I Sez: A Moment of Re-Evaluation for Mischa Barton
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 30, 2009
In one way, Benjamin MacKenzie and Mischa Barton were very, very lucky individuals. Both were at best marginally talented as actors, capable of disaplaying just a limited range of emotions, within an even more limited number of character frameworks. They were both attractive, but not in a way that was irreplaceable. Yet despite making Priestley and Doherty look like Gandolfini and Falco, they were the nominal stars on The O.C., the most important (and for about 18 months, most popular) teen drama of the decade. But in another way, they were both somewhat unlucky, as despite their show being a gigantic hit, each was upstaged in nearly every way conceivable by their sassier, more charismatic, and arguably better-looking sidekicks, played by Adam Brody and Rachel Bilsson. It was entirely deserved, of course–with just about any actors playing Seth and Summer, that show goes nowhere–but I did feel a little for Marissa and Ryan, as the clumsy, ill-fated romance between the two that was supposed to define the show got increasingly pushed to the side for the misadventures of Ryan’s geek friend and Marissa’s occasionally bitchy girl pal.
A few weeks ago, Mischa Barton was hospitalized in an involuntary psychatric hold, on the night she was supposed to attend the premiere of her new thriller Homecoming. Apparently Mischa was in such a state that the hospital (the one Britney stayed at during her much more publicized meltdown a few years ago, by the way) thought there was actual danger of her dying in the next 24 hours. Those of us who saw Mischa through her formative years on The O.C. will be little surprised from this information–Marissa couldn’t go more than a couple episodes without some sort of high-profile mental breakdown, and in her real life, Barton never really did much to dissuade us about the actress herself being much different. She was rail-thin, dated rock stars (as well as male models, and other red-flag-worthy young gentlemen) and appeared in lots of shitty movies, which seemed to suggest that she was saving all of her excess energy for her party life. The number of pretty blonde waifs who become grossly popular in their teens and make it to 25 without causing a lifetime’s worth of tabloid fodder can probably be counted on one hand, and Mischa seemed to embrace her fate unapologetically. Few tears will be shed for her fall from grace.
Still, while I would hardly consider Barton to be “misunderstood” as an actress, I do think her contributions to The O.C. have become, in time, somewhat undervalued. As previously stated, the number of things that Mischa simply could not do as an actress were somewhat staggering. She couldn’t flirt. She couldn’t make jokes. She couldn’t laugh convincingly. She couldn’t deliver meaningful speeches. She couldn’t act cute, and the couple times she attempted to act tough were laughable. But fortunately for Mischa, most of these things were totally irrelevant. Because Mischa wasn’t called on to banter all that often, and only had to smile when under extreme duress. Far more frequently, she was asked to do what was more firmly in her wheelhouse than of any young ingenue on primetime–to act painfully, deeply and inconsolably sad.
Nobody acted put out quite like Mischa. It was the eyes, mostly–those distant, pleading, sallow eyes, with which Barton could imply inner turmoil with the absolute best of them. She would give characters on the show that look–which nearly everyone on the cast earned from her at least once–that basically said “How could you possibly do this to me? Don’t you know how emotionally and physically frail I am???” And this look had about a million different variants throughout the course of the show, ranging from the disgusted “How could you possibly sleep with my boyfriend?” to the more brokenhearted “How could you go off to Maui and leave me with my evil boyfriend-sleeping-with mother?” to the more flabbergasted “How could you have lied about your girlfriend, faked your own suicide attempt and possibly be kidnapping me right now?” One thing was for sure–once Mischa gave you that look, you knew you were an absolute piece of shit, down to your very core.
It wasn’t just devestation that Mischa could so well convey, though. She was also a beast when it came to pissed-off jadedness–the kind that came after having cause to give The Look about a half-dozen times in three or four episodes, where she decided “fuck it, I ‘ont currr” and just decided to indulge her wildest, most self-destructive impulses. She went through about a four-episode downward spiral in the third season where she started seeing Volchock, which actually made for some of the edgiest, most compelling drama in the show’s run (the scene where she sees him hanging outside her trailer, looks at him disgustedly and wordlessly invites him inside to have hot, self-loathing sex is one of the series’ more indelible moments). And then occasionally, she flirted with outright fury–with somewhat mixed, but always fascinating results, as in the scene pictured above, which might be either the moment the show’s first jump the shark moment, or just a sign of it getting really good. Basically, she could do just about anything, as long as it was within the realm of absolute misery.
So it was probably a good thing that she was one of the most besot TV characters of the 21st century. Her parents split up, with her father turning out to be a financial fraud (and something of a coward), and her mother turning out to be a shameless gold digger (and something of a slut). Her first boyfriend cheated on her in Tijuana about a week after taking her virginity, and the guy she eventually left her for ended up knocking up his old girlfriend and moving back home. On three separate occasions, she bonded platonically with a wayward male outcast, and all three times, they ended up falling in love with her–one went crazy and waved a gun at her, one went crazy and tried to rape her, and one went crazy and ended up semi-accidentally killing himself. She battled alcoholism, experienced (relative) poverty, and nearly got hospitalized for suicidal depression. She shot her boyfriend’s brother in the back and got kicked out of school. She got strung out on drugs and alienated her best friend. And as a sardonic kicker, she was killed off at the end of the third season, ran off the road by her idiot bad boy ex, just as she was starting to get her life together again. Basically, the show supplied an endless and merciless barrage of reasons for Barton to look upset–and the great majority of the time, she absolutely killed it.
So Mischa couldn’t really act. Not all that important, it turns out. Shelley Duvall isn’t exactly an Oscar winner either, but no one will ever forget her performance in The Shining, because she was essentially asked to do just two things over the course of the movie–act shrill and look terrified. And damned if Shell wasn’t the Helen Hayes of acting shrill and looking terrified, positively knocking it out of the park any time she was called on to do either. Similarly, watching O.C. reruns on the Soap network, you’d be surprised how many of the series’ best, most memorable moments, actually belong to Mischa and those little doe eyes of hers. Maybe it’s because she was still just a teenager at the time (about eight years younger than co-star MacKenzie), maybe it’s because she’d had the most practice already (having appeared as similarly morose characters in movies like Lost and Delirious and The Sixth Sense), maybe it was because she just saved all her energy for those particular scenes, but they hit with a raw emotion that Seth quickly got too smarmy to reach, and that we never much wanted to see from Summer anyway. I’d probably watch Homecoming, just to see the betrayed look on her face when the guy she’s stalking spurns her murderous advances.
Ben McKenzie, though…I got nothin’ for ya, bud, except that you’re doing an OK job basically playing the same exact character on Southland. Better stay outta rehab, though, it wouldn’t really fit you so well.