The first lady of funny
The trophy presented by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is called the Actor. It is made of solid bronze, and is shaped like a performer holding both a mask of comedy and a mask of tragedy, and nobody has more Actors than Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The actress could not attend the ceremony on 21 January because she has been battling breast cancer for months, with encouraging success. She watched from home in her pyjamas, tweeting to her friends at the Veep table who won for Outstanding Performance By An Ensemble In A Comedy Series: “Miss being at the table with you all. How was the chicken?”
Louis-Dreyfus gets a share of that, of course, leading the Veep cast from the front as the foul-mouthed former vice-president of the US, but she also won the Actor for Outstanding Performance By A Female Actor In A Comedy Series, taking her Actor wins over the years to nine, more than any other performer. The guild comprises more than 150,000 working actors and these prizes are immensely cherished by performers because they come from a jury of their peers, and no jury could begrudge Louis-Dreyfus a pole position.
When we first met her in Seinfeld (available on Amazon Prime), Louis-Dreyfus was a curly-haired boor. Her character Elaine Benes was a judgemental woman who broke up with men for the most seemingly insignificant of reasons. Benes was herself—despite her ability to carry off large sunglasses—
a woman far from grace. As she demonstrated through the series, she knew too little about Tolstoy, sombreros or shrinkage, but had her priorities straight when it came to contraceptive sponges and the men she believed deserved them.
In a show about four unlikeable protagonists, Louis-Dreyfus was the scarily self-centred one who brought out the worst in the helpless men around her. Even when she was the one taken aback, she could shove them around with an unforgettable “Get out!”
This characterization of the unapologetically selfish comedienne served her excellently. After Seinfeld, she showed up on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (Hotstar) as a bitterly insecure and pushy version of herself. After this was a delicious little part in Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development (Netflix), as a scheming lawyer. Then came her solo outing, a well-received sitcom called The New Adventures Of Old Christine, where she played a jaded and eye-rolling single mother who ran her own gym and—unlike other sitcom actors—managed her life on her own terms.
Looking back at these characters, we can see a pattern emerge, and it is that of Louis-Dreyfus playing a sarcastic shark. The tools were always there: her majestic condescension, her ability to slaughter a soliloquy with a single snort, the emphasis she can give a withering look, her ice-cold timing, her fearlessness in making an absolute fool of herself, and yet looking convinced that the others are more stupid. Louis-Dreyfus is a treasure, and we only really saw how brightly she dazzled once she walked into the Oval Office.
Armando Iannucci’s devastatingly prickly political satire Veep (Hotstar) pulls back the covers (but never the punches) as it shows us how sickening politicians at the highest levels can be, how vulgar, how juvenile and how unbelievably incompetent. Louis-Dreyfus was cast as vice-president Selina Meyer, and not only did the actress prove to be savagely and poetically profane, she also showed us how—with her increasingly lurid insults and vicious vocabulary—she was doing it to stay ahead of the boys. Here is a woman in a man’s world, and she knows she needs to be king of the gutter. Hence the relentless insults. Hail to the chief.
The last season of Veep saw Meyer as a complete, irredeemable monster, possibly in a bid to keep pace with the real president of the US, and while this is inconsistent with the character as a whole—it makes her disappointingly one-note—the actress embraces every loathsome aspect and runs with it. She is awful and self-serving and venal, a really rude lady who looks good in a red dress. And, as presidential candidates go, the US could do worse.
Through her blistering and brilliant comedic work, Louis-Dreyfus has consistently embodied the need of the hour: a woman who doesn’t feel the need to say sorry. Who could be a better idol? May she get well soon and come stun us again.
Also on Sunday night at the SAG Awards, Morgan Freeman, on winning the Lifetime Achievement Award, declared it unfair that the trophy was shaped like a man. “It works from the back,” he said, to thunderous applause. “From the front, it’s gender specific.” These are words to think about, and if the Actor is indeed to be recast, there can be no better model than Louis-Dreyfus. She swears, she scores—and she isn’t afraid of saying The English Patient sucked.
Streaming tip of the week
Those in the mood for more Louis-Dreyfus should check out the warm romance ‘Enough Said’ (Netflix). Directed by Nicole Holofcener, the film is a tender, realistic look at love and co-stars the late James Gandolfini. And then there’s the Julia Louis-Dreyfus episode of ‘Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee’ (Netflix), which reunites her briefly (and gloriously) with Jerry Seinfeld.
Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
He tweets @rajasen