I just returned from a special screening of Jonna’s Body, Please Hold, a film that is wowing audiences at festivals across the land. I had been eager to see the flick, having heard it was in production and having met its star Jonna Tamases several years ago at an entertainment industry networking event. Later, I saw her one-woman show which served as the inspiration for the movie.
That play had so moved me, I came back to see it again, bringing a friend who was slated to direct a short film I had written.
If there were justice in Hollywood, the name Jonna Tamases would be as well-known today as are those of perky young blondes and buxom brunettes who may have the “look” that (Hollywood producers believe) sells movie tickets, but whose acting talents can’t measure up. If they were to perform on the same stage as Jonna, it would be like watching high school cheerleaders next to Meryl Streep. The cheerleaders may be more enticing to straight men, but the actress can make you sympathize with her character and feel her pain.
And that’s exactly what Jonna did, both in her one-woman show and in its film adaptation. She tells the story of her battle with cancer from the point-of-view of her body, anthropomorphized into Pearl, an operator who reminds me of Lily Tomlin‘s Ernestine from Laugh-In.
Just like Lily Tomlin, Tamases is both a talented comedienne and a gifted dramatic actress (Nashville is worth the cost of rental if just to see Tomlin’s Oscar-nominated performance). In Jonna’s Body, Please Hold, Jonna plays herself, the overwhelmed operator fielding calls from various body parts and also plays those parts themselves. On screen as well as on stage, she succeeds in giving each a distinct personality.
Soon Pearl fields unexpected calls from evil French-accented sprites. At first dismissing the calls, she later realizes they are the cancer which has invaded Jonna’s body, upsetting the balance she has tried so hard to maintain. Through the attempts of this increasingly harried operator to try to placate the now increasingly unsettled body parts, we gain insight into Jonna’s own struggle with cancer. It is both moving and amusing at the same time.
Watching it on screen, I was again reminded of Jonna’s amazing gifts, how she could turn her own illness into an inspiring story, reminding us all to listen to our bodies and to delight in just being alive. It wasn’t just this story. It was also her acting. We believed each body part had a distinct voice. As did the operator. As did the character Jonna.
Seeing such a talented actress, I wondered why it was that other women with less talent have achieved more success on the silver screen. Which brings me to the title of this post.
Jonna Tamases is one of the most talented actresses (at least of those whose work I’ve seen) of my generation. I first saw her doing a comedy sketch and was blown away by her performance. It’s why I rushed to see her one-woman show. On stage, she could switch from one voice to another in an instant and then back again in another. She could go from tears to laughter, without the audience seeing her sweat. Amazing.
Perhaps, Jonna has not become a household name because she just doesn’t have what Hollywood casting directors are looking for. And that’s really where the problem of Hollywood lies. So many talented actors (and writers) come to Hollywood each year thinking they can make it on the basis of their talent. And yet either because they fail to meet the right people or because they don’t meet some producer’s notion of what an actress should be, they don’t get the parts that often go to lesser talents.
To be sure, the entertainment industry is a business and producers have to pick those actors and actresses they think will sell their movies to a worldwide audience. But, it would be nice if Hollywood were a meritocracy where the most gifted performers rose to the top. In that case, we’d be hearing a lot more about Jonna Tamases.
While she may not have the “look” of Keira Knightley or Lindsay Lohan, she does have something that latter lacks, an ability to play a broad range of characters. She resembles women like Thelma Ritter and Lily Tomlin, gifted comediennes who had a rich dramatic range as well. And each enjoyed long careers in Hollywood (heck, Lily is still enjoying hers). Both made movies we still watch today.
If this film leads some enterprising director to discover Jonna and he decides to include her in all pictures, he may well find himself making movies people will be watching long after they are made — as we still watch Ritter’s flicks and Tomlin’s comedy sketches.