It was after midnight, after the gala showing of director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity at the Toronto International Film Festival, after the wildly emotional standing ovation, after actress Sandra Bullock in a stunning black-and-white sheath waded into waves of raves for her performance at the film’s after-party, that a sense of certainty about Gravity’s pull settled in.
Walking back to the hotel under a starry sky that Cuaron will never let me take for granted again, I knew the afterburn of Bullock’s performance would linger for years.
If it’s a good year at the festival, I’ll see something rare amid all the praising, red-carpet parading and Oscar-hopeful strutting. A seminal moment in an actor’s career. And Bullock’s otherworldly turn in Gravity was exactly that.
It came in a very specific scene in Cuaron’s magnificent contemplation of the human spirit, when the engineer Dr Ryan Stone, who Bullock portrays, is alone in the space module.
Suspended, floating, pressing buttons, checking gauges, she moves with the slow drag of a weightless world. The spacesuit’s bulk has been shucked off. Cuaron is shooting from the side. With Bullock’s hair cropped short, her body nearly bare, the light softly filtering in, the scene looks embryonic. Feels embryonic. Is embryonic.
Dr Stone is one of those irrepressibly courageous characters that moviegoers absolutely love. Empowering to women, unthreatening to men, she is the sort of hero who is brought down to earth not so much by flaws as very relatable fears. Beyond the significant philosophical life-and-death ones born of a major crisis swirling around her, it’s the more grounded ones about the very ordinariness of the way we tend to move through our days that make Ryan so compelling.
How the movie industry will feel is another matter, because Gravity is very likely to upset its moneymaking apple cart where Bullock is concerned.
In Ryan, the actress puts Hollywood on notice that she will no longer be content with the plucky, sincere and slightly silly girl-next-door niche she’s owned since quirky Annie Porter slipped behind the wheel of Speed’s explosive bus in 1994. Nor will she only say “yes” to romantic-comedy proposals, which are abundant and seem close to demanding an exclusive commitment.
I don’t mean to suggest we will lose her in that form, for comedy without Bullock would be a tragedy.
There is a great physicality and a fearlessness in her work. Her willingness to look foolish, to offset that all-American beauty with bone-deep awkwardness, is rather legendary. She flails, she falls, she giggles, she snorts. She literally rolls around in the ridiculous like a kid in fresh snow. Bullock’s brand of funny, when she’s on, is exhilarating to watch.
It’s made her irresistible in one role after another: her coma-crush on Bill Pullman in 1995’s While You Were Sleeping, her undercover cop tottering on heels with Benjamin Bratt in 2000’s Miss Congeniality, her uptight Canadian demanding a visa-approved marriage with Ryan Reynolds in 2009’s The Proposal.
Even her Oscar turn in The Blind Side as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a Memphis mum who takes in a kid from the projects, played to her strengths. Or at least the ones we are most familiar with. The crisp precision she brings to dialogue. The way she adjusts every muscle to match her character. In Tuohy, the telegraphing of a kind of brittle confidence and absolute surety that in other hands would have proved off-putting.
The academy awarded her and fans adored her. Even those who criticised the film for yet another story of an African American saved by a white character, didn’t sling their barbs her way.
Gravity comes at a particularly good time. The actress is already in a power position, not in need of a career boost.
Bullock just turned an impossibly young-looking 49. By now, most have forgotten that she was something of a wild child in her early days. Her failed marriage to bad-boy Jesse James is a fading memory. She has that Oscar on her shelf, and should consider making room for another.
When not working, the actress seems to lead a quietly settled life that includes spending time away from Hollywood’s glare in her young son’s birthplace of New Orleans, and increasingly the down-home comfort of Austin, Texas. Which of course in my mind is basically Makkah with cowboy boots, so perfect.
For all the nesting she’s doing on the home front, taking the role in Gravity was a risk. It required stretching far outside her comfort zone to reach a level of emotionality and vulnerability that we’ve not seen from the actress before.
There have certainly been films along the way that allowed her go deeper and darker. Her bruised socialite in Crash, her 9/11 widowed single-mother in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, her writer in Capote’s shadows in Infamous, among them.
But they were barely warm-ups for the trust exercise Cuaron demanded of her in Gravity. It is a free-fall, really, that he asked for, one with major implications. She not only took it, but in doing so, pulls off a breathtaking landing.
*Gravity releases in the UAE on October 17