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Regina King @ 50: Stealing the spotlight in "Ray"

by Cláudio Alves

Despite having leading roles in her resume and a just-released directorial effort, it feels appropriate that this weekend's birthday-girl Regina King's Oscar is for Best Supporting Actress. From the very start of her career, she's been a consummate scene-stealer, adding energy and blinding charisma to the margins of her productions. One remembers the actress' superb comedic debut in Boyz n the Hood, the unimprovable hilarity of Jerry Maguire, the two awards-winning turning points in her career, TV's American Crime and the big screen's If Beale Street Could Talk. Still, it's hard not to wish that her big break had come sooner since the quality has always been there. In other words, how in the hell did King get next to no awards buzz for her captivating performance in Best Picture-nominee Ray?...

I wish I could write about this performance in the Almost There series. However, apart from ensemble honors and a couple of other non-major precursors, Regina King's turn as Margie Hendricks, Ray Charles' tragic mistress and backup singer, was ignored during the 2004/2005 awards season. This is exceptionally sad when one considers that the actress is one of the picture's saving graces. Overall, Taylor Hackford's biopic of the music legend is a paint-by-numbers affair, brought down by its cradle-to-grave narrative conventions. The period design and expansive supporting cast keep it from unsalvageable mediocrity, but, for someone like me who has a bias against most prestige biopics, the movie's a chore.

Among the collection of supporting actors, the performers that play the principal women of Charles' life get the juiciest roles and the best opportunities to blow the movie open with searing emotion. No mausoleum-like photography or stodgy staging can contain the presence of people like Kerry Washington, Aunjanue Ellis, and, of course, the one and only Regina King. She takes over an hour to arrive at the film but, when she does, it's impossible to take our eyes away from her Margie. Singing with a sly smile in a small studio, King's like the star of a romantic drama barging her way into Ray and effortlessly stealing the spotlight away from all that surrounds her, including Jamie Foxx's Oscar-winning mimicry.

The first thing that jumps out after one gets used to the smile is how much King can manage and modulate tone. As soon as the singing ends, she's cheekily enmeshed in contract negotiations with the famous musician. It's flirting in the costume of business, a show of self-amused confidence that inspires some honest chuckles from the viewer, even those who've been partially numbed by the movie's lethargic travail through biopic tropes. It also serves as a humorous prelude for one of Ray's most interesting sequences, when Margie's seduction of the star is seen through the eyes of his former lover. Suddenly her smiles aren't so lovingly romantic but a charming piece of warfare.

Even though King is often presented as part of the Raylettes when not sharing bedroom scenes with Foxx, there's never any doubt that we're standing in the presence of a star who's just waiting for her chance to shine. It's impossible to care that her singing voice doesn't match her speaking sound, not when she's having so much fun lip-synching, bringing sexiness to the proceedings as well as a shade of pride that hints at the character's sad downfall. Not that pridefulness is the key to Margie's destruction. If anything, it's her willingness to indulge and partake in her beau's self-annihilating tendencies that decide her fate. Even when the bloom of infatuation is still bright, the flower of this relationship stinks of toxic love.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't allow King to telegraph Margie's descent as an organic progression. In one scene, she's reaching for a glass to drown her broken heart at one of Ray's casual cruelties. Right in the next moment, she's already an unprofessional mess boozing it up at a recording session and swiveling like a habitual drunkard. Still, even as the character becomes more outwardly antagonistic towards her lover, King allows more vulnerabilities to show through. In half an hour, she goes from sensual vixen shining from the background to a crying wreck, sobbing in paroxysms of despondence, despair, and fury. If there were any doubts, King had star quality in 2004, Maggie's final scenes in Ray make the matter clear.

While writing the hit single "Hit the Road Jack", she and Ray fight in their hotel room. She tells him she's pregnant and lays it all bare, opening her heart and letting its pulpy mess horrify the audience and perchance conquer our compassion. Her voice breaks, her face crumbles, her body seems tense with the force of holding back a scream. It only becomes worse as Ray keeps playing the piano, their commotion bleeding into the song. Suddenly, the tune is done and performed on stage, the cutting and King's face making it clear that Margie is singing for no audience but her man. With a stare that could kill, King shows that it's over between them, and as she leaves Ray in the cold morning, her sorrow hides no hope that he holds her back. She's ready to leave for good. It all hurt too much.

After her departure, Margie doesn't return. The last we hear of her comes when the erstwhile Raylette dies, a telephone call telling the protagonist of a deadly overdose that left one of his kids without a mother. It's a devastating moment in many regards, but it's mostly due to King's performance and presence that the loss reverberates through the very fabric of the movie, its form, its reality. One almost feels the need to recite Auden and demand that all the clocks be stopped, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. The poet was right. After such a sorrowful end, nothing can ever come to any good. What an actress and what a star! Thankfully, awards bodies only took about a decade longer to finally see that, and now Regina King's getting all the praise she always deserved.

