Monday, June 05, 2006
Fuck you, Grandma.
You were my little baby girl,
And I shared all your fears.
Such joy to hold you in my arms
and kiss away your tears.
But now you're gone, there's only pain
and nothing I can do.
And I don't want to live this life,
If I can't live for you.
To my beautiful baby girl.
Our love will never die...
- A poem for Nancy Spungeon by Sid Vicious
Sid and Nancy opens the morning after the death of Nancy Spungeon from a stab wound likely inflicted by her lover, ex-Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. Sid (Gary Oldman) stares vacantly as cops try in vain to get answers. This device frames most of the film as a flashback, a story rolling ahead to an inevitably downbeat conclusion. It mirrors the fatalistic, self-destructive spirits of its leads, and it's bloody romantic. While the film is unsparing in its depiction of Sid and Nancy's drug-fueled downward spiral, it also has a heart as big as a dumpster.
John Lydon referred to Sid and Nancy as "mere fantasy...the Peter Pan version" (of course, it's important to note that Lydon is by all appearances an insufferable prick). But it'd be hard to accuse Cox of sanitizing his young lovers; Sid first endears himself to Nancy (Chloe Webb) by throwing himself headfirst into a brickwall, and the pair's romance defies terms like "abuse" and "sadism," existing on its own distinctly chaotic wavelength. These characters are losers by all conventional standards; Sid can hardly play his bass, and Nancy repeatedly calls him "John" in the first reel. Yet as we follow their wild eighteen-month romance through the breakup of the Pistols to Vicious' stab at a solo career to collapse, we come to acknowledge these two as soulmates, for better or worse. Scenes like the one where the couple trashes Sid's house while his mom (an interesting character herself, ignored her) is away veer wildly between manic affection and pure bile. And the ugliness of the lovers is the key to the film's enduring power. When we're asked to believe that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan could fall in love, both leads are so generically appealing that we assume attraction follows naturally. But when bruised Nancy and bloodied Sid fall into bed together, we know it must be true love. If you're the type of person who defends the wildly implausible emotional instability of Romeo and Juliet as precisely the point, than Sid and Nancy is likely to be one of your favorite films.
The leads deliver two of the all-time great performances in cinema. Gary Oldman's genius is so reliable that it seems to be taken for granted by now; here, in one of his earliest film roles, he not only perfectly embodies the Vicious persona but lends the character layers of depth and sensitivity. He's equally believable quietly asking Nancy for a kiss as he is thrashing the life out of a rock critic. Chloe Webb is revelatory - I haven't seen her in much else (she played Danny De Vito's girlfriend in Twins and has a brief role in Ghostbusters 2), and on the basis of the evidence here, she's criminally underused. Webb achieves the almost impossible feat of a violently unrestrained performance that never quite goes over the top. While Nancy's piercing shreaks ("SIIIID!!!") become a familiar refrain, and her behavior grows steadily worse, she remains utterly endearing. There scenes together have both undiluted passion and razor-sharp precision. While the film gets in some pointed jabs at Malcolm McLaren and the artifice of the punk movement, it's really just backdrop to the love story. Cox creates a playground of alleys, rooftops, and hotel rooms for Sid and Nancy to roam violently through, firing toy pistols and stumbling through glass doors, and the results are magical.
By the time Sid and Nancy reaches the Hotel Chelsea, we've become totally immersed in these two kids, and Cox's unflinching look at their heroin-fueled downfall is almost unbearable to watch. The film's version of Nancy's death is, of course, speculative, but in the context of the film, it's the only believable outcome. The film neither glamorizes nor moralizes their drug use, but depicts with clarity how the drug becomes a logical method of spiritual self-immolation for Sid and Nancy. An earlier scene where Nancy's grandparents politely kick them out of the house prepares us for the end; when Sid asks why they rejected her, Nancy responds, "Because they know me." These characters are who they are, yet the film's ethereal final scene invites not despair but exhilaration. When Titanic ended similarly, it was unsatisfying, as we were asked to believe that Kate Winslet's character shrugged off her husband and kids to get back on that ship with that guy she barely knew. Here, we believe it wholeheartedly. And for whatever reason, though Sid and Nancy is unremittingly grim, it's also incredibly life-affirming; I always finish it with a smile on my face.
Jess, my girlfriend, called me yesterday during the final minutes of the film and asked what I was doing. "Nancy Spungeon's about to die," I responded.
"I still can't believe you compared me to Nancy. I hate Nancy."
"Yeah, well, she hated herself."
"Anyway, I meant it as a compliment."
"But she's so shrill and annoying!"
"I think she's alright...I feel like we're always one bad decision away from complete self-destruction."
"Awww...I love you too!"