wife, has been cheating on her. They’re all angry, but Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith compartmentalize their anger according to character. They also try to rein in Dina, who vows not to succumb to her raging id. Haddish’s performance then becomes a series of peaks and valleys that require physical, emotional, and verbal acting dexterity. First, her silent seething is a great visual gag where you can see the levels of anger go from low to high tide. Then, she blurts out the affair to Regina Hall, genuinely pissed that her girl is getting played by a trifling man. When she runs into Hall’s husband chatting with an older woman, Dina becomes an avenging angel armed with a broken champagne bottle. But Dina’s verbal takedown is even sharper and more pointed than the shards of glass she’s holding. “Your bloodline is nasty!” she yells, stretching out the word “nasty” until it becomes the most terrifying and hilarious object in her possession.

This is the type of insane, richly crafted performance in a comedy that’s beyond rare. Haddish evokes the comic fearlessness of the great Carole Lombard, the go-for-broke characterizations of the immortal Madeline Kahn, and the pitch-perfect onstage joke delivery of Richard Pryor. Everything she does, no matter how crazy, is in service to Dina’s character. And as ferocious as Dina is, Haddish also makes her capable of being deeply wounded by the friends she loves so much. It’s no wonder Paul Thomas Anderson wants to work with her; she can easily master his characters’ penchants for swerving between explosiveness and vulnerability.

“Black Girl Magic” was the term Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee used at the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner to describe Haddish’s performance. Her acceptance speech, which I had the privilege to experience in person, has rightfully achieved legendary status. But even more memorable for me was the moment when I took her speech’s advice to “come up [to me] confident.” I got my chance at the end of the evening.

“My mother saw Girls Trip in the theater four times,” I said. “And this is a lady who only goes to Madea movies.”

“Ohhhh!” said Ms. Haddish, genuinely touched by Mom’s effort. Then she hugged me, or, rather, bear-hugged me. Then she rubbed on me mid-hug, the loving way my auntie used to do when I was a kid. “You give your mother this hug!” she said. “And you rub on her just like this. And you tell her it’s from Tiffany. You tell her it’s from me!” Black Girl Magic indeed.

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