Sarah Polley’s second feature as writer/director, Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby, will be released at the end of the month. Polley, who is 33 and has been acting since the age of four – landing her first part in the Canadian movie One Magic Christmas and starring in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at the age of eight – has become one of the most respected directors in Canada, a remarkable achievement for a high school dropout.
Short of stature (five foot-two inches) and making her own way in the world since the age of 15, when she dropped out of school to pursue her dreams, Polley is blessed with a fierce intelligence and razor-sharp career instincts behind that beauteous Mona Lisa-like smile. She is independent, strong-willed and not afraid to put her words into action. She has been actively involved with left-wing politics most of her adult life, working for the NDP and the Coalition against Poverty, delivering sandwiches to street kids and the homeless in Toronto. She had two teeth knocked out as a result of Toronto’s riot squad’s dispersion of a demonstration by the Coalition at Queen’s Park in 1995. She was a vocal supporter of Peggy Nash in her run for the NDP leadership.
Polley became a household name and captured the hearts of many with the role of the sweet-natured Sara Stanley in the hugely popular CBC series Road to Avonlea. She excelled in Atom Egyoyan’s Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter and turned down the choice part of the band groupie ‘Penny Lane’ in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous – a role that would have propelled her into Hollywood stardom – in favour of more challenging work in independent features such as Don McKellar’s Last Night, Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim and John Greyson’s The Law of Enclosures.
She won a Genie Award for her thoughtful performance as a young mother dying of cancer in My Life without Me and another for her work behind the camera on the 2001 short I Shout Love. Her 2007 debut feature, Away from Her, written by Polley based on a short story by Alice Munro and starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, proved to be a critical as well as a box office hit. It won 7 Genie Awards, including best picture and best director, and earned her an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. Julie Christie, who was coaxed out of semi-retirement to brilliantly play the pivotal role of a woman slowly disappearing into the fog of Alzheimer’s at Polley’s request, was showered with awards worldwide, including an Oscar nomination.
Now, with the theatrical release of Take This Waltz (it premiered at TIFF 2011; the title is from a Leonard Cohen song) comes the biggest challenge of her career. This time out, Polley has written a wholly original story – a love triangle set in present-day Toronto – and she has to overcome the dreaded “sophomore curse.” Those in the film industry will know what I mean. For the uninitiated, the “sophomore curse” is the second film of a filmmaker who has created a big splash with their first outing. The critical bar is much higher, as are the expectations, and although it might sound like something conveniently made up by a lazy press – a critical shorthand if you will – it is nevertheless real. Just ask Sandy Wilson with My American Cousin / My American Boyfriend; Mina Shum with Double Happiness / Drive She Said; and Don McKellar with Last Night / Childstar – all good examples of the phenomenon. Their first films were praised to the heavens and covered in awards; the second passed without notice; and the third just confirmed the first was a “one-off.” (In the case of McKellar, he wisely chose not to direct a third.) When questioned about this recently, Polley recalled an exchange with a critic from one of Toronto’s major dallies. The subject came up and he told her, quietly, “Not to worry about it too much, the reviews have already been written.”
The only real answer to the “sophomore curse” is the third film. Patricia Rozema was given a critical hammering with the release of White Room, the film that followed her wildly successful I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, but she responded with the exceptional When Night Is Falling five years later. Sarah Polley has acquired the rights to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which will be her third feature once she finishes work in front of the camera for the noted German director Wim Wenders. Earlier this year she gave birth to her first child with her second husband, David Sandomierski, and one suspects she is just warming up. Sophomore curse? What sophomore curse?