Girls on Film: The untapped talents of Sandra Oh
Last night, Sandra Oh's impressive, 10-season span on Grey's Anatomy finally came to an end. Oh's Dr. Cristina Yang was one of the show's primary balancing forces, playing by her own rules as she evolved into an uncompromising surgeon destined for greatness. Her work on the series has earned her five Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe in 2006.
The show's loss, however, is the viewer's gain. Spending that long on a TV show makes it hard for audiences to see an actor as anything other than the character they play — particularly when the show has taken up a full half of the actor's 20-year career.
Fortunately, Oh's lesser-known film work offers a roadmap for the wide-open potential for her career going forward. Her supporting roles have showed plenty of range, from the quirkiness of the wacky British comedy Bean to the teenage fairy tale of The Princess Diaries to the darkness of Hard Candy. But Oh has also starred in a handful of films where she commanded more of the spotlight, facing everything from familial pressures to the end of the world. Each reveals Oh's extraordinary ability to move from happiness to despair, filming many of her most cutting and resonant moments without saying a word.
Grey's Anatomy may have lost Cristina Yang, but there's no limit to what we might gain — especially if Hollywood notices that one of its most talented women of color has freed up some room in her schedule. As Sandra Oh's career moves on to its next phase, these are the five performances that show off her true capabilities:
1. Double Happiness
Twenty years ago, Sandra Oh made her feature debut in writer/director Mina Shum's Double Happiness, which won Oh her first Genie Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars). She plays Jade Li, a young woman from a strict Chinese family who struggles with her parent's expectations and her desire to be an actress.
Double Happiness is a sweet and modest '90s dramedy — but it's also a compelling exploration of personal and public identity. Jade is caught in a myriad of systems she doesn't completely fit into. As a daughter, she struggles with the strict demands her family places upon her. As an actress, Jade is too talented for the minority roles available, and too Canadian for the Chinese-centric opportunities that arise. But rather than get bogged down in stories of defiance and struggle, Shum focuses the camera on Jade's optimism and search to figure out what's right for her. Oh plays Jade with a mixture of naivete and strength that bolsters the material and plays against the usual commanding roles she ends up in.
2. Dancing at the Blue Iguana
Oh's performance as Jasmine in Dancing at the Blue Iguana is the dark counterpoint to her work in Double Happiness. In Blue Iguana, Oh plays a woman caught between hope and her dark reality as one of the exotic dancers at the titular strip club. The escort/stripper role is a typical move for women in film, but Iguana sticks out because it really belongs to the women who star. Giving only the basic framework — a film set in a strip club — writer/director Michael Radford hired a cast who went through five-months of improvisation, workshops, and rehearsals to create their characters.
Oh's Jasmine is a fascinating portrayal of performance and pain, focusing on her desire to be a poet, and the everyday guy whose idealism for her future clashes with the reality of her life. Oh repeatedly plays with juxtaposition in the film, choosing to often explore the depth between the words as she jumps between her dancer and poet personas, and ultimately has to face her lover's disdain over what she does.
Oh is talented enough that she manages to give depth to what could have been a superficially one-note character. Sideways' Stephanie is a secure flirt and adventurous wine aficionado who becomes the unwitting victim of Jack's (Thomas Hayden Church) cheating — an onslaught of empty declarations and promises of love and commitment.
Oh's performance is bolstered by the screenplay, which adds rationale to the "other woman" role — it gives her many reasons to believe Jack, and pulls Stephanie out of the usual pit of characters who "should know better." He gives her the promise of the world she'd love, and she is, unwittingly, another version of his dream woman: someone who's "just cool," who isn't controlling, and who lets him daydream of another life he could have had. Stephanie's revenge is a nice capper to her story in Sideways, but it's hard not to wish that her motorcycle-riding wine pro had gone on to top-line a comedy about her own boozy adventures.
4. Wilby Wonderful
Just as Oh was primed for Hollywood success in Sideways and her long run on Grey's Anatomy, she co-starred in Daniel MacIvor's wickedly dark Canadian comedy Wilby Wonderful. As the wonderfully manic, connective glue of the ensemble, Oh plays Carol French, a controlling, frazzled realtor trying to sell her recently deceased mother-in-law's home to the town's mayor. As she frets and tries to stage the house, her cop husband is flirting with an old flame, and a desperate man zeroes in on the home when his previous suicide attempts kept getting interrupted.
Carol is, in a sense, the Canadian soul sister of Annette Bening's similarly named Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty. She should have a normal life — but extraordinary circumstances keep testing the threads of her sanity, which slip with each passing challenge.
5. Last Night
One of Canada's best films is also Sandra Oh's best role, which earned her a second Genie Award. When a number of filmmakers were tasked with coming up with Y2K stories, filmmaker Don McKellar ended up envisioning a Melancholia-esque dark comedy about the end of Earth — one that explores the calm that sets in once the world has come to terms with its impending, inevitable doom.
Oh plays Sandra, a woman desperate to get home to her husband — not to face the end together, but to kill each other and steal one last bit of control in a world that's spinning out of control. Over the course of Earth's final night, she runs an emotional gamut of highs and lows, desperation and connection. She is the human to balance McKellar's wry, dark humor, offering equal parts deep emotion and relatable practicality.