If you’ve seen the first season of Yellowjackets on Showtime, or seen a preview for it, you may have noticed a triptych of phenomenal women–Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, and Melanie Lynskey–present on-screen, all of whom who once came of age around the same time in the ‘90s as their younger selves portrayed through flashbacks in the show. These three actresses, by way of their characters, seemed to take on the personality that echoed through that 90s fixation on grunge and youthful angst heard through the airwaves with Liz Phair, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.
Looking back at their rise to fame elicits the same type of nostalgia heard through the musical artists that perforate Showtime’s second most watched show of all-time. Each exhibited their own dark and mysterious streak decades ago when they were thrust into teen roles. Taking the plunge down memory lane, at their films from this all-so formative decade, feels like the right thing to do when appreciating the consistency and breadth of each actress's work.
It could be argued that Hollywood has always been in Juliette Lewis’ blood having grown up the daughter of character actor maestro of Clint Eastwood film fame Geoffrey Lewis. After playing Clark Griswold’s daughter in Christmas Vacation came the 17 year-old’s first descent into elicit waters by way of Martin Scorsese’ Cape Fear remake. Brace-faced Lewis had no problem playing Nick Nolte’s daughter, embodying innocence lost and acting the object of an ex-con’s affection– as well as his thumb – a la Robert De Niro.
That naïveté and youthful charm that she garnered in both Cape Fear – as well as Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives – eventually morphed into rebellious enthusiasm highlighted in Dominic Sena’s sadly unsung 1993 thriller Kalifornia-- a work genre piece that provided that groundwork for the roles best suited to Lewis’ god-given skill set. As the girlfriend of a serial killer played by a young Brad Pitt, it’s truly Lewis who steals the film by adding an air of uncertainty and mystery to a road movie that otherwise stays in one lane and never lets go.
Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers would then, of course, double down on Lewis’ Kalifornia character just a year later in 1994, propelling Lewis into unhinged glory. Her character, Mallory Knox, is a runaway murderer and depraved lover of Mickey (Woody Harrelson), whose grisly murder streak she matches beat for beat for the entirety of the picture. Aside from being a great name, Mallory Knox is the ultimate manic femme fatale – leading horny men into a trap only to stab them in the heart thirty times and then repeat her felony again at the next diner or rest stop.
“I’m not really as bad as they say I am,” Lewis’ Mallory tells scummy police detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) towards the end of the film. “I’m actually really a nice person”. And for a moment, thanks to Lewis’ uncanny ability to gain audience empathy, it’s almost easy to believe her. Lewis’ ability to flip the switch between a convincing, soft-spoken, and adolescent voice and the most reprobate mad woman in film for the era, is the type of range and devious variety that stole movies – catching the attention of Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez.
Knox is both the hippie look-alike, bandana toting lady moving to the sound of “Sweet Jane” and a knife cut, blood connection away from marriage, too. Like the fickle nature of the film itself, Lewis switches from sweet and lovable to demonic rather seamlessly. Never better than when she seduces a gas station mechanic (played by Balthazar Getty) while sporting a blonde wig and a 60s dress, eventually making love to him on top of a car while imagining that it’s Mickey – who is shown tying up a random woman in the motel room, unclear if it’s actually happening or a dream. Mallory immediately regrets the decision and decides to shoot and kill Getty shortly after; the film’s impulsive unruliness finally coming to a head and meeting Knox’s madness halfway.
There is a Badlands energy to Lewis’ performance as Mallory that feels both of another time and in-step with the media frenzied, TV-era zeitgeist that Stone is attempting to capture in the film. Lewis never got to let loose again, nor dress up in so many disguises, quite like in this picture but it helped her land roles that showcased her sinister side that better captured the pushback rage of the 90s.
Even in her current role in YellowjacketsLewis plays Natalie – a punk badass (cue Strange Days and The Crow-era Lewis) unafraid to commit trespass or pull a gun out. Yet she also has a sweet, friendly side as witnessed in an early episode of the show where she goes on a date with her best friend from high school, who’s still in love with her and he happens to be a cop. Going from intimidating and all business to endearing and romantic aptly sums up Lewis’ career, too.
It’s not often an actress makes a film debut that ends up being her most well known or referenced work. That was the case for New Zealand native Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures. Starring alongside A-lister-to-be Kate Winslet, and directed by not-yet-famous Peter Jackson, Lynskey’s Pauline Parker was the most fascinating character and performance in the movie. The film tells the true story of two 15-year old girls, Juliet Hulme (Winslet) and Parker who bludgeoned Pauline’s mother, Honora, with a brick stuffed in a stocking in the woods in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1954. Ex-film critic Janet Maslin aptly compared it to Natural Born Killers in the New York Times, saying that like Stone’s film, “it enters an insular, volatile world of high-hormone adolescence and captures its characters’ scary detachment from reality.”
