Saturday, September 6, 2008

Inspiring Careers in Modern Cinema: Chloe Sevigny

Chloe Sevigny 12

Born in Darien, Connecticut in the late fall of 1974 to a strict Catholic family, Chloe Stevens Sevigny probably seemed like an unlikely candidate to blossom into one of the most uncompromising and bravest actors in modern American cinema. Since her searing screen debut in Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) though she has been just that, an intense and potent reminder that the independent heart of American cinema always has a strong backbone behind it.
Springing from both Polish and French heritage, Sevigny was the youngest of two children in a relatively normal household. Her rather sheltered world began to open up as a teenager when she began to make regular visits to New York City in the late eighties and early nineties. Blossoming into a remarkably striking and beautiful young woman, Sevigny was discovered just past her 18th birthday by a Fashion magazine editor who brought her on as an intern.

After landing her intern position, Sevigny’s world quickly changed and within a year she was modeling on the front of a Gigolo Aunts album, hanging out with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and having odes written to her in the press by Jay Mcinerney. Cinema seemed the natural extension for the exciting young scenester and it came calling in 1995 when Sevigny came into the view of controversial photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark, who was planning a new film based on a screenplay by a young writer named Harmony Korine.

It’s a bit hard to describe the impact Kids had on the film world in 1995, but it was a searing one and much of it was due to the devastating performance Chloe Sevigny delivered as Jennie for Clark and Korine. Simultaneously projecting an inexperience with a world weariness and an intensity not possessed in very many actors from her generation, Sevigny’s work in Kids marked her as one of the most important newcomers of the nineties and destroyed doubters who thought Mcinerney’s “It-Girl” would be a quick flash in the pan.

Sevigny followed up Kids with the remarkable Trees Lounge (1996), a knowing and controlled film directed by and starring Steve Buscemi. Again delivering a haunting performance in a smaller role, Sevigny’s work and the film itself continues to be one of the small hidden treasures of American Independent Cinema in the nineties.

Next up for the young actress was Gummo (1997), the directorial debut film from Korine and the film which briefly marked the end of her first run with strictly independent films, as her next work would be relatively high profile affair.
1998’s Palmetto (1998) from director Volker Schlondorff would indeed be Sevigny’s first mainstream work and it would see her working alongside Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue. The cast is particularly good in Palmetto but the modern noir finally suffers from a rather tired script.

After the disappointing Palmetto, Chloe appeared in Whit Stillman’s interesting The Last Days of Disco(1998) opposite a strong Kate Beckinsale. Despite not finding the success of Stillman’s previous works Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco has arguably aged better and is need of a reassessment.

Sevigny would strike gold with her next film, a low budget affair called Boys Don’t Cry (1999) that would become one of the major films of 1999 and would garner her an Academy Award Nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Viewed today, Boys Don’t Cry is quite a haunting work and the pairing of Sevigny and Hilary Swank was an inspired choice by director Kimberly Peirce. It is worth noting that Chloe was originally up for the lead in the film but she opted for the supporting spot, a career line she has bravely followed throughout her career.

After filming Boys Don’t Cry, Sevigny was offered the lead female role in Buffalo 66 (1998), the debut feature film from writer-director-actor Vincent Gallo. Scheduling conflicts didn’t permit it and the plum role went to Christina Ricci, although Gallo and Sevigny’s paths would cross again several years later.

Boys Don’ Cry proved to be a hard film to follow for the recently Oscar nominated Sevigny. She became more and more of a fashion icon and had strong roles in Korine’s Julian Donkey Boy (1999) and Mary Harron’s audacious American Psycho (1999) but she seemed out of place in A Map of the World (1999). Some TV work followed as well as a spot in the Anthology film Ten Minutes Older (2002) before she would return to form in Olivier Assayas’ flawed but still powerful DemonLover (2002) and the ferocious Party Monster (2002) for directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.

