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In "The White Lotus," Mike White's HBO series about the entitled rich in hell in paradise, Jennifer Coolidge plays Tanya McQuoid, who has come to the show's eponymous tropical resort to scatter her mother's ashes in the ocean. She is not an easy person, but she is also the most sympathetic of the series' moneyed characters. Her self-centeredness is of a different stripe, being shaped by pain.
It's the kind of part sometimes referred to as a breakthrough role, one that awakens the world to a talent it might have been slow to recognize, missed, misunderstood, forgotten or thought capable of only one thing — and which might open a new chapter in a career, or at least collect an award or two. Coolidge might not be a household name, but she is a significant presence in two exceedingly successful screen franchises, famous as "Stifler's mom" in the "American Pie" series, and as the manicurist Paulette in the "Legally Blonde"movies, a character she put on again, in 2018, for Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next" music video.
"The White Lotus" reminds us that Coolidge is an actress, not just a "comic actress," a phrase that really just means nobody thinks to cast her in drama. It has happened, as in her turn as Nicolas Cage's drinking, drugging stepmother in Werner Herzog's 2009 "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," but rarely. In the "American Pie" movies, in which she portrays a sort of nontoxic Mrs. Robinson to Eddie Kaye Thomas' Paul/Ben, she plays her scenes straight, amused but not necessarily amusing, a fantasy rendered in flesh and blood.
Whether appearing as herself or in character, Coolidge radiates glamour, though the nature of that glamour changes with the part: It may be casual, aspirational, overdone, off-kilter. (She is not afraid to look bad.) When she forgoes makeup, as when Paulette famously goes to demand her dog back from an abusive ex in "Legally Blonde," it is clearly a choice, a deviation from the baseline. One looks back in time to find her like — Joan Blondell, maybe, or Mae West crossed with Gracie Allen, a less fragile Monroe, a less French Bardot. She can come on like gangbusters, but even when she creeps in on cat feet, you notice her; she fills a room. At her most outlandish, you take her seriously; at her most eccentric, you sense the sincerity.
Watching her, you feel like anything could happen. There is something just a little dangerous in the friendliest of her performances, even in a conventional three-camera sitcom — something that resides not just in her characters but in how she inhabits them. She is a house full of secret passages, passages she seems to be stumbling on herself from moment to moment and line to line. Her statements can sound like questions and her questions like statements. For a Jennifer Coolidge character, the world is a continual revelation, so delightful, so frightful! Her eyes, which turn to slits when she smiles or frowns, widen; her voice builds from breathy to full-bodied.
Other "B" words come to mind: brimming, bursting, bouncy, bountiful, big. If you were going to abstract her, iconographically, you'd draw waves of cascading hair, two horizontal lines for eyes , a pair of pillowy lips and a vertical line denoting cleavage, which is almost a theme in her body of work. Like some goddess of the spring or harvest, she embodies abundance, generosity.
Coolidge has worked, and worked, and worked since playing a girlfriend of the week in a 1993 "Seinfeld" episode, "The Masseuse" ("I massage who I want when I want; I don't submit to forcible massage") kickstarted her career at 32. Even so, one feels that she deserves to have worked more, or with a higher ratio of estimable to negligible projects — though she has been memorable in less-than surroundings. Her roles through the 1990s included "stupid girl" ("A Bucket of Blood"), "hottie police officer" ("A Night at the Roxbury") and "woman at football game"("Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me").
Then, in 1999, came "American Pie" and a character for the ages, followed the next year by "Best in Show," the first of four films for Christopher Guest, which tapped into her talent for improvisation. (She was a member of L.A.'s Groundlings theater group.) As Sheri Ann Cabot, speaking of her superannuated rich husband, she says, "We both have so much in common; we both love soup, we love the outdoors, we love snow peas. And talking and not talking. We could not talk or talk forever. And still find things to not talk about." It laid the foundation for a career that appealed to mainstream audiences and to alt-comedy nerds alike.
Often, she is the liveliest person on camera. On "Friends," she guested as an old acquaintance of Monica and Phoebe, returning from England with a terrible accent. ("Look at me! Look at how young I look! … Smell my neck. It's not perfume. It's me! It's my natural scent!") On "Sex and the City" she played a woman getting over a breakup by making awful handbags ("Look at this one — little shoes!"). On the catering comedy "Party Down," she played a substitute server encouraging Adam Scott to be more proactive in his acting career: "When I auditioned for 'Cannonball II,' do you know what I did to the girl I was up against? I hit her with my car. And it felt right!"
There were turns on "Frasier" and "Nip/Tuck" and a wonderful episode of the police procedural "The Closer," where she plays a woman who has hired someone to kill her husband. Asked in the interrogation room whether she'd like something to drink, she answers offhandedly, "Well, you know, champagne might be nice," in a way that suggests it possibly could happen. There were recurring roles as a theatrical agent on the Matt LeBlanc "Friends" spinoff, "Joey" ("Joey, I've got great news!""Did I get that commercial?" "No, I bought a horse!"), a Polish neighbor on "2 Broke Girls" and a sex worker turned ex-sex worker turned college student in "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."
Strictly speaking, "The White Lotus" is a comedy, if a somewhat bitter one, and Coolidge, for whom the part of Tanya was created, is often funny in it. ("Why do you think you're so tired?" Natasha Rothwell's wellness worker, Belinda, asks Tanya. "I think it's because I'm so close to the floor," she replies.) But it's delicate work to ensure that Tanya is not laughable, that leaves her her dignity even when things get temporarily undignified.
"My poor mother, she died in June, and she loved the ocean, just loved it." In Sunday's third episode (of six), Tanya begins her eulogy dreamily. She has gone out on a boat to scatter her ashes, on which unhappy honeymooners Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) have coincidentally, unknowingly booked for a romantic dinner. She has been drinking. It's a long speech by television terms; I have no idea how close it is to the script as written — there is a lot of information in it, crucial to our understanding of Tanya — but however it came about, it's a remarkable scene, possibly the rawest passage in the whole series, a shard of Greek tragedy driven into a comedy of (bad) manners.
"My poor mother, she had a beautiful house in Carmel," she continues, drawn into darker and darker rooms, "and she tried really, really hard to be a good mother, even though she didn't have any maternal instincts, or skills. She was always in search of male affection, and she was ... a nymphomaniac. I'd walk in a room and I'd find all kinds of strange men in her bed. She had borderline personality disorder. She took her money and she manipulated people with it. And she was cruel, and she was very, very cruel; she was so, so cruel.
"I, and…. I just … oh, Mother Mother Mother Mother! My mother told me I would never be a ballerina — and that was when I was skinny. My poor mother. She just couldn't handle her jealousy. She had to take me down. What's weird is I miss my mother, even though she was a big jerk!"
"Big jerk" invites a laugh, but it is also the voice of a hurt child, a person who has never really grown up. Coolidge speaks these lines as if the words are being ripped from her chest. Finally attempting to scatter her mother's ashes, and finding herself unready, she lets out an agonized cry unlike anything I've ever heard on television, discomfiting her fellow passengers and the crew and, undoubtedly, more than a few viewers at home.
We are only halfway through the series. Coolidge has other sorts of scenes left to play, some just as devastating, if not as nakedly, some full of light. There might be a chance for Tanya, is all I'll say. But for Jennifer Coolidge, good things seem certain.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.