The detachment from reality couldn’t be more true yet the approach is much different in Jackson’s film as he infuses the first half of the story with fantasy and the constant struggle between listening to adults and running the other direction. There’s a sense that these kids are alright and that they were surrounded by a mostly loving environment – something to which Natural Born Killers’ Mallory and Mickey likely couldn’t relate.
Jackson’s trolley car shots of downtown Christchurch – as also lovingly shown as in Jackson’s cult horror comedy Bad Taste just a few years prior – and his mountainous, sea-side vistas add to the land of make-believe the film’s heroines are so often living in. Borovnia, the fantasy world Juliet and Pauline conjure up, feels not far removed from Lord of the Rings or more accurately, Shrek, with its whimsical knights in shining armor and mammoth sized castles.
As the camera twirls and elevates, so do the moods of these two ladies as they deal with love interests, sickness, and the drive to not only enter Hollywood stardom (eventually) but to escape the daunting responsibilities and rigidity of modern living. The girls obsession with singer Mario Lanza is a nice touch of 50s pop culture and the pair’s dance scene through the woods, to Lanza’s music, eloping on a stranger mid-wood chopping, is a rare glimpse of humanity before this juvenile world comes tumbling down.
As Winslet shows off her haughty, entitled indifference, Lynskey gets to bewilder the screen every time she appears. As if something is boiling, waiting to come undone. Her eyes twinkle and her face gives off sneering looks that help drive the story into untouched places. She is in love with Winslet’s character, or so the doctor in the film thinks, but she also toys with a young man who sneaks in through her window until her dad gets angry.
In “The Fourth World”, Juliet’s version of heaven without Christians and a place where art is the biggest game in town, triggers that mischievous sense of adventure in Pauline that ultimately leads the film into being a success. Lynskey doesn’t try to emulate or match Winslet’s on-screen exuberance, but she forms her own path that eventually leads her into dark territory and murderous waters.
In Macon’s Blair little known sorta-revenge feature debut I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is a perfect confluence of that repressed anger and untapped intrigue. Even when Lynskey gives you a plain look, she’s expressing so much. As nursing assistant Ruth, Lynskey’s house gets broken into and her grandma’s silverware and laptop get stolen in the process, so she teams up with quirky neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood).
Maybe it’s Lynskey’s voice or the sense that those naysayers messing with her underestimate just how ruthless she can be. Though Lynskey didn’t have the type of imprint that both Lewis and Ricci had on the 90s, her ascent by way of small roles in independent cinema and bigger roles on network TV the past few decades gave her a home and her own place in the culture.
The off-beat, quirky mid-life crisis character that Lynskey pulls off in the terrific Hello I Must Be Going helped establish hery as a formidable presence in recent years, as evidenced in Yellowjackets where Lynsky plays Shauna –arguably the most fascinating character in the show – who pre-crash was Ivy league bound and a top student in her class. Lynskey masterfully captures the essence of the suburban mom plane crash survivor who ends up stuck in her hometown, married to the jock she was covertly hooking up with in high school, but who now desires a jolt of something more out of life. Lynskey’s smirk, grin, or chuckle says so much without saying anything at all.
The lady with the most 90s cred among young adult viewers and arthouse enthusiasts alike is Christina Ricci. The undersized, wide-eyed Ricci paid her dues with The Addams Family, Casper, and Now and Then (which still holds up) before landing a pair of markedly different roles, with 1998 proving to be a big year for the up-and-comer trying to venture out of playing precocious teens and into more subversive work.
Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ‘66 saw Ricci, initially, as the timid, kind-hearted foil to Gallo’s nervous, self-obsessed loner character. There is a version of this film that, like two previous mentioned films earlier, becomes Natural Born Killers and luckily that’s not the budget nor the motive at play here. Gallo plays Billy, an ex-con who finishes his five-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit only to return home to Buffalo where it’s cold and gray, as Buffalo tends to be in the winter. Ricci plays Layla, who Billy kidnaps at her tap dancing class and forces her to drive him to his parents house forcing her to pretend to be his wife.
