There's an old saying in show business that timing is everything. Though it's a long forgotten footnote now, a lot of the Oscar buzz back in 1972 revolved around Shirley MacLaine's risky performance in Desperate Characters, a low-budget "kitchen sink" drama written and directed by Frank Gilroy that seemed decidedly at odds with her recent big budget and big PR films like Sweet Charity and Two Mules for Sister Sara. And yet when the Best Actress nominees were announced, MacLaine wasn't among them, and the blame was laid largely on MacLaine's other entertainment foray that year, her lame and quickly cancelled television series "Shirley's World." In the film world of that day, it was fine to have starred in some pretty big box office disappointments (like Charity), but absolutely unforgivable to have "gone over to the dark side," television-wise, especially in something as universally panned as Shirley's series about a globe-trotting photographer.
And yet Characters remains one of MacLaine's crowning screen achievements, a performance of searing power and pain that is certainly superior to her ultimate Oscar winning one in Terms of Endearment. Though MacLaine herself dismissed the film as a failure, it nonetheless contains two of the most intense--if relentlessly emotionally tamped down--performances of 1970s film, by MacLaine and the superb Kenneth Mars, both actors completely erasing years of comedic star turns in one fell dramatic swoop. In fact, the entire film, largely a dialogue between MacLaine and Mars as an unhappy Manhattan couple, plays a bit like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on barbiturates. These characters, unlike Albee's volcanic couple, are too "proper" to ever really let their emotions loose, hence their Thoreau-esque lives of "quiet desperation."
The plot, such as it is, revolves around twin predicaments--MacLaine is bit by a feral cat she has been feeding, and Mars' longtime law partnership with Gerald O'Loughlin has just dissolved, to the consternation of both men. It doesn't sound like much, and it really isn't, but under Gilroy's low-key direction and with his absolutely unmatched ear for dialogue, it all unravels (literally) as the perfect dystopian portrait of life crammed into a city where everyone is aching to get out.
MacLaine's Sophie is alternately elegant, earthy, wounded and superior, and MacLaine has never been more commanding on screen than in her portrayal of a modern woman caught in the throes of a rabid society that has just reached out and touched her in a very real way. Mars is simply a revelation in this role. If you know him only through his inspired work in such Mel Brooks films as The Producers and Young Frankenstein, prepare to be amazed at the brutish power of his Otto, a brutishness buried under layers of mild-mannered banalities and well-heeled mores. The shocking denouement, when the couple finds that their country refuge has been vandalized, is a tour de force for both actors and will leave most viewers squirming uncomfortably as the webs these two have weaved with each other ensnare them.
Sada Thompson also has a nice turn as Sophie's friend Clare, an aging divorcee (whose husband still camps out in her loft) who brings the truths of what happens to women "of a certain age" home to Sophie one afternoon. Also look for Carol Kane in a quick cameo role as a hippie girl attending an upper west side party that MacLaine and Mars visit.
Desperate Characters is certainly not a film for those who need slam-bang action sequences or conflict spelled out in terms of good guys versus bad guys. For those willing to experience characters through their dialogue (and their silences), this is a widely undervalued gem that sums up the beginning of the independent film movement brilliantly, and it contains arguably MacLaine's finest performance ever.