Juliette Lewis is the secret sauce of film and TV. Drop her in things as disparate as the 2005 indie “Aurora Borealis” (where she impeccably delivers the greatest Thanksgiving plans ever filmed) or the star-studded misfire “August: Osage County,” and Lewis elevates the proceedings. She’s stylized without seeming affected, a live wire of a performer whose expressive face can fold a glare in on itself until it’s heartbroken. And 2022 saw her finally receiving her due. As usual with year-end content, spoilers abound.
“Yellowjackets,” it turns out, was just the amuse-bouche. On Showtime’s cannibals and camaraderie thriller, Lewis plays the adult Natalie with all the punk-rock energy she brought to her band, Juliette and the Licks. Never mind that she’s years older than her castmates; who else could play a woman who drives straight from rehab to a bar, who forges a bizarre friendship with Christina Ricci’s sociopathic Misty, who is equal parts angry and devastated at the discovery of a friend’s ostensible suicide? And who then breaks our hearts with her own desolation in the final moments of the season before a deus ex machina prevents her from pulling the trigger?
Within a few months of the “Yellowjackets” finale, Lewis was back on TV as Judy, the dream mother on Peacock’s “Queer as Folk.” Judy is an I-mean-well figure who can be as supportive as she is cringe. “Poppers today are sooo shitty,” she chirps in an effort to prove that she’s down — while wearing a beret. And if the character remains mostly an archetype rather than a real woman, Lewis brings genuine pathos to the scene in which her non-binary child reveals an HIV diagnosis. “I thought you were gonna tell me you were dying,” she cries in relief, a three-hankie moment of acceptance and unconditional love that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
Lewis’ intensity and off-kilter delivery make her prime for dark comedy, so is it any wonder that her turn in Hulu’s limited series “Welcome to Chippendales” comes as both a relief and a victory lap to close out her year? Lewis’ Denise is a woman of a certain age who just really, really loves the Chippendales club. So much, in fact, that she invents a job for herself and becomes an integral part of the Chippendales machine alongside her new bestie, choreographer Nick (Murray Bartlett).
Lewis is having a ball for most of the series, never shying away from the sexy fun of what was then a one-of-a-kind celebration — and perhaps exploitation — of the male physique. (Now, of course, we have Instagram for that.) When audiences first meet Denise, she’s been partying and seems like just another over-eager woman freed from society’s expectations and reveling in the female gaze. But watch what Lewis does, first as she breathlessly explains what she could bring to the table for the club and then in how her relationship with Nick deepens and intensifies.
Near the end of the eight-episode series, Nick has found love in New York City, and Denise is a welcome third wheel. Initially. But as Nick moves further away from her emotionally, Lewis brings a strain of sadness to Denise for which, looking back, she’d laid the groundwork all along. She pleads with Nick not to become emotionally involved with anyone but her, pointing out how much better it is to be one another’s partners and turn to men for the physical stuff. Nick, of course, shies away and eventually chooses his lover. By the time the series has come to its inevitable, ripped-from-the-headlines conclusion, Denise is left with nothing but rage and the unprovable (and correct) belief that Chippendales owner Steve Banerjee was behind Nick’s murder.
That’s great acting — but we’ve seen Lewis morph from resilient to broken before, often in a single scene. What strikes viewers is not the hurt she portrays (we know how skilled she is at that) but how she can still find so many layers and contradictions to her roles, never shying away from extremes. Her “Chippendales” performance is memorable not because of the devastation on her face as she realizes the man in her life is moving on but the sheer joy she embodies as Denise experiences the heady days of creation. Whether Denise is unveiling tearaway pants for the first time, gleefully exploring a dancer’s body in bed, or helping Nick create the absolutely wild “Hunkenstein” dance routine, the allure of creativity is on full display. Going dark and gritty is catnip for a performer; playing hedonistic pleasure so purely that it seems almost innocent? That’s greatness.