Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley, An Account of the Acclaimed Canadian Actress' Transfiguration into an Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker


This Knol written by Jon Hopwood
Copied here under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
As part of the Jon Hopwood Recovery Project

Sarah Polley walked of the set of the film that was supposed to make her a star and returned to her native Canada to make a low-budget indie. She went to film school to learn directing & has received kudos for her feature film debut, Away From Her.

Sarah Polley has established herself as a double-threat in North American cinema, displaying world-class talents as both an actress and as a writer-director. Having already marked her territory as a gifted thespian, Polley wowed critics and the industry with her feature-film debut, Away From Her, which has brought her awards for Best First Film from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Blessed with an extremely expressive face that enables directors to minimize dialog due to her uncanny ability to suggest a character's thoughts, the actress became a favorite of critics for her sensitive portraits of wounded and conflicted young women in independent films. Her performances are understated, a style she had brought to the screen as a director.

She also is renowned in her native Canada for her political activism. A socialist, she is committed to progressive politics as a member of the left-wing of Canada's left-of-center New Democratic Party. In 2004, she served on the transition team of incoming Toronto Mayor David Miller.

Sarah Polley also is known for her intelligence, which can be a curse for a performer, particularly in the cinema. The problem of the intelligent person in the acting field is that the actor, as artist, in not ultimately in control of their medium, and it is artistic control that is the hallmark of the great artist. The controlling intelligence on a movie set is the director. Her attendance at the Canadian Film Centre's film directing program gave her a new perspective on acting, both as an actor and as a realisatur, the director who realizes the vision caught on film.

The actor, Sarah Polley says, should not try to give a complete performance for the camera (that is, control the representation on film), but must remember that the function of the actor is to give the director as much coverage as possible. A film, as well as a performance, is made in the editing room. (Polley is married to the award-winning cutter David Wharnsby, who edited Away From Her.) According to Polley, this realization, that the film actor exists to serve the director, has given her new enthusiasm for acting. Thus, her career and her career choices, can be seen as a quest for knowledge about the art of cinema.

Sarah Polley was to the manor born, as the offspring of a show business family. Her father Michael, an emigrant from the UK who had gone to acting school with Albert Finney, was a stage actor in his adopted Canada.Michael Polley appeared with his daughter in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and on the television series Road to Avonlea. Her late mother Diane was an actress and casting director, who appeared with Sarah in the TV series Ramona. It was her mother's connections that launched Sarah, at her own insistence, on an acting career at the age of four, following in the footsteps of her older brother Mark Polley. (A second brother, John Buchan, who was a product of her mother's first marriage, is a casting director and producer in Canada.)

Her career as a child actress shifted into high gear when she was cast as the Cockney waif Jody Turner in the TV-movie Lantern Hill (1990), for which she won a Gemini Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy, in 1992. Produced by Kevin Sullivan, the film was based on the book by Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of the Green Gables. When Sullivan created a television series based on Montgomery's work, he cast Polley in the lead role of Sara Stanley in Road to Avonlea. The series propelled Polley into the first rank of Canadian TV stars and made her independently wealthy by the age of 14.

Her personal life was deeply affected by the death of her mother Diane Polley from cancer two days after her 11th birthday, a development that ironically paralleled the fictional life of her character Sara Stanley. Highly intelligent and politically progressive at a young age, Polley eventually rebelled against what she felt was the Americanization of the series after it was picked up by the Disney Channel for distribution in the U.S., eventually dropping out of the show. Though she does not blame her parents, she remains publicly disenchanted over the loss of her childhood and her first developed film script was about a 12-year-old girl on a TV show. (She failed to secure funding from TeleFilm Canada for the project.)

Polley, who picked up a second Gemini Award for her performance in the TV series Straight Up (1996), subsequently quit acting and high school to turn her attention to politics, positioning herself on the extreme left of Canada's left-of-center New Democratic Party. The publicity ensuing from her losing some teeth after being slugged by an Ontario policeman during a protest against the Conservative provincial government, plus the stinging cynicism from some other activists unimpressed by her celebrity, led her to lower her political profile temporarily and return to acting in Atom Egoyan's masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter(1997).

