Download:: The Case For: Margaret Qualley for 'MAID'
Margaret Qualley had been building career momentum for five years before taking on the lead role for Netflix’s wildly (and somewhat surprisingly) popular limited series Maid just last year. Beginning with The Nice Guys in 2016, Qualley scored a number of significant roles in high-quality projects like The Leftovers, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and Fosse/Verdon.
For me though, it was her leading role as a conflicted young nun in the 2017 indie film Novitiate that gave me the greatest sense of what she was capable of. Facing a crisis of faith and a question of sexuality while caught between her atheist mom (the always great Julianne Nicholson) and the convent’s Mother Superior (a fearsome Melissa Leo), Qualley had to hold the screen with those two titans while giving the most subtle performance in the film.
That’s no mean feat, underplaying across from two powerhouse actors whose characters were given incredibly strong personalities. I marveled at the confidence Qualley must have had to play her part in such an interior fashion, trusting her expressive face and eyes to convey what was going on in her troubled heart.
Sadly, despite excellent reviews and even some Oscar buzz for Leo, few saw Novitiate, and you rarely hear anyone speak of it just five years after its release. That’s a real shame, because we rarely get films about faith that are as challenging and bold as Novitiate.
Maid is the first project since Novitiate that put Qualley at the center of the story, asking her to carry the audience with her throughout. Just like in Novitiate, if her performance does not work, almost nothing else will matter. The whole endeavor rests upon her slender shoulders.
Yet, carry it she did, and with great aplomb. There is a version of Maid that could have come to screen that might have been effective, but would have likely been far more depressing. The great vision and writing of show creator Molly Smith Metzler certainly gave Qualley a full box of tools with which to play Alex Russell—a young woman in an abusive relationship who escapes into uncertainty with her young daughter. The credit for the effective use of those tools must go to Qualley though.
No matter how difficult her circumstances are—the lack of financial security, living in assisted housing, feeling the shame of using WIC to pay for food, and working for a maid service on jobs that can require remarkably disgusting clean ups, there is an industriousness in the character that Qualley gives off that is absolutely key to the watchability and the viewer’s investment in the show.
At the same time, Maid doesn’t shortchange the desperation of a young woman trying to care for her child while living on the margins. What the show, and Qualley, don’t do is wallow in that desperation. Alex has way too much to sort out to sit still and cry for too long. She has to navigate a sea of state government red tape to find housing, work, and food, all while attempting to prove that she is a fit mother so that she won’t lose her daughter to her ne’er-do-well boyfriend (a terrific and nuanced Nick Robinson) in a custody battle.
Everywhere she turns for assistance is fraught with complications. Her boss at the maid service is unforgiving, the social workers she encounters are beleaguered and minimally compassionate, and both her father and, particularly, her bipolar mother (played by her real-life mother Andie MacDowell in a brave performance) are reluctant or incapable resources. None of these challenges hold Alex back though. She has no time for inertia. Motherhood simply won’t allow it.
At the same time, Qualley doesn’t play Alex as a saint either. She takes advantage of a man who is attracted to her, and even though she intends no malice, she hurts him badly. She briefly goes back to her boyfriend. She makes mistakes at work. All of her choices are not perfect. But what Qualley so notably does is play Alex as a recognizable human being—full of flaws and desires that can get in the way of her need to secure a life for her and her daughter.
Perhaps the strongest example of the best and most imperfect parts of Alex are shown through her consistently surprising relationship with one of her clients, Regina, a wealthy, accomplished woman with deep troubles of her own played in one of the best performances of the year by Anika Noni Rose.
When Regina unfairly complains to Alex’s boss about her cleaning skills, Alex briefly kidnaps Regina’s tiny dog, which leads to a conversation where the much younger maid explains to her client about the impact of her criticism on her employment. The scene could have ended their relationship at that moment in an uneasy truce, but Maid surprises the audience continually, and Regina requests to have Alex back.
On Thanksgiving day, Regina has Alex over to clean her spectacular home while she and her husband leave for a family holiday dinner. After cleaning, Alex puts on one of Regina’s sweaters, pours a glass of wine, and invites over a man she connected with on a dating site, as if to the manor born. When Regina suddenly returns, Alex chases out her date, but can’t get the wine put away or the sweater removed before Regina, holding an army of pies she baked for the dinner, walks through the door. To Alex’s and the audience’s surprise, Regina barely takes note of the liberties Alex has taken—she has greater concerns on her mind.
As it turns out, Regina is pregnant and her husband has decided to leave her. The two women, at different ends of the income spectrum, sit over her breakfast table and Regina speaks to Alex as a relative equal for the first time. It’s a remarkably emotional and even thrilling scene. While I doubt it’s true, you could be forgiven for at least momentarily thinking that Alex might not trade her problems for Regina’s.
From there, the two women form a tentative friendship and both of them are revealed to be so much more than we might have originally thought them to be. It’s truly wonderful work by both actors. So good that I was disappointed that Rose didn’t receive an Emmy nomination herself.
In fact, Maid received far fewer Emmy nominations than I expected. Aside from Qualley’s nod, the only other recognition the show received was for writing and directing. Considering how critically well received and how huge Maid’s audience was (breaking Netflix records), three nominations seems far below what the show deserved. At minimum, I thought Best Limited Series and Best Supporting Actress (for MacDowell) were slam dunks, to say nothing of Nick Robinson and Anika Noni Rose’s chances.
With that in mind, Qualley will go into Emmy night being a clear underdog to, I suspect, either Julia Garner for Inventing Anna or Amanda Seyfreid for The Dropout. The former is a polarizing show (and performance) that some are surprised got any nominations at all. And while the nominations for The Dropout and Seyfreid were all but certain, I don’t know that either Garner’s or Seyfreid’s performances (however strong I might find them to be) are as effective and moving as Qualley’s.
Garner and Seyfreid got to play very colorful characters with plenty of tics and mannerisms. Qualley had no such affectations to work with. She had to play a relatively normal young woman who had to find an abnormal level of reserve to save her daughter and herself. Her performance may not have been as colorful as Garner’s or Seyfreid’s but I found it to be far more significant.
I hope the Television Academy does too.