More than 90 minutes into Martin Scorsese’s chillingly enigmatic 2010 thriller Shutter Island, our confused and paranoid protagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio, comes upon a suspicious yet surprisingly perspicacious Patricia Clarkson hiding out in a cave on an island that houses a host of delusional and mentally deranged patients. Clarkson plays the only character who is honest with DiCaprio, up to that point anyway. Her few minutes onscreen blow the lid off the film and set DiCaprio on his final journey to figuring out WTF is going on. Alas—SPOILER—Clarkson is only a manifestation of Leo’s mad mind. Yet even portraying a hallucination, her performance has such power, she leaves us wanting more.
Throughout her 5-decade career in film (and TV as well as stage), Clarkson tends to do that, pops into a film for a few scenes (or even one) and “Beatrice Straight” the crap out of it. For those unfamiliar, Straight won a Supporting Oscar for her few moments onscreen as William Holden’s jilted wife in Sidney Lumet’s Network making a full meal out of her few moments onscreen. Sometimes, the thesp has even headlined an indie or two, but no matter how much Clarkson we get, we’re always captivated, and we always crave more.
Born in New Orleans, she attended Fordham University in NYC and went on to receive an MFA from Yale School of Drama in 1985. Shortly thereafter she landed her first major screen role as Kevin Costner’s wife in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. This was after making her Broadway debut, replacing Julie Hagerty in John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves. Clint Eastwood then cast her in the 5th Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool.
Clarkson’s first lead role was in a little-seen but terrific civil war drama Pharaoh’s Army opposite Chris Cooper in 1995. He true break came with Lisa Cholodenko’s gritty 1998 film High Art where Clarkson portrayed a German, lesbian heroin addict and received an Indie Spirit Award nomination. She was then cast as James Cromwell’s wife in Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (Oscar nominated for Best Picture). In 1992, she played opposite Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven and was awarded Best Supporting Actress from New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics. That same year she had a guest-star role on HBO’s acclaimed series Six Feet Under which would land her two Emmy Awards.
In 2003, she had a banner year, co-starring in Lars von Trier’s groundbreaking film Dogville. In addition, Clarkson had four films debut at Sundance, including Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, which brought her a host of critic’s awards as well as SAG nominations for Outstanding Actress and Outstanding Cast. That same year, her wicked, poignant turn in Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April garnered her SAG and Golden Globe nods as well as her first (and only, to date) Academy Award nomination.
Many acclaimed performances followed in films such as George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck (Best Picture Oscar nominee), Craig Lucas’ The Dying Gaul, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works, Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Sally Potter’s The Party, and last year’s overlooked gem She Said, directed by Maria Schrader.
In addition to Six Feet Under, her TV work includes her Emmy-winning turn in the Short Form Comedy State of the Union and her Emmy-nominated performance in HBO’s Sharp Objects as well as prominent roles on Frasier and House of Cards.
She received a Tony nomination in 2014 for her role as Mrs. Kendal in the revival of The Elephant Man, opposite Bradley Cooper on Broadway.
Her most recent performance onscreen is in Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica about a trans woman (Trace Lysette) who apprehensively returns home to spend time with her estranged, now dying mother Eugenia (Clarkson). With very little dialogue, Clarkson conveys the character’s complex emotions via facial expressions and body language. It’s another staggering turn. Monica opens in theaters on May 12.
With 100 credits currently on IMDB, Clarkson is one of our cinematic treasures, and Awards Daily had the pleasure of video-chatting with the delightful and ubiquitous thesp.