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Reader Comments (24)

I'll never forget her breakdown scene in "If Beale Street Could Talk" - what a supreme actress.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterElvira

Regina is one of those actresses getting the recognition she deserves and in this great, I should say, film she's still not the best supporting performer. Sharon Warren is the one I'd give that title. One of my favorite performances from that decade with such an impactful yet small arc
Anyway, more here for whatever Regina brings to the tables since she's madly talented. It's hard to find a mediocre performance from her, let alone a bad one.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

Sharon Warren continues to get ignored in these damn Ray retrospectives that insist King was robbed of recognition. Her best film outings prior to Beale Street were in the type of Black productions that don't get further consideration outside of key elements like Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Another vote for Sharon Warren here. Washington and King were great, but Warren left the biggest impression - could not take my eyes off of her and she moved me the most. That scene when she decides not to help little Ray when he falls down - still have it in my memory all these years later.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterPawel

/3rtful & Pawel -- it's a pity that Sharon wasn't even part of the SAG ensemble nomination (a victim of her lack of single card billing) but i disagree that she's the MVP even if she has the most traditional awards role (the longsuffering mother) I think it's easily Regina King

January 16, 2021 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love Regina, always, but what ever happened to Sharon Warren ?

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterB

B - that's a good question. I was looking her up, she only has three credits on her IMDb and I did read she did theater work in Alabama, but I can't find anything about her post-2006. Such a shame, I thought she was terrific as Aretha.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

She held her own in her scenes with Jackee on 227.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

For some reason, I remember Regina King most in Miss Congeniality 2.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterIan

I remember her from 227! But yes, I agree that she’s more than worthy of recognition in Ray. She’s be in my support actress lineup.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Should not be near a nomination for One Night in Miami.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterBebe

When I did things like predictions (another lifetime ago at GoldDerby) she was among my nominees that year. I preferred all the women to Foxx in RAY.

From child star to adult powerhouse she's had an unprecedented career in the industry. She deserves everything.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterHoneybee

Kind of curious which actress got closest to a nomination... was it Washington who was getting mentioned in predictions columns?

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

talking about Regina... yesterday I finally saw "One Night in Miami" and it is a very good film... however, championing her for an Oscar nomination as Director... makes me feel uncomfortable. There are moments of promise of the great director she can be, in the future... just not right now. Felt a bit similar to Wolfe's work in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"... both films are aptly directed, but hardly "Best" material by any means.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

I like King but it was another of her explosive wife roles,Warren was far more affecting with less screen time,2004 Supporting Actress was quite bland.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Count me as a Sharon Warren supporter. I also believe she's the MVP in the film, she trascend the 'long suffering mother' role.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJ

I wonder why she is so overrated. She definitely didn't deserve the Oscar for Beale Street and isn't deserving of a directing nomination this year.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterDl

Welp, the "overrated" train is right on time. My memories of Ray are scattered, and I'm not even sure I've seen the whole thing, but Regina and the already mentioned Sharon Warren were the brightest spots for me. I'm so happy to see her getting the attention she's deserved for so many years. Her first nomination should've come for Jerry Maguire and I'll be very happy if her named is called out as a Best Director nominee when they're announced. I think her work on the film is so smart and wonderfully restrained, definitely above Wolfe's (still pretty good) work on Ma Rainey, though I don't understand why everyone is jumping to compare those two specifically all the time.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Because they’re both based on plays. Regina shows how to wonderfully open up text from the stage to the screen, while Wolfe keeps it cloistered and small. Ma Rainey had all those stagey tics like characters repeatedly saying they’ll leave a room only to keep talking and return again and again, keeping a scene in one setting indefinitely. Miami, although talky, felt like a movie.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

On Ma Rainey vs One Night in Miami...

... the most clever writting and performances are in Ma Rainey
... the better direction is in One Night in Miami

I don't think either deserves - from what I've seen this year, already - neither nominations to Best Picture nor Director, because I saw enough better films to keem them both out of my top 10 already... but that doesn't mean that they would be unworthy nominees, they're good enough to be nominated, just the notion that they would be stealing spots from more deserving films.

By the way, none of the actors in Miami makes my shortcut for acting nominations...

January 18, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

Jesus Alonso said it right.

January 18, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

Not one syllable about Sharon Warren? Shameful. Anyways, Regina King should have been an Oscar nominee long before "Beale Street." It's like the rest of the world's just catching up to her now when it's cool to do so, while I've been here since "227." Watching "One Night in Miami" today to celebrate the MLK holiday and Miss King's birthday. She was excellent and Oscarworthy in "Ray," which was also a great film that's needlessly maligned around here. Better late than never.

January 18, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

Everyone -- I did really like Sharon Warren but I thought King was better. Sorry about not mentioning her but it felt weird to name the actress playing Charles' mother along with the women that were his love interests. It's silly, I know, apologies if it came off as me undermining or disrespecting Warren's praise-worthy performance.

Honeybee -- The women of RAY are all better than the men, IMO. My attention always gravitated to them throughout the movie.

thefilmjunkie -- I'm not sure I'd have nominated her for JERRY MAGUIRE but I might have given her the nod for POETIC JUSTICE. I'm also starting to get a bit frustrated with the comparisons. I hope all these people talking about stage-to-screen adaptations also bring these movies up when THE FATHER is finally released.

Jesus Alonso -- I think Hodge might make my ballot. I thought he was the MVP.

Thank you all for the feedback and, again, sorry for not mentioning Sharon Warren.

January 18, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterCláudio Alves

"I think her work on the film is so smart and wonderfully restrained, definitely above Wolfe's (still pretty good) work on Ma Rainey, though I don't understand why everyone is jumping to compare those two specifically all the time."

It's b/c both films primarily star black ensembles. People are racist and transparent. News at 11.

January 18, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterX

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