“We span time together as a couple,” Billy repeats to Layla as he preps her for a photo booth shoot where they’re supposed to look happy. Although Gallo’s Hollywood arrival is the stuff of independent cinema history lore, it’s Ricci who takes the film by storm. Her role in the film is not only one big audition, or act, to be Gallo’s lover but for the film-going audience to also see that she has range and is rapidly ascending away from adolescence into adulthood. Which makes it even more surprising, when Layla–who is yelled at by Billy when she speaks in the early parts of the film–opens her mouth and begins gushing about Billy’s made-up career and how he’s one of the CIA’s top agents.
When she tells Billy’s parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara) that Billy is “the most handsome guy in the world” you really believe that she means it, even though his deadbeat body language would never make you think so. When she tells Billy’s father that she wants to hear him sing, she’s no longer just playing the part Billy assigned her, but she’s completely entranced and involved and curious. J. Hoberman correctly noted in his Village Voice piece from the mid-2000s, that Buffalo ‘66 rewrote and deflated Taxi Driver’s portrait of loner alienation. What if Jodie Foster’s Iris was closer in age to De Niro’s Travie Bickle, could they too have fallen in love?
Billy, like Bickle, wants to kill a man only here it’s an ex-Buffalo Bills kicker instead of a political figure. The difference between the two being minimal, if at all. Layla is no prostitute, like Iris, but she too gives the audience a sense that her life isn’t all that peachy. Uneventful at best. And whatever negative energy and crass debauchery Billy throws her way, there’s something in him that she finds endearing. That same something that that audience finds in her. Midway through the film, after a few rounds of bowling–a proud passtime of once young Billy–a big light beams over Layla as she gets a few minutes of tap dancing all to herself, with a pitch black surrounding.
It’s a David Lynch-esque moment of genius pulchritude. It’s of its own piece and as much as this is Vincent Gallo’s movie–not just for the writer/director/actor credit–this moment spells out that it is very much Ricci’s too. A partnership of two actors completely immersed in this downtrodden world. “You look like a little boy in the bathtub” is the type of line that only Ricci could deliver with the type of authenticity that the moment in the film, near the end, required. You need to buy that this reticent girl could turn the table and turn the spotlight on Billy. And she does.
The second movie of 1998 that delivered another Ricci masterclass was The Opposite of Sex. Aside for being well ahead of its time in terms of exploring bisexuality, the post-AIDS crisis hangover, and media culture, it was a film that dealt with these themes in an acerbic, comedic tone. Here, Ricci plays Dedee Truitt, a 16 year-old who runs away from home, moves in with her older half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan), and sleeps with his boyfriend, Matt (Ivan Sergei) and convinces him that he’s the father of her pregnant stomach, before they runaway and the store unfurls itself. Truitt is the type of character you could see Tracy Flick becoming had she grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in Election and Ricci’s performance is loud-mouth, vile, and unrelenting.
She’s the #1 villain and she does with it so much humor and moxie that it’s as entertaining as it is maddening. Ricci’s sardonic voice plays into the voiceover you hear throughout the film and her conniving and seductive ways hardly seem like they patronize the audience or the film. It’s a masterwork of hilarity and absurd disgust. The fantastic Donovan and his former lover’s sister Lucia (Lisa Kudrow) have to keep up with Ricci’s antics and they certainly do.
In Yellowjackets, Ricci plays Misty – an offbeat, subtly controlling nurse who’s a lot more nefarious than her innocent looks may give away. Donning curly blond hair and oversized glasses, Ricci plays a medley of her earlier roles all wrapped perfectly into one – proving that her ability to surprise and carry power in her petite stance is a talent that has never ceased throughout the breadth of her career.
Looking at and appreciating Yellowjackets through the lens of the 90s characters these three actresses portrayed doesn’t so much feel like a reunion tour as it does a new chapter in their biographies. Yes, they could play “dark” and “subversive” parts well, as discussed in the films above, yet they could also pivot and be quirky, charming, and romantic. The unceasing ability to play genre-hop and adjust to themes of a specific narrative or story has helped these ladies not only stay relevant in Hollywood but leave a noticeable mark.
One can appreciate and absorb the trash delight of Yellowjackets on the show’s own terms – and you can have a grand ‘ole time in doing so – but taking a trip down memory ( or-Blockbuster’s “independent”-back-corner) lane can prove that much more satisfying. It’s no coincidence that these 90s films, starring these leading ladies, impelled and provided a huge boost to the career’s of several directors. Talented wonders tend to find each other, even decades later on TV shows, and seeing where it all started, and where the good seeds got mixed up with the bad, is its own form of karmic meditation worth experiencing. These are the good vibrations.