The Private Lives of Pippa Lee has turned into something of a guilty pleasure for me. It’s not an exceptionally good film but with all its faults and missteps I still find it enjoyable. Of course most of that depends on the performance of the luminous Robin Wright Penn in the eponymous lead role, but she is supported by a host of Women, big and small that make her performance all the more beautiful. It’s a true Supporting Actress bevy even though many are just playing short roles. So I decided to single them all out in their lovely performances.
Blake Lively, Julianne Moore, Shirley Knight, Winona Ryder, Maria Bello & Monica Bellucci as an ingenue, a lesbian, a friend, an adulteress, a bipolar mother and a woman scorned
I’d add Zoe Kazan to the list, but her non acting disgusts me, so I’ll pretend that she was not there.
Blake Lively has the toughest job of the lot. I’ve never found her coasting on Gossip Girl to be particularly noteworthy, but as a younger version of Ms. Penn I must admit that she does a admirable job. Her performance is most lovely when measured against that of her mother, Suky, played by Maria Bello. Bello bursts into the film for a few short scenes to play the bipolar mother of our main character. We don’t usually see her like this; her most notable roles are often those of reticence, but she is an actress and acting is what she does here. As good as Wright Penn is [and she really is good] I just wished that the film could have focused more on the dynamic of the Bello/Lively relationship. She chews the scenery, of course, but I’m damned if it’s not the best performance of the film, next to Wright Penn. But comparing the supporting women would do them an injustice, because they’re all fine, very fine.
Take Winona Ryder, for example, as Sandra. She is a friend of Pippa, who is sleeping with Pippa’s husband [Alan Arkin]. Sandra is so distraught when Pippa finds her in Herb's office she attempts to slit her wrist – with a disposable blade of all things – and ends up in the hospital alongside Herb who’s had a heartattack. My favourite moment of Winona comes when she begs Pippa for forgiveness. On her knees in an unflattering hospital gown, she grovels at Pippa’s feet. It’s an uncomfortable moment for the character, but Winona has never been afraid of the uncomfortable and it’s the lack of inhibition that makes her Sandra completely real.and also delciously funny. She is an Oscar nominee, after all. Julianne Moore, another Oscar gal, shot her scenes in three days. She plays Kat the lesbian lover of Pippa’s aunt who seems hell-bent on turning Pippa into a soft-core porn star. Julianne’s comedic timing is vastly underrated and as she delivers her lines dryly her prowess can’t be denied. In her two scenes she outsdoes Lively, but Lively - good as she is- is still a rookie.
Monica Belluci’s scorned woman [Herb's original wife] is not as contrived as it could have been in lesser hands. As she invites a young Pippa and Herb for lunch as they discuss a divorce you can't help but smile at this woman's charm. Her subsequent actions may not be as comic inducing, but Monica carries it off with grace - gun toting and all. And then, there's Shirley Knight. She is Pippa's solitary friend in the retirement home and though role is relegated to a mere plot point she manages to make her final disappointment in Pippa real, even if we don’t care. I often wonder why Ms. Knight, a double Oscar nominee, has been virtually shunned from substantial cinema in her old age. But I digress.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is not perfect, not remotely. Depending on your propensity your thoughts may range from tedious to passable. Perhaps, it’s the presence of all these glorious women but I can’t be mad at it. Rebecca Miller makes a few mistakes in her narrative, but when it comes to getting the goods from her women [Kazan aside]. She succeeds. Undoubtedly.