June 6, 2002
Back Stage West
Mary Kay Place: need to nurture.
(Actors We Love)
By Pamela Bock
Mary Kay Place's strength comes from her ability to portray offbeat characters with empathy and earnestness – even when the women she's playing don't necessarily read that way on the page. Place has said, "When you're playing characters and they seem unsympathetic on the page, you can't play that. You have to care for these people when you embody them. If you're judging them, they're not fully human when you play them. Something is missing and it doesn't ring true."
Indeed this very talented actor has a way of making audiences relate to even the most seemingly inaccessible characters. Place captivates, whether with her hilarious portrayal of Floris, the completely confusing receptionist, in the wildly inventive Being John Malkovich, her memorable turn as a kidnapping victim in Manny & Lo, or her strong performance as the irritated head nurse [sic] in Girl, Interrupted.
Place essentially got her start in 1976 as aspiring Country & Western star Loretta Haggers in Norman Lear's short-lived nightly soap, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," which became a cult favorite. Despite the character's naivete, Place brought to the role a warmth and lovable charm that won viewers' affections. She also wrote more than 75 songs for her character and recorded several albums. Place continued to write for television and to make guest appearances on "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "All in the Family."
Her true breakout role, however, was as the successful, childless career woman, Meg, in The Big Chill. During a time when the lonely, driven, female lawyer was beginning to become a cliche, Place gained respect for the depth and generosity in her portrayal. Meg's loneliness was palpable, and her famous "Why are there just no good men out there?" monologue became an instant classic.
It seems if there's anything in common among Place's varied, often quirky characters, it's their need to nurtur – albeit sometimes maniacally. As Elaine in the 1994 [sic] film Manny & Lo, Place plays an utterly lonely, unhappy maternity-store clerk – a self-proclaimed know-it-all about everything related to babies and motherhood who dispenses unsolicited baby advice to anyone within earshot. Elaine is kidnapped by a pregnant teen and her sister, who want her to act as midwife, and throughout the film we see her resistance, fear, and eventual fierce protection, however misguided, of her captors. Place's portrayal of this isolated woman, whose desire to be needed is so intense that it drives people away, is arguably her most compelling performance.
In Citizen Ruth, Place is one half of an evangelical husband-and-wife team (Kurtwood Smith plays the husband). Place portrays an unstable, militant anti-abortion activist who kidnaps pregnant Ruth (Laura Dern) to save her baby. Though the character is over-the-top, to say the least, Place plays her straight and doesn't shy away from making her identifiable. And in John Grisham's weeper, The Rainmaker, she plays the defeated and destitute mother of a dying boy. Maybe it's Place's face, which seems at once genuine and completely non-judgmental, that allows her to play these maternal roles with such understated devotion. Even her stint as the household mom and closet S&M vixen in "My So Called Life" had such affection, humanity, and tolerance that we couldn't help but find her endearing.