November 1, 1972– Toni Collette:
“I find it strange that actors are on the covers of magazines.”
I first took note of Toni Collette with her performance in Muriel’s Wedding (1994), a role for which she gained 40 pounds in seven weeks.
I was quite taken with Muriel’s Wedding. It is a fascinating film. It is too rich and complex to be labeled a romcom. I mean how many romcoms have a female lead who rejects the man she has been mooning over and decides instead that her female best friend is the real love of her life?
Muriel’s Wedding isn’t exactly a dramedy either. It doesn’t just represent that era when Australian films were charming the world with quirky stories. It is a searing take on gender, class, disability, abuse, and corruption. And yes, it is a kooky, multi-layered film that rewards with repeated viewings.
In brief: Muriel (Collette) is hurting but is healed by platonic love. She is trapped in an abusive home in her tiny town of Porpoise Spit with a toxic social environment. She seizes opportunities to escape, slightly illegal though they may be. She steals money from her father, a bully whose entire career has been built on corruption and graft. She agrees to a sham marriage just for the money. She lies and schemes. She tries to cope with all the abuse she gets, from inside her family and out.
Muriel isn’t a terrible person. She is utterly endearing, and ironically, so much cooler than anyone else, if only she could see it.
In the first scene she is wearing a leopard print top, with red lips and nails, rocking a leopard print tight miniskirt on her lumpy body. Muriel needs to ditch the losers of her town and step out on her own.
Muriel’s Wedding focuses on how out of place she is, with her weirdness and spunk. The audience can see that she’s adorable, funny, goofy and kind, not ”stupid, fat and useless”. I would want to be friends with Muriel.
It is a furiously feminist movie. With each misadventure, Muriel moves towards empowerment, forging a friendship with someone who values and respects her; standing up to her abusive father.
Muriel identifies perfect happiness with getting married, she haunts wedding shops and eventually ends up in a marriage of convenience with a South African swimming star who needs a wife to get an Australian passport. During their wedding, she lets out little simpering squeaks, and he looks at her with slack-jawed incredulity.
But, Muriel discovers which friendships are true and which stink, and tragically, about seeing that her mother must have been young and beautiful and hopeful once too, she cannot allow herself to meet the same fate.
Lots of little moments resonate: Muriel’s friend Rhonda Epinstalk, played by the always terrific Rachel Griffiths, is unapologetically sex-positive, and when her casual sex partners think a guy is taking advantage of Muriel they intervene on her behalf.
The patriarchy is the decisive factor in creating Muriel’s reprehensible father, in the behavior of her hapless siblings, and even in the despicable Deirdre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson) turns out to just be a sad woman in a man’s world. Muriel’s father exemplifies toxic masculinity. He’s macho, corrupt, racist, cruel to his children and abusive to his poor wife. The most likeable he ever gets is when he is grudgingly impressed by Muriel telling him off before she leaves for good.
Muriel’s patriarchal fantasy that keeps her alive is the dream that one day she’ll be worthy when someone will want to marry her. But, her Salvation comes from the moment Rhonda arrives in a cloud of cigarette smoke and hairspray, with her irrepressible honesty, humor and ramped-up libido, she models a kind of femininity that is uncompromising and powerful, as well as tender and warm. Their friendship is organic, true and mutually affirming, making their reconciliation after Muriel really does behave badly a genuinely joyful one.
In the end, Muriel and Rhonda rescue themselves and each other, which is so much sweeter than anything a boring Prince Charming character could ever be.
Genuine joy is what we need right now as we face this dark time when women have good reason to be circumspect about the men in their lives. When the going gets tough, the tough women find other women, and Muriel’s Wedding is a reminder that female friendships are so often what pulls women through.
Muriel tells Rhonda:
“When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I sat in my room for hours and listened to ABBA songs. Since I met you and moved to Sydney, my life is as good as an ABBA song, as good as Dancing Queen.”
Muriel’s Wedding has a lot of big and little laughs, but also a melancholy undercurrent, which reveals itself toward the end of the film in a series of surprises and unexpected developments.
Like so many of her films, Muriel’s Wedding works because of Collett’s considerable charm and talent. She has received six Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards, an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award (SAG). She has been nominated twice for a BAFTA and once for an Academy Award and a Tony Award.
In 1999, she was Oscar-nominated for her performance in The Sixth Sense, and the next year she made her Tony Award-nominated Broadway debut with the lead role in the musical The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt.
I especially love her work in indies such as About A Boy (2002), for which she was nominated for a BAFTA, Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Emma (1996), Velvet Goldmine (1998), The Hours (2002), Enough Said (2013) with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener.
She played the lead role on the Showtime series United States Of Tara (2009-2011) created by Diablo Cody and produced by Steven Spielberg. The series follows the life of Tara (Collette), a suburban housewife and mother coping with multiple personality disorder, including a male personality who becomes involved with a female. The series also features Tara’s son as an openly gay teenager. She won Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for playing Tara.
Apparently, she likes to work. In 2017, she was in six feature film releases, including the superhero flick XXX: Return Of Xander Cage, the thriller Unlocked and the French drama Madame.
Among her four films released in 2018 was her acclaimed performance in the horror film Hereditary, which could likely bring her another Oscar nomination.
Collette has been open in her love for her LGBTQ fans:
“It was right after Muriel’s Wedding. The combination of ABBA music and my playing outsider but who finds her groove was probably a small flag to the gay community.”
In Connie And Carla (2004), Nia Vardalos and Colette play two performers whose lifelong friendship and love of musical theatre have brought them nothing but career dead ends. Despite this, they continue their optimism, hosting a variety act at an airport lounge. After accidentally witnessing a mafia hit in Chicago, they go on the run, landing in Los Angeles. They pose as drag queens and audition to host a drag revue at a gay club called “The Handlebar”. Collette:
“When we were shooting Connie And Carla, we went to a local bar where they did drag shows. Hanging out with the drag queens on set was my favorite part of working on that movie. They have an innate acerbic wit and sense of irony that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Being from Australia, which is a very dry place, I met my match with those guy-gals.”
Currently, I am enjoying her work in Wanderlust, a British television limited series produced by BBC One, now streaming on Netflix. It is a testament to the overwhelming nature of Netflix in 2018 that, a month ago, the streaming service debuted this steamy drama about an open marriage and no one seems to have noticed. I recommend it. Collette’s contribution pushes it over edge.
Coming up, two more Netflix projects Velvet Buzzsaw a horror film with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and John Malkovich, and Unbelievable a drama miniseries. On October 31, Collette began filming with Daniel Craig starring in the film Knives Out, a mystery movie with Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis.