If you judge her strictly by her most recent roles, Barbara Hershey is a very strong maternal figure, not to be taken lightly. She is magnificent as a harridan of a mother in 'Black Swan,' which came out on Blu-ray and DVD yesterday, pushing her daughter Natalie Portman to new heights, even as she watches her every move with suspicion. She is much sweeter as Patrick Wilson's mother in 'Insidious,' which opens theatrically on Friday, and is surprisingly supportive of daughter-in-law Rose Byrne when the latter suspects the family home is haunted,
'Insidious' is not the first time that Hershey has been involved with on-screen apparitions; she fought against unseen supernatural forces that attacked her sexually in 'The Entity,' and she's had her share of other roles which tested the bounds of believability. Yet she's always clothed her characters in a cloak of humanity. She has built a body of work, which now spans more than four decades, that encompasses all shades of "good" and "evil," more often settling in the gray areas between the two.
There's not a more perfect example of her ability to sketch a portrait in shades of gray than in her portrayal of Madame Serena Merle in 'The Portrait of a Lady,' based on the classic novel by Henry James. Watch it and you won't question why Hershey was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role.
Directed by Jane Campion, working from a screenplay by Laura Jones, 'The Portrait of a Lady' focuses on Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), an American woman in the 1870s who spurns a steady stream of suitors (the wealthy Richard E. Grant, her sickly cousin Martin Donovan, and the dashing Viggo Mortensen) in favor of exploring life as a single woman.
Then she meets Madame Merle, playing the piano beautifully. From their first meeting, Isabel is enchanted by Madame Merle, who seems to Isabel to be the "vivid image of success." Her positive impression is deepened when the older woman takes young Isabel under her wing, at least to an extent.
Later, after Isabel inherits a small fortune, Madame Merle deliberately 'puts her in the way' of the supercilious Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) for her own mysterious reasons. Osmond appears to be an unlikely suitor for Isabel; we've seen the way he acts with Madame Merle, revealing his cynical, corrosive, self-obsessed nature, and it's not apparent why Madame Merle would want to see the two of them together.
Eventually, it becomes clear, but up until that point, we're left to contemplate Madame Merle's motivations exclusively through the facial expressions and body language employed by the actress who is playing the role, since the words she speaks reveal previous few clues. And it's in the exuding of a reserved personality that Hershey excels.
By the time of the film's release in 1996, Hershey already had dozens of roles to her credit. She began working on television in her teens, debuting in feature films in 'With Six You Get Eggroll' and then denting the psyche of millions of boys (and men) with her free-spirited performance in 'Last Summer,' which came out when she was just 19.
She got naked with David Carradine for Martin Scorsese in 'Boxcar Bertha,' changed her name to Barbara Seagull for a couple of years, and kept busy during the 70s, but her career moved to a higher track after her appearance in the television adaptation of 'From Here to Eternity.' After that came memorable roles in 'The Stunt Man,' 'The Right Stuff,' and 'Hannah and Her Sisters.'
The latter three films are all personal favorites, and Hershey was incredibly effective in each of them, but still ahead lay a quartet of great accomplishments, each providing an opportunity for Hershey to display her subtle versatility: 'Shy People,''A World Apart,''The Last Temptation of Christ' (reuniting her with Scorsese) and 'Beaches.' Three of those films are very good to excellent, and while 'Beaches' was more of a commercial, rather than artistic triumph, it fit into the pattern of high-quality work that Hershey was doing at the time.
Then came a fallow period, during which the actress remained in demand, even while the parts themselves were less demanding, until 'The Portrait of a Lady' presented itself.
'Portrait' gave her a chance to show the full range of her abilities. The first time she looks at Isabel, it's with a steady gaze, as though she's sizing her up in the blink of an eye. She is every inch a lady, possessed of extraordinary self-control and restraint, holding back her true feelings, sounding out her sentences with a rounded elegance.
Because she appears so prim, so proper, and so kind, we can't fathom why she puts up with Osmond's conduct. Clearly they have a shared history, and by the way she holds her body we can see that she is somewhat repelled by his actions, yet still she seems to want to aid him in his quest.
When, finally, her emotions are unstopped, and the full force of her personality comes flooding out, it's in a wash of anguish and regret, tinged with anger as she realizes the negative consequences of her actions, no matter how well-intentioned and selfless they were from her point of view.
It's a moment of sorrow and pity, of an inward ache, a heartfelt desire to be relieved of the guilt for any pain that has been caused to others. It's remarkable acting by a remarkable actress; Barbara Hershey's finest performance to date.