I am not a big fan of depressing fiction, which is why I could not get through Olive Kitteridge fast enough. Everyone else I knew loved the novel by Elizabeth Strout, which wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize. Olive is an acid-tongued teacher, wife and mother whose Maine town seems filled with people who want to commit suicide, some apparently just to get away from her. I finished the book, left it on a donation stack, and put Olive out of my mind.
Then recently, one of my favorite actresses, Frances McDormand, decided to play the title character in an HBO mini-series based on the book. I’d developed an actress crush on the 57-year-old back in the 1980s, when she starred in Blood Simple, the neo-noir crime film that marked the directorial debut of the great Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Frances went on to marry Joel and star in some of the brothers’ other remarkable films, winning an Academy Award along the way. So even though I couldn’t stand the miserable, vindictive Olive, I was eager to see what a masterful actress would do with her.
McDormand, who recently told the New York Times that she opposes plastic surgery, didn’t disappoint. Her wrinkles went well with her prune-like disposition as she turned from a loving young mother into a mean-spirited but emotionally complex septuagenarian. Watching her, I realized that her edge gave her sex appeal at every age, and I finally understood what it was all my friends saw in the novel: Even when you finally admit to yourself that you’ve made irreparable mistakes, there is a way to retain your dignity and sense of humor. Olive still has what it takes, and even seduces another curmudgeonly charmer, played by 64-year-old Bill Murray.
With its painful depiction of unhappy marriages and unsated desires, the mini-series wasn’t fun to watch, yet I stayed in front of the TV until I’d seen every minute. Maybe one of these days I’ll give the novel another chance. Then again, maybe I’ll just watch Fargo.
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