Sarah Paulson: The Perm Seen ‘Round the World

Lead Actress in a Limited Series

Sarah Paulson brings the trials of Marcia Clark to life in American Crime Story

Sarah Paulson is always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

That’s a vaguely offensive statement, isn’t it? I intend it with nothing but good will for this brilliant actress. It’s meant to highlight how, after four straight nominations, she has yet to finally receive an Emmy. I doubt she’s losing much sleep over this. Great actors are seldom in it for the hardware. Still, I was certain she would take home gold last year with her complex performance as Dot and Bette Tattler, the singing conjoined twins in American Horror Story: Freak Show.

I’ve come to terms with the loss some six months later. Expertly performed by Paulson, the role was probably too out there for the broad Television Academy. The same could be said for her searing work in this year’s American Horror Story cycle, Hotel, as the perpetually crying Hypodermic Sally.

But Ryan Murphy giveth and giveth again.

Paulson is certain to be Emmy nominated again for her work in Murphy’s other American production, The People V. O.J. Simpson. Here, she has the iconic role of Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark and brings unexpected depth, gravitas, and pathos to the character. Where Clark was once the butt of many Simpson trial-related jokes (more on that in a bit), Paulson has effectively eliminated all of that with a single hour of television, the best hour American Crime Story has produced thus far.

Airing last night on FX, “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” is an ode to not only the trials of Marcia Clark but also the plight of all women. It was a heartbreaking hour of television. It made you feel for the woman, a woman that had to this point suffered the slings and arrows of O.J. Simpson’s defense team as much as that of a focus group gathered to discuss her perceived bitchiness. It made you understand not only what it was like to be Marcia Clark at the center of the Trial of the Century but also what it feels like for a woman. It gave the audience a dramatic reinterpretation of Marcia Clark, She Who Could Not Win.

The episode started with Clark in the midst of a difficult divorce hearing against her soon-to-be ex-husband. Having suffered through that, Clark arrives late in the courtroom and is promptly humiliated by Judge Lance Ito. Setting aside the shit she has to put up with in the courtroom, she then goes home to overhear a trashy tabloid program dissect her hair and wardrobe choices. I’m sorry, but I thought she was there to prosecute O.J. Simpson, not walk a red carpet. Shaken, Clark carries on even as boss Gil Garcetti offers the assistance of a stylist.

Yeah, her boss…

She finally decides to begin the infamous makeover, shrewdly set to Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” Excited and tightly permed, Clark confidently strides into court and turns all heads in the process. And not the kind of head turning she anticipated. By the time Judge Ito unprofessionally comments on her appearance, Clark is emotionally bruised and battered. Only a kind note from co-prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) salvages the moment.

Still, it did result in this fantastic line…

“Goddamn, who turned her into Rick James?” asks a reporter.

I know that was mean, but goddamn it was funny.

Anyway, Clark continues to suffer at the hands of women and men at every turn. Perhaps the most damaging is an incredibly painful exchange with a convenience store clerk as she buys tampons. His unwarranted feedback insinuates that it would be a tough week in court thanks to her cycle. After Clark is faced with the betrayal of her first husband (he sold nude photos to a tabloid), she mentally collapses in the courtroom, erupting into tears. What’s meant as an act of kindness by Judge Ito is the ultimate insult: he calls court in recess to allow the one strong woman in the room to collect herself.

And Sarah Paulson conveys it all with style and amazing skill. Gone is the cock-sure early season Clark interpretation, the one you knew had to collapse but never this painfully. What replaces it is Paulson’s dramatization of Clark’s public unravelling. Her performance in “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” may be the finest acting she’s ever done on television. I’m not even talking about the meltdown scenes, which were of course very convincing. I’m talking about the pensive looks into the mirror, the massaging of her long curly hair, the undeniable joy at trying something new, and the heartbreaking humiliation of knowing they’re all laughing at you.

When Sarah Paulson looks in the mirror and twists those famed curls, I’m reminded of Meryl Streep’s great performance in The Bridges of Madison County where twists of a dress and a shy hand on the back of her neck conveyed repressed longing. But, here in American Crime Story, similar movements on Paulson’s part convey shattering insecurities and the pressure of being a working woman on an international stage. Sarah Paulson gently eviscerates the steely exterior of Marcia Clark and reveals the crushed woman inside.

When Marcia Clark erupts into tears at the end of the episode, it represents the cries of everyone – both women and men – who have suffered such complete humiliation. It is the most relatable and honest moment thus far in the great FX miniseries. Sarah Paulson deserves the Emmy this year now more than ever because she was able to give us new perspectives on a woman we thought we knew so well via courtroom cameras. Turns out, we didn’t know her at all. She’s just like millions of women facing the same struggles at home and at the workplace every day.

Television Academy, please make this Sarah Paulson’s year.

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  1. Avatar
    RobertRoss 6 years ago

    Brilliant piece!

    1. Avatar
      Clarence Moye 6 years ago

      Thank you, Robert!

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