It was her appearance as Nicole, the teenage girl injured in a school bus accident who serves as the conscience of the small town rent by the tragedy, that first brought her to the attention of critics in the U.S. In Canada, the role was heralded by critics as her successful breakthrough to adult roles. It was her second film with Egoyan, who wrote the part with her in mind when he adapted the novel by Russell Banks. Predictions of an Academy Award nomination and future stardom were part of the critical consensus, and she received her first Best Actress Genie nomination (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar) from Canada's Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television and the Best Supporting Actress Award from the Boston Society of Film Critics.

Her first "adult" starring role, as the ingénue who gives up Harvard Law to have an affair with a failed photographer more than twice her age in Guinevere (1999) created quite a buzz at the 1999 Sundance Festival, where it was showcased. The entertainment media crowned the 20-year-old Polley the It-Girl of 1999, and there were great expectations that she would be the Next Big Thing when she signed for the comedy-dramas Go and Almost Famous, two Hollywood pictures trying to reap the energy and profits of the indie movement.

Intensely private and extremely ambivalent about the personal cost of celebrity, Polley decided that she abhorred Hollywood's Fame is the Name of the Game ethos. Unlike those who feign rebellion, the accepted stance of the "hip" and the "cool" since Marlon Brando first doffed a T-shirt back in 1951, Polley actually was a rebel, as he rebellion against Ontario Premier Mike Harris' right-wing government proved. And rebel she did, bucking the expectations of mainstream cinema.

Rather than surrender her independence and walk into the umbra of the Hollywood spotlight thrown by the harsh lights of the Hollywood hype/publicity machine, she left Hollywood during rehearsals for writer-director Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (2000). Crowe's nostalgic (in the worst sense of unearned sentimentality) look at the 1970s rock scene was a $60 million mega-hyped vehicle that was supposed to make her a mainstream star in the U.S. (It did as much for Polley's replacement in the role of groupie Penny Lane, Goldie Hawn's daughter .) Crowe had even managed to attract Brad Pitt to the picture, as the star was anxious to work with Polley. (Pitt dropped out of the movie after Polley did.)

It is hard to imagine Sarah Polley in the role that ultimately made the screen and garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Polley would never have played such a sexist characterization of a woman. Her Penny Lane, built on intuition and improvisation along with Pitt, would have been a much darker character. As the verisimilitude of Polley's near-death scene in Go bears testament to, Polley's great acting talent would have yielded a harrowing suicide scene, not one as chipper and incongruous as the suicide scene in the finished film, in which the protagonist looks on dopily and with puppy-dog love as the groupie is revived in the bathtub. The scene as realized by Polley would have been as hellish as the scene of Fran Kubilik's attempted suicide and revival in The Apartment of Billy Wilder, the director whom Crowe pays "homage" to (i.e., rips off) in the scene.

Many tales have been told of Polley's abrupt departure from the picture. Crowe, who won an undeserved Oscar for the screenplay from his Hollywood peers, later trumpeted that the departure of Polley and Pitt allowed him to realize his film, an off-handed testimony to the fact that an actress of Polley's caliber would have been the auteur of Penny Lane, and taken it in a direction that the sugar-coated Crowe might not have felt comfortable with. (Crowe starts his film with a Christmas song sung by the Chipmunks, and censors the drugs and sex that were staples of the rock 'n roll lifestyle of groups and groupies alike.)

