Carla Gugino’s career is driven by contrasts, as she maneuvers between light material on the surface and darker fare beneath
by MEGAN ABBOTT / photographs by GREG WILLIAMS
You know her—or you at least know the type. She’s the one with the lavender cigarette, the tight skirt and the wicked mouth. Her eyes are moody, haunted, and they dare you—dare you—to come closer, even as you know what closer might mean. But you just can’t help yourself, can you? She has her hooks in you, and the snare is so delicious there’s just no turning back.
Carla Gugino has played more than a few dangerous women—women haunted by their past, who’ve made bad choices, who taunt men to their doom. She tears into her roles as if with talons, showing an alarming capacity for risk taking in neo-noir tales (The Singing Detective, Watchmen, Sin City) that careen on the edge of true darkness, halted only by a slight wink, a strand of irony to protect us from the gaping maw of no-holds-barred film noir.
But if the genre has taught us anything, it’s that fate will get you in the end. If so, it seems Gugino was fated to find herself in Tell-Tale, a short film directed by photographer Greg Williams that combines Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” with a classic pulp yarn of guilt and sin.
“Stripped down,” Gugino calls it. It’s noir at its most fundamental: a motel, a peephole, a bed and four characters—husband, detective, lover and, of course, femme fatale. The latter is channeled by Gugino herself. Despite quitting the habit years ago, in Tell-Tale Gugino chose to smoke natural cigarettes rather than props—often necessitating lighting up 20 in a day.
Ever protective of the noir aesthetic, she says, “It’s just these tormented women in tight-waisted skirts. It seems to do this to me.” With a baby-doll face and lush curves, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to such roles. Her whole demeanor calls to mind the famous Jessica Rabbit line: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
But it’s the twisty heat, the emotional complication she brings, that makes Gugino’s desire all the more powerful, even frightening. Director Wayne Wang reportedly said he didn’t cast her as the lead in his 2001 film The Center of the World precisely because he was “worried she would eat the movie up with sexuality.” Instead, he and Paul Auster penned her the role of battered, sexually troubled Jerri, who comes in near the story’s end and just about burns a hole through the film.
And as noir relies on the stark contrast between lightness (home, hearth, family) and the underbelly, Gugino’s career is a study in contrasts—gleeful, kid-friendly movies (Spy Kids, Night at the Museum) in which she enjoys “just dancing on the surface of something” and stories that go to the darkest of dark places. “What I love about noir,” she says, “is under all that style and flash, it’s also ultimately bare bones about that fight between and the dark and the light within ourselves.”
It’s a descent into darkness that played out for her with particular intensity in theater, from a Marilyn Monroe–inspired Maggie in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (2004) to Catharine in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer (2006) to Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (2009), where she played Abbie, whose love for her stepson incites her to filicide. In its Chicago run, audience members asked how she could portray a character so irredeemable.
“It was truly shocking,” Gugino says. “I don’t think there’s anyone who honestly has examined their heart or who has been loved and lost love like that can say love is not blind.” Her performance then becomes a kind of apologia for all the doomed desires that drive noir. “At the end, Abbie walks up the stairs to be hung on a noose, yet for her it’s like going to heaven. She will never be separated from [her lover], and that’s all that matters to her. It’s no doubt heightened and very extreme but primarily human to me.”
For her role in the film Righteous Kill, Gugino interviewed a female CSI, a woman who sees the damage people do to one another every day, and asked if she thought people were innately good. The investigator said that yes, in fact she did. “Then she said something I never forgot,” Gugino says. “She said the difference between the criminal and the victim is very small. It’s just that one is acting out of extreme desperation.” This type of role requires abandon and risk—the very elements that draw Gugino to the kind of morally tenuous tales that predominate in film noir.
“The most personal is the most universal, always,” she says, “and in noir there is generally someone who needs something they are not getting. They have to go for it, and the way they do usually raises a lot of havoc, and the most fundamental human emotions are involved. I think that’s absolutely timeless, so it will endure.”
Watching the noir classic Double Indemnity again recently, Gugino found herself feeling surprisingly sympathetic toward Barbara Stanwyck’s blond spiderwoman, noting that she must rely on her sexuality because she “has no other tools at her disposal.” In the end, noir offers up these women who have “this kind of inner strength but also a certain level of damage.”
That damage is what fires Gugino’s performances, which bloom like a dark bruise. As heightened as noir is—tales of fatal desire, the stuff of melodrama, the extremes of life—the emotions that drive it are strikingly real, so real it hurts. Ultimately, the appeal of noir might not be its lush style, its doomy aura of sin and retribution, but its illumination of the murkiest corners of the human heart.
The glaring police lights beat down. She twists nervously in her chair, cigarette burning to its tip. The detective stumbles over his own questions. It’s that mouth of hers, those eyes, the pulse on her collarbone. He moves nearer, can’t stop himself. He hears something, what is it? A throbbing sound he feels rippling through him. He wonders, bending closer to her, if he’s hearing what he thinks he’s hearing. If, behind her tight silk shirt, under her pearly slip, there lies not ice nor stone but a big, beating heart. And maybe that’s the most dangerous thing of all.
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