Lion Face, Lemon Face: Beth Grant

The phrase "character actor" typically provokes images of middle-aged men who look like normal human beings; while George Clooney or Brad Pitt somehow make that certain age look rugged, dashing, or distinguished, a character actor is someone who can pass as any normal human off the street. Your parents. Your coworker with the Civil War history fetish. The cashier at the local shop. It's a much more potent acting skill, to simultaneously disappear into one of several hundred small roles and also be instantly picked out of a lineup as "hey, it's that guy!"

Beth Grant is never brought up as one such distinct thespian, and frankly that's criminal. Her aristocratic features and powerful voice often have drawn an audience's eye over two hundred screen credits, usually as stern or severe authority figure or using her trademark Alabama twang to bring out the unhinged Southern mama archetype. Grant's approach to such material--which, in the hands of a lesser performer would immediately become cartoonish or mean-spirited--always maintains a sliver of desperation or self-satisfaction that makes her characters real people.

Though her first prominent film role in Rain Man is largely an obstacle for Dustin Hoffman's character to circumvent for his scheduled TV program, it's really 1988's The Wizard in which Grant first stopped a film cold to distinguish herself. Follow me here...The Wizard is your boilerplate "kid power!" kind of movie. The adults, without fail, are all oafish and oblivious to the lives of our preteen heroes. But Grant's diner manager saves the lead trio of moppets from a pack of older ruffians with a string of rebukes, then proceeds to lose her cool over the variety of wretched little monsters that plague her establishment. Her rant fades into the background as she steps wearily out of the scene, and it takes a good few seconds for the audience or the film itself to return to the task at hand. That's Beth Grant's superpower: a commanding presence coupled with straining threads of sanity.

But--my apologies to Nintendo Power subscribers--we're not here to talk about The Wizard. It would be ridiculous not to highlight Grant's most enduring performance as Kitty Farmer, the whackadoo PE teacher and PTA busybody in Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko

Kitty resembles Mrs. Carmody from Stephen King's The Mist if she were a guest character on "King of the Hill." A grade-A dingbat who wears shapeless pastel sweat-suits and teaches the New Age self-help crapola penned by an obvious huckster. When said huckster is exposed as a pedophile, she doubles down on defending him against a "conspiracy." It's probably the meatiest character Grant has ever played, as close to an antagonist as the movie has for a few minutes, and she makes a buffet of the eccentricities and earnest emotion spilling off a middle-aged, middle-American woman so desperate for validation that she obsesses over a little girls' dance team and hijacks a PTA meeting to try banning a book.

Grant delivers all her lines in the PTA meeting, and really in all of her scenes, upon the aching precipice of a sobbing outcry. She's almost, just barely shaking. It's a personification of "Won't someone think of the children?!" wrapped in self-righteousness. Within the context of the's hilarious. The firmness of her personal beliefs and the raging commitment to never absorb new information or accept new ideas stands out in such stark contrast to Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore's younger, reasonable teachers and Mary McDonnell as the title character's mother. They stare at her, transfixed in bewilderment and disgust. 

Grant deftly moves Kitty through this tirade across an entire spectrum of common behavioral responses to counterargument: first assured confidence that as both a teacher and a parent she is "the only person who transcends the parent-teacher bridge," then melodramatic fear of "pornography" being taught in the school, a sudden rush of nasty indignation in telling Barrymore to "go back to grad school," and then...most effortlessly funny...a smug satisfaction in mistaking English novelist Graham Greene for Canadian TV star Lorne Greene from "Bonanza." This all sounds like an absolute whirlwind, but somehow Grant carries this poison cocktail of ugly confrontational emotions to the brink of being outlandish and bizarre without ever carrying it over the line of being unrealistic.

Here's the thing: we've all met someone in real life like Kitty Farmer. Someone who is at once self-pitying and self-aggrandizing. An anti-intellectual who cannot abide their motives or beliefs being questioned by common sense. Whose every word stabs forth to wound pre-emptively, then has the gall to cloak themselves in outrage when given a proper rebuttal. It's a character dripping with parody, especially in her final scene where she wails "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!" 

That line of dialogue might be the best thing Richard Kelly has ever conceived, because it's so patently absurd and pathetic. But neither the line nor the character land without Beth Grant investing wholeheartedly in the fragile identity crisis of stage mothers, the manipulative plea of multi-level-marketing stooges, and the pronounced persecution complex of evangelicals.

She's a legendary presence, who raises the quality of every movie or show in which she appears, even if it's for only one mere scene. There's an authenticity to her characters' batty exasperation, or their snotty sense of superiority. Often, it is couched in vulnerability, which speaks to Grant's hard work as an actor to see humanity even in the most detestable or broadly drawn role.

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