Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: Jeannie Berlin’s performance on HBO’s The Night Of.
Even if you’ve never seen Jeannie Berlin — and given her slim IMDb resume, it’s quite possible you haven’t — you instantly feel a connection with her when she appears onscreen. She’s a character actress in the most widely accepted use of the term, someone who inspires the reaction, “Oh, her!”
She only appears in seven of the ten episodes of The Night Of, a “limited” series (maybe) created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price that unspooled on Sunday nights this summer on HBO. Her character, veteran prosecutor Helen Weiss, is a tough nut to crack. She carries herself with dignity and poise, but also sneers at her conversation partners and appears unmoved by appeals to her emotions. For a few episodes, she’s a background player, visible in one or two scenes only to disappear for most of the main action.
And then the trial of our protagonist, maybe-murderer Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed), begins, and Helen Weiss shines.
When she needles Naz on the stand, she’s compassionate and measured yet fiery and provocative, all at once. When a doctor she’s known for decades comes in front of her for testimony, she’s flirtatious, feisty and ferocious. In back-room conversations with her opponents, she’s even-handed but dismissive, not to be kept waiting or trifled with. And when the trial ends, the final gavel hardly gets a chance to rise before she dumps her high heels, throws on some flats and high-tails it out of there.
Berlin took the character on the page and illuminated contradictory aspects of her personality: a dogged commitment to her job and a fatigue from the toll her career has taken on her. Her character is one of the most memorable pieces of the show’s impressive tapestry of the criminal justice scene in New York City. The show is brimming with veteran actors reveling in their eccentricities in bit parts. But watching Berlin go from a bit of color in the first half of the season to a fully formed character outside traditional archetypes was an unvarnished pleasure in a show that didn’t provide many of those. (I liked it, but it was often dreary, and even its humor had a dark edge.)
I’m just speculating here, but maybe Berlin saw something of herself in Helen’s resigned tenacity. She’s been acting for nearly 40 years, mostly in movies and onstage, but has never gotten much name recognition. Even after The Night Of, she remains an elusive figure. Helen is elusive too — none of the characters on the show seem to know what to make of her, and her effort to prosecute Naz fell on deaf ears to a deadlocked jury. Someone younger, with less experience and more ambition, would be frustrated that her work went unrecognized. But Helen simply adjusts her footwear and walks out — just another day at the office. Berlin may never move on from the school of actors whose work is underappreciated. But if her stunning performance of The Night Of is an indication, the time she’s put in was not for nothing.