2003 would prove to be the most controversial year in Chloe Sevigny’s career. It would be a year that would see her work with fiercly uncompromising directors ranging from Lars Von Trier to Vincent Gallo, and it would end with her losing her contract at the William Morris Agency.
Von Trier’s masterful and bruising Dogville (2003) opened the year for Sevigny and she more than held her own against award winning performers ranging from Nicole Kidman to Lauren Bacall to Ben Gazzara…not to mention she survived Von Trier and indeed it is the unforgettable Dogville Confessions where we perhaps see Chloe Sevigny at both her most vulnerable and bravest.

The heated and much argued about Dogville couldn’t hold a candle in controversary to Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003), one of the most individualistic and moving American Independent films of the past thirty years. As the very damaged Daisy that haunts Gallo’s character, Sevigny delivers her most poetic work and it's unfortunate that such a powerful turn was lost in the media frenzy surrounding the film’s climatic oral sex scene. The Brown Bunny remains one of the most distinct American films of the decade and Chloe Sevigny’s performance as the ghostly Daisy remains one of the most resonate.

A strong small turn in the striking and rather brilliant Shattered Glass (2003) got lost amidst the furious reaction The Brown Bunny inspired. Without an agency backing her, one might have expected Sevigny to fade from view, a fact that has made her last few years all the more inspiring and remarkable.
Quality roles in the fine Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda (2004) as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) followed The Brown Bunny as did her turn in the disappointing Dogville follow-up production Manderlay (2005), and if the remake of Brian De Palma’s Sisters (2006) was a mistake then the same can’t said for David Fincher’s jaw dropping Zodiac (2007), a brilliant and epic piece of work that finds Chloe again delivering another stirring and solid supporting turn amidst some of the other best actors of her generation.
In the past couple of years Chloe Sevigny has maintained a high profile thanks to many striking print ads and a continuing role on the acclaimed HBO series Big Love. Her upcoming features include Barry Munday and The Killing Room. Not surprisingly, Chloe has supporting roles in both, and they will both no doubt continue one of the most interesting and inspiring careers of the past two decades.
Unlike many of her ‘indie’ peers who came out of the nineties, Chloe Sevigny has for the most part shied away from mainstream Hollywood. Even studio made films like Palmetto have at the very least had an independent feel. Chloe Sevigny's unwillingness to buckle to the system is beyond refreshing and at times feels downright heroic. Long may she continue to stay on the outskirts…

For more on Chloe Sevigny, please visit this remarkable fan site, where all of the above images plus thousands of others can be seen.


Steve Langton said...

This piece on Sevigny was an absolute joy to read. It's been great to follow a body of work from an actress who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty, and who displays so much more than a desire to chase the most lucrative productions. Her choice of roles displayed the utmost courage, and her performances contain an astonishingly wide range of emotions and an ability to actually inhabit her characters. Few actresses today are more worthy of our attention.

Keith said...

Wow! What a fantastic post on Chloe. I've always been a big fan of her. She's done a lot of interesting and uncompromising work. It's nice to see someone who's not afraid to do the type of films that she's done. I also enjoy seeing her on Big Love, one of my favorite tv shows.

Unknown said...

Outstanding subject for an article, Jeremy. Chloe Sevigny has been one of the more beguiling actresses to appear in film in the last fifteen years.

Sevigny is like the anti-Sarah Jessica Parker, while imagining her in those types of girlie roles would instantly give the film an edge and believability that most consumer entertainment product desperately lacks these days.

Unknown said...

Great article, Jeremy. I've been a fan of Sevigny ever since KIDS and you bring up some excellent examples of her stand-out work over the years. I really loved her performance in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO. She came across as very sympathetic in that role, esp. compared to Kate Beckinsale's elitist character. The are rumblings that Criterion are going to be releasing it on DVD. One can only hope.

I too, thought she was really good in THE BROWN BUNNY, a brilliant film that was unfortunately overshadowed by its rather notorious conclusion.

I always look forward to see what she does next.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks everyone for all the very nice comments concerning the post and Chloe. I really enjoyed writing this and revisiting this woman's very remarkable career. It really struck me as I was writing it that she has never even came close to 'selling out'...