Before greetings are exchanged, Cherry Jones begs for forgiveness.
"I must apologize. I'm hopeless with dialects," said Jones, even before being asked about her accent in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," which opens today and in which she plays the mother who raised future evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in International Falls, Minn. "I'm absolutely not the person to ask [about that dialect], clearly. I'm from Tennessee and I did the best I could."
The veteran stage actor's accent sounds fine, incidentally, subtler than, say, the "Fargo" brand of the Minnesota sound. But it's very on-brand for the two-time Tony Award winner ("Doubt" and "The Heiress") to underplay her skill.
Although she's been acting for more than four decades, movies are still relatively unfamiliar for the woman who often plays people from Yankee stock with strong moral backbones. You could argue she's in a similar vein as Katharine Hepburn but it's telling that Hepburn only played movie leads and Jones has never played one.
As a result, she may be the greatest actor that movie fans barely know. In New York, she's spoken of with hushed reverence. Both of her Tony Award-winning roles are among the finest stage performances I've seen but, in the movies, she's liable to pop in for a scene or two as a president's wife (Eleanor Roosevelt in "Amelia") or a singer's mom (in the Hank Williams biopic "I Saw the Light").
They may not be great parts but Jones' detailed and attentive acting makes them seem great. Her characters are always intelligent, including a lot of authority figures, not just as first lady but also as president on "24," vice president in "The Beaver" and a tycoon on HBO's "Succession." There's gravity and forthrightness in Jones. Some say acting is lying but when she speaks, every word is believable.
Her skills are on display again in "Tammy Faye." Moviegoers will see how efficiently she works when she attends a taping of her daughter's "PTL" television show and, when asked to stand in the audience, her weary glare of refusal seems to condemn the whole religious/industrial complex. Or when Bakker reveals she's engaged and her mom's immediate response is baffled, silent disbelief.
When told her character feels like the heart of "Tammy Faye," Jones is modest.
"She is such a toughie. I'm amazed anyone could come away feeling that way but I'm happy because I do think she's loving," said Jones, while assembling a tomato/bean salad for a gathering of the cast of upcoming miniseries "Five Days at Memorial."
If you go to "Tammy Faye," you'll want to see more of the actor, which happens a lot. She's not the star of any of the following movies. But think of her, instead, as the cherry on top.
M. Night Shyamalan's thriller seems to be about an alien invasion but it's really about grief that stopped its hero, an ex-priest played by Mel Gibson, in his tracks. We don't know the details until a climactic flashback shows a regret-filled police officer (Jones) telling him his wife is dead. Jones deals with a lot of the exposition in the surprisingly moving film, imbuing it with compassion and grace (and, maybe, a hint of romance?).
One fiery speech establishes Jones, playing an activist fighting injustice in 1950s Manhattan, as the conscience of Edward Norton's stylish reimagining of Jonathan Lethem's novel.
The intelligent tear-jerker didn't have much of an impact when it came and went from theaters last winter but I hope people discover it at home. Dakota Johnson plays a woman who is struggling with cancer. Jones plays a hospice worker and doesn't show up until the end. Her dignity, compassion and honesty make sense of the film's approach to death and dying.
The simplicity of Jones' performance, as one of the few people in the movie able to resist Julia Roberts' bulldozer charm, is breathtaking. Her character only gets a couple of scenes but Jones gets across that she's so beaten down from fighting a gas company that's poisoning her family that she doesn't even have time to feel bad about it anymore. I'd bet money that director Steven Soderbergh cast her because he knew that in the scene when she finally agrees to help Brockovich, a single Jones close-up would tell us everything we need to know.
How much can one actor pack into five minutes of screen time? Let Jones show you. First, she's a hardened FBI agent who advises a quaking Matt Damon he's about to spend the rest of his life in prison, with rats gnawing on his toes. Seconds later, because that's the way the "Ocean's" movies roll, everything has changed and she's Damon's smothering-but-playful mom. And there are strong hints that's not the end of her surprises.
Tim Robbins' all-star historical drama isn't quite sure what it wants to be when it grows up, but Jones energizes the liveliest, brightest parts. As Hallie Flanagan, a government arts honcho during the Great Depression, she brings a light touch to farcical walk-and-talk scenes and — quite believably — enthuses about how much she loves live theater.
In conversation, Jones is breezy and funny but we don't get to see her do much comedy, maybe because she conveys such authority. This women's-trip movie, featuring Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey, makes smart use of that, casting Jones as a very serious, very woo-woo tarot card reader who warns the women that they're doomed. Jones doesn't have any funny lines but she's so serious that her lack of humor is hilarious.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367