Polley walked off Almost Famous to return to Canada to make the CDN$1.5 million The Law of Enclosures(2000) for Genie Award-winner John Greyson, a director she admires greatly. The artistically ambitious film grossed poorly in Canada and was not released in the U.S., but it did garner Polley her second Genie nomination for Best Actress. While her replacement in Almost Famous (2000) went on to win an Oscar nomination and a career above the title in glossy Hollywood films, Polley took on a wide variety of parts, large and small, in independent films, including significant roles in the ensemble pieces The Claim (2000) and The Weight of Water (2000); bit parts in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) and Love Come Down (2000); and the lead in Hal Hartley's No Such Thing (2001). (Polley first worked with Julie Christie, whom she directed to an Oscar nomination as the star of her Away From Her, in No Such Thing.)

Sarah Polley's choice of projects showed her to be a questing spirit more focused on learning the art of her craft than on stardom. Of her acting career, Polley has said that her choice of film roles, eschewing mainstream Hollywood movies for chancier, non-commercial independent fare, was the result of an ethical decision on her part to make films with social importance. A less-observant viewer might think that the rebel Polley played in her political life that had previously manifested itself in her profession was now driving her to the verge of career suicide in terms of popularity, marketability, and choice of future roles. However, that interpretation does not recognize the extraordinary talent that will always keep her in demand by directors, if not casting agents, with an eye on the opening weekend box office.

Her choices, consciously and subconsciously, were made to work with directors to learn the craft of film-making. For it was on the forbidding set of Michael Winterbottom's The Claim, shot 8,000 feet up in the Canadian Rockies on Alberta's Fortress Mountain, that Polley made a decision: She would become a director. The Claim was a re-imaging of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterleigh. It was Hardy's premise that a man's character is his destiny.

It was Sarah Polley's destiny to be a filmmaker.

In 1999, Polley made an outstanding 10-minute short film, Don't Think Twice, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. Two years later, she made the highly praised 40-minute short I Shout Love, which won her a Genie Award.

Polley was accepted by the Canadian Film Centre's directors program in 2002, and Polley's transformation into a cinema artist had quickened.

She continued to act, and was memorable in two leads for Spanish director Isabel Coixet , My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words. She even headlined the remake of Dawn of the Dead, which topped the box office charts in the summer of 2005, knocking The Passion of the Christ from the #1 slot. But it was making films that had captured her heart and imagination.

Sarah Polley's first professional directing gig was "The Harp," an episode of the Canadian TV series "The Shields Stories." She then invested a great deal of her time and talent developing an original script for what was intended to be her feature film debut. Itchy concerns the trials and tribulations of a 12-year-old actress starring on a television series and is rooted in her own experience as a young thespian, although Polley insists it is not autobiographical. She was unable to get the project green-lighted, which dismayed her.

Always intensely loyal to her native Canada and the Canadian film industry, Sarah Polley is highly critical of the Canadian government's de-emphasis on producing local, Canadian-themed product and its use of funding to promote the production of movies and TV product by American producers. This change of emphasis in the Canadian film industry was painful for Polley, who had turned her back on Hollywood as she eschewed blatantly commercial cinema and American values emphasizing money over social justice.

"The reason why I stayed in Canada," she explained to the press, "had everything to do with the kind of films we used to make before the commercial mandate came in effect at Telefilm. They were films that asserted an independent vision of the world. They weren't just cheap versions of American genre films...but movies that spoke to the human condition. Now, I'm beginning to wonder why I stayed and if it was a huge mistake."

Addressing the issue of why she and other Canadian actors & filmmakers, including director-actor-writer Don McKellar, stayed in Canada rather than relocate to the United States, she said, "If Canadian films don't have a purpose, then what are we still doing here? We're beginning to freak out a little. Why make a commitment with so little reward? The Canadian films out there have been so weak, it's been kind of depressing."

Frustrated, Sarah Polley turned to another property she had, an adaptation of one of her favorite short stories, Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain". Polley was fond of the story, which deals with Alzheimer's disease, as her own grandmother had suffered from the affliction. Calling on her friendship with Julie Christie, whom she considers one of her surrogate mothers, she was able to realize one of the most acclaimed films of 2007, which has brought Polley her first Academy Award nomination, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Her dream had come true.