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Kent Jones Honors the Late Misty Upham

Kent Jones Honors the Late Misty Upham

Misty Upham’s body was discovered last week after the actress disappeared on October 5.  Many of Upham’s former costars (Melissa Leo in “Frozen River,” Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County”) have voiced their grief over the actress’ death, and yesterday they were joined by “Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” director Arnaud Desplechin, who spoke of how Upham “turned her wounds into gifts” and “fears and uncertainties into art.” Now, Desplechin’s “Jimmy P” co-writer, critic and NYFF programmer Kent Jones, has written about Upham at Eye for Film.

Jones writes about Upham’s displeasure in how “August: Osage County” was marketed: ” she felt that it sidelined her character in particular and the Native population in general.” That should come as no surprise: Upham’s character isn’t featured on any of the posters and is barely glimpsed in the second trailer. Even there, she’s the set-up for Streep’s lines about Native Americans (“they’re no more Native than I am,” “why don’t we just call the dinosaurs Native Americans?”), used in the trailer as cheap laughs rather than the casual bits of cruelty Tracy Letts wrote them as.

Jones’ own film with Upham, however, was a happier experience. Upham played the love interest of Jimmy P (Benicio Del Toro), and Jones writes about her pride in taking a film that celebrated her heritage to Cannes. He also writes that while Upham was unhappy with the promotion of “August: Osage County,” he felt that she was key to the film’s success.

When someone dies at such a young age, we look in retrospect. So what I remember of Misty is that she spoke and moved quietly, as if she were holding something in balance, something fragile. As Arnaud wrote, she knew perfectly well how to allow her pain to be filmed, and my memory of her is in alignment with her presence onscreen. Misty’s part in “August: Osage County” is relatively small, but she becomes its still, solid and potentially volatile center from the first second of her first appearance. And when the volatility is calmly and quickly unleashed in the name of rectitude, the moment is capped with her dry, curt reading of the line, “He was messing with Jean so I tuned him up.”

At 32 years old and with only 18 credits to her name, Upham leaves behind a relatively small body of work, but she made an indelible impression in many of them. As Jones writes, “I had no idea that she was in so much pain. But as Arnaud wrote, she transformed that pain into art on a few precious occasions. For that we must rejoice.”

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