Sid and Nancy

Dir: Alex Cox, 1986. Starring: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, David Hayman, Andrew Schofield. Cult.
Sid and Nancy

Like most bios of contemporary controversial figures, Sid and Nancy has its naysayers. Some music historians and punk aficionados have claimed that the film misrepresents some of its real life characters and their time line. Those complaints may be true. But no one has a qualm with the two stunning lead performances by Chloe Webb as the beyond annoying groupie, Nancy, and Gary Oldman as the drugged out Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious (actually just window dressing for the group, he had the look, but never played on the records). The two make for an insane couple; it's a deranged Romeo & Juliet, two lost souls in a sea of heroin and self-destruction. This is a love story, with some dark humor mixed in, like a gutter version of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.

Coming off his cult hit Repo Man director Alex Cox beautifully captures the ugliness of the late '70s/early '80s punk and drug culture in London and New York. The film opens with Sid being arrested for murdering Nancy at The Chelsea Hotel (in real life many believed that he was genuinely innocent, done in by lazy New York cops who didn't want to search out the real killer). The film goes back and traces the two meeting as the Sex Pistols were taking off in London, the cover boys for the fledgling punk music scene. Nancy was an American, a stripper and a hooker who chased rock stars and drugs. After being rejected by the other Pistols, she found a willing victim in the rather naive and dim Sid. In the film she gets him hooked on the needle and becomes the voice in his head (a kinda less charming and less intelligent Yoko Ono).

The Sex Pistols went on a now legendary disastrous tour of the American South, breaking up after the final concert. Sid and Nancy end up in New York City living the celebrity junkie life while Sid embarks on a solo career, with Nancy managing him. In an amazingly uncomfortable moment the lovebirds venture back to visit Nancy's family in the Midwest, wasted and smoking, Sid shirtless at the dinner table. Later they perform a song for the family loaded with F-bombs. The family promptly dumps them off at a motel and gives them taxi money to get them to the bus. Sid and Nancy are baffled as to what went wrong. Another great moment of clueless comedy has Sid exiting a restaurant and someone calls his name, distracted he smashes through the glass window. Oops.

The characters around them may not be fully drawn. David Hayman plays the band's manager and self-proclaimed Svengali, Malcolm McLaren, as a snaky manipulator, which most reports from the period would confirm. As the Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten, Andrew Schofield has the sneer but lacks the charisma. Other members of the band and assorted scenesters and musicians come off as vague or worse, cartoonish. The film is not a strong explanation of the era (see the documentary The Filth And The Fury for that story). No, it’s Sid & Nancy’s show and with it, both Webb and Oldman were making their feature film debuts.

Webb is astonishingly abrasive as Nancy. There is nothing glamorous or attractive about Webb’s performance. Looking like a horrid pre-surgery Courtney Love (who pops up in this film as well as in Alex Cox’s follow-up, the awful Straight To Hell), Webb completely submits herself to the role. In one particularly brilliant scene Nancy, in a phone booth trying to score drug money from her parents, manages to go on the manipulation to anger scale, from A to B to C, in a few quick moments. It’s a scene that should be viewed by all acting students if they want to see some great acting. Though Webb has worked steadily since Sid and Nancy on the stage and screen, mostly in television, she has not had a very distinguished career; rather shocking since this is one of the great female film performances of the '80s.

On the other hand, with a fist load of stellar roles, Oldman would be hailed as one of the best of his generation for his chameleon-like performances. In the '80s and early '90s he would be rivaled by perhaps only Sean Penn for the deep method acting throne of his generation (they would appear together in the powerful, mumble-off State Of Grace). But, like his generational peers Tim Roth, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, the great promise has ended up being a mixed bag. After brilliant performances ranging from Lee Harvey Oswald to playwright Joe Orton to Dracula, he would find himself in a period of junky action movies and straight to cable flicks, while sprinkling in roles in the giant Harry Potter and Dark Knight films and the occasional gem performance like his work as the oily politician in The Contender. His powerfully depressing autobiographical directing effort, Nil By Mouth, showed a potentially major talent behind the camera. But that was over ten years ago; hopefully he will give directing a feature film another go.

Sid and Nancy manages to stray from the usual bio clichés - mirroring the music, using moments of surrealism. There is an anarchic feel to the film that helps establish the nihilism of the two characters. The film is also aided by the look, shot beautifully by Roger Deakins, who would go on to be one of the great cinematographers of the last 20 years (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Fargo, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, etc.). Perhaps Sid and Nancy won’t be for everyone’s taste - it’s dark, it’s vile, and it’s about two mostly unlikable characters. But that said, if you want to see two astounding young actors get off and do their thing, two actors completely slip into the soul of a pair of deranged deadbeats, then Sid and Nancy is exotic heroin for anyone who appreciates acting.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 20, 2010 5:35pm
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