There are very few actors who can succeed in film, television and the stage, in my opinion. But Mary Louise Parker is one of those few for me. From her early work in Fried Green Tomatoes and Boys on the Side to her long running stint on Weeds, Parker has proven to be an actor of versatility and charisma. And she is my ultimate girl crush because she played my favorite character of all time, but we will get to that later.
Parker was born in 1964 in South Carolina. Her father, John, served in the army and periodically moved the family around the United States for work. The acting bug hit Parker while in high school, and she received her degree in drama from the University of North Carolina of the Arts. After graduation, Parker moved to New York City and began working in theatre.
It only took a few years before Parker made her mark on the Big Apple, playing the lead role of Rita in 1990’s Prelude to a Kiss, where she received a Tony nomination. The following year her film career would take off and begin the illustrious body of work that we know today.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
It would take a powerful actor to upstage the likes of Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy, and that’s exactly what Parker did in Fried Green Tomatoes. The film’s narrative switches between the life of Kathy Bates’ character, Evelyn, and Jessica Tandy’s character, Ninny. The women recount tales from their life and Ninny tells the story of her sister-in-law, Idgie, and the relationship she had with a friend, Ruth, played by Parker. Ruth helps a resistant Idgie out of a reclusive state. After becoming friends, Ruth moves away to get married and start a new life. Idgie is not ready to let her friendship go and decides to visit Ruth in her new town. Idgie finds Ruth pregnant and in an abusive marriage. Ruth decides to escape back to town with Idgie and they open a cafe to support themselves.
Parker auditioned for the role of Ruth a couple of times and was convinced she would not get the role. It was only after screen testing with Mary Stuart Masterson, who played Idgie, did Parker feel confident in her ability to play Ruth. The chemistry between Parker and Masterson was palpable. Parker said in a later interview that a lot of her characterizations of Ruth came from her own mother. For this being one of her first commercially known works, it’s remarkable that she was able to carry her own amongst such established acting heavy weights.
Boys on the Side (1995)
In Boys on the Side, Parker’s character, Robin, puts an ad in the newspaper looking for a companion to accompany her on a cross country trip. Jane, played by Whoopi Goldberg, responds to the ad, and they begin their journey from New York to Los Angeles. They stop in Pittsburgh and pick up Jane’s friend Holly, played by Drew Barrymore. They discover Holly in the midst of a physical altercation with her boyfriend, Nick. They leave him bound to a chair and Holly hits him with a baseball bat. After they are gone, he manages to get free but stumbles, falls, hits his head and dies. The women eventually get all the way to Tuscon, Arizona, where they decide to start over again. But, it’s not that easy.
Robin is living with AIDS and Holly falls for a police officer, Abe, played by Matthew McConaughey, and she confesses what happened with Nick. Holly is arrested and brought back to Pittsburgh to go on trial. Holly eventually is let free and they all head back to Arizona, where Robin passes away.
The film received positive reviews and Parker’s performance was one of the first to show a female AIDS patient; up until this point the depiction were predominately given by men. Boys on the Side is compared to Thelma & Louise as a “cross country chick flick”. Sure, there are similarities, but the heart of this film deals with something much greater, for which Parker plays an integral role. It was 1995, not that far away from the initial rush of AIDS panic. Parker’s performance as just a regular woman who happened to have AIDS helped to change the narrative of what AIDS actually is. It’s not a disease exclusive to any particular group, gender, or orientation; it’s a disease that can afflict anyone.
Angels in America (2003)
Here’s the part of the article where I go on a complete fan girl tangent. The HBO miniseries of Angels in America is one of the most important pieces of cinema to me, and Mary Louise Parker’s performance of Harper Pitt has a lot to do with it. The story has a ton of characters and moving parts, but Harper Pitt, in my opinion, is the most interesting and courageous of them all. Harper is a Mormon housewife married to a law clerk, Joe Pitt, played by Patrick Wilson. The couple has moved to New York City from Salt Lake City and Harper is generally a recluse. She also deals with a plethora of emotional problems and takes multiple medications, which cause her to have very detailed and specific hallucinations.
During one of her hallucinations she meets Prior, played by Justin Kirk. In this hallucination, Harper talks about her ability to see the truth while she hallucinates. She asks Prior if he is able to do the same and asks if he sees anything about her. He does and he reveals that her husband Joe is a homosexual. Harper knows that he is telling the truth because this is a suspicion that she has had since she married Joe. After her hallucination is over, she confronts Joe, who initially denies it. Harper leaves and Joe starts a relationship with a man, Louis, who is Prior’s ex boyfriend. Harper’s final monologue shows her on a plane flying to San Francisco, where she is going to start a new life on her own.
The remarkable thing about the character of Harper is her strength and clarity. She might be deemed weak because of her mental illness, yet she is one of the only characters that actually holds any self-awareness. Parker’s portrayal is like a masterclass in acting for me. It would be easy to play this type of character as over-the-top and manic, yet Parker holds a subtle, steady pace. There is an incredible amount of relatability in her performance, and it makes her a standout in a cast that includes Al Pacino and Meryl Streep.
In 2001, Mary Louise Parker joined the eclectic cast of The West Wing, playing Amy Gardner, a political lobbyist. While the politically based show was loved by many, it would be Parker’s role as Nancy Botwin in Weeds that would garner more attention.
The Botwin family is an unconventional family in southern California. What makes them unconventional is the matriarch of the family, Nancy, who becomes a weed dealer after her husband’s sudden death. Having to support two kids and an irresponsible brother-in-law, played by Justin Kirk, Nancy resorts to a life of crime. The show lasted eight seasons and gave Parker the opportunity to flex some dark humor skills. The show was created by Jenji Kohan, who would follow up the series with Orange is the New Black and GLOW.
As an actor who started in theatre, I can tell you that old theatre habits die hard. When you are put in front of a camera, the instinct to project is still in your bones. Same goes for being on film and then going back to theatre. It takes a while to remember that when you are on a stage and need to be seen, your understated character choices will go unnoticed. These are some of the reasons why I love and appreciate actors like Mary Louise Parker. She is able to transcend any acting medium and give the character she is playing justice.
I had been a die hard fan of Weeds and would marvel at the vacant stares she would give. That sounds creepy, but what I mean is that the subtle choices appeared to be well thought-out and executed. That’s incredibly hard to do for any actor, especially one who started in theatre. The subtlety of her performances and the little nuances she gives to each character shows, in my opinion, the dedication to creating a fully-rounded character.
Mary Louise Parker: Conclusion
Mary Louise Parker may not be a blockbuster headliner, but she is the exact kind of actor the business needs more of. An actor who is driven by the work, not the fame. An actor who can cross platforms and still give amazing performances in each.
What is your favorite performance from Mary Louise Parker? Do you love her as much as I do or will I win the title of number one fan girl?