When a rising star suddenly fell off the map

A 2011 file photo of Annabella Sciorra. She has accused Harvey Weinstein of rape and of terrorising her, damaging her and perhaps her career. The actress played opposite Robin Williams in the 1998 fantasy drama What Dreams May Come.
The actress played opposite Robin Williams in the 1998 fantasy drama What Dreams May Come.PHOTO: POLYGRAM

Amid the storm of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, one question persists: What caused Annabella Sciorra to disappear from view almost overnight?

One result of moviemaking - and a side-effect of moviegoing - is familiarity. If an actor is particularly good, familiarity opens into something deeper: care, concern, identification, empathy. Yet even those concepts can feel inadequate for some actors. For them, you feel something like ardour, because plain old love won't suffice. That, for many years, was what I felt for Annabella Sciorra - utter ardour. It was inexplicable. It was true.

The early 1990s were her peak - a small, spicy part in Cadillac Man; the emotional centre of Spike Lee's third-rail social melodrama Jungle Fever; a starring role in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, which needed her to play dumb until the light bulb that had been on the fritz for 100 minutes stayed on long enough to show her that the nanny from hell needed to be sent straight back.

In all of these movies (and lots more), Sciorra is steely and luminous, fragile and feral and fierce. Sexy and dire. She can put the feelings you want to see from an actor, feelings you experience as a human, right there on the surface, as portents of other psychological, emotional and romantic depths. I don't know how you teach a performer to be that transparent yet also a little mysterious. You probably can't.

That transparency brings you closer to the smoulder that's among her most essential qualities. The other is her realness. Sciorra is a member of a dwindling fleet of actors who sound like they come from somewhere. In her case, "somewhere" is Brooklyn. In most movies, and perhaps especially in a handful of singeing "Sopranos" episodes, "somewhere" makes her vital. She's what you'd call an around-the-way girl.

Last month, Sciorra told journalist Ronan Farrow, writing in The New Yorker, that she, too, was among the women Harvey Weinstein had assaulted. (He denies all accounts of non-consensual sex.) Her account was harrowing; she accuses him of rape, and of terrorising her during that early professional run, damaging her and perhaps her career.

Each of these sexual assault stories is tough to expunge; they don't blend together so much as affix themselves to a timeline in your heart. But as they accumulate, you do wonder whether, after their experiences with Weinstein, women like Asia Argento, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino and other less famous actresses thought differently about acting, or whether people who make casting decisions thought differently about them, because of rumours or deals with Weinstein.

Sciorra starred with Wesley Snipes in the social melodrama Jungle Fever in 1991. The early 1990s represented the peak of her acting career.
A 2011 file photo of Annabella Sciorra. She has accused Harvey Weinstein of rape and of terrorising her, damaging her and perhaps her career. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In the middle of Farrow's story, actress Rosie Perez says this about her friend Sciorra: "She was riding high, and then she started acting weird and getting reclusive. It made no sense. Why did this woman, who was so talented, and riding so high, doing hit after hit, then all of a sudden fall off the map? It hurts me as a fellow actress to see her career not flourish the way it should have."

It's strange. The US is in the grip of a sexual counterrevolution. Suddenly, stories of abuse and harassment are being believed, abusers and harassers are being toppled. Yet at the same time, one of the top movies in the country right now is Daddy's Home 2, which has a biggish, comedic part for Mel Gibson. He's the man whose anti-Semitism and racist rants became part of the cultural lore. He's the man who pleaded no contest to a domestic abuse charge. This past winter, that same guy won a best director Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. Daddy's Home is more than a title. It names a taunting moral perversion.

A 2011 file photo of Annabella Sciorra. She has accused Harvey Weinstein of rape and of terrorising her, damaging her and perhaps her career. The actress played opposite Robin Williams in the 1998 fantasy drama What Dreams May Come.
Sciorra starred with Wesley Snipes in the social melodrama Jungle Fever in 1991. The early 1990s represented the peak of her acting career.

At 57, Sciorra is four years younger than Gibson and nowhere near the top of the box office. Whatever kind of counterrevolution this turns out to be, much of it, so far, has necessarily been about the actions and art of men. How do the claims against them alter the perception of what they've made? Should they? With their victims, it's the opposite. How does what's been done to them bear out in art they never got to make?

That Rosie Perez quote reminded me how Sciorra excelled at her job. Her coming forward left me at a loss. What good was all that illusory familiarity? I couldn't make a condolence call, or send a letter. So I did something else. I watched her work.

That helplessness got me reacquainted with how good she was in Jungle Fever. It's among the most ideologically ambitious of the Spike Lee joints, and it's mysteriously absent from every legal streaming service. Sciorra plays Angie Tucci, an Italian-American, Brooklyn-bred secretary at a Manhattan architecture firm, who has an affair with her married black boss (Wesley Snipes). She endures her family's racism and her lover's scepticism about the feasibility of their love.

ABRUPT CHANGE

She was riding high, and then she started acting weird and getting reclusive. It made no sense. Why did this woman, who was so talented, and riding so high, doing hit after hit, then all of a sudden fall off the map? It hurts me as a fellow actress to see her career not flourish the way it should have.

ACTRESS ROSIE PEREZ, on Annabella Sciorra's career.

At the time - it was 1991 - Lee told journalists that the movie was interested in the sexual stereotypes that facilitate interracial relationships. But that kind of fetishising doesn't appear to be what's animating Sciorra's performance. The way she looks at Snipes is so pure, and when things between them go south, her grief tips the emotional balance in her favour and places all the neurosis at her co-star's feet. That makes sense. The movie is ultimately - or also - about the assortment of crosses affluent black men have to bear.

But it's Angie you feel most sorry for. This is one of the few times I've ever seen an actor almost upstage a master director just by turning the temperature down on her performance. Lee was making a social tragedy. Sciorra's starring in a more private one.

Her passion - which in one devastating sequence is nearly beaten out of her - departs from all the bigger, louder acting around her. Almost everybody in this movie is angry - the Italians, the crackheads, the Bible-thumping preacher. She acts heartbreak that doesn't appear to be in Lee's script, simply by turning for a last look at Snipes on her way out of an apartment. Maybe Lee once believed a white woman couldn't love a black man without also having something more sinister up her sleeve. Sciorra begs to differ. She probably knew this woman better than the man who invented her.

She's not acting the politics. She's acting the character's heart. Lee has wrung lots of wonderful acting from lots of different actors. But you watch Sciorra in Jungle Fever and wonder whether she's wrung something new out of him.

She was even better in Season 3 of The Sopranos, a show that swooped in and out of the operatic. She plays Gloria, the New Jersey Mercedes-Benz saleswoman who meets Tony Soprano because Dr Melfi accidentally double-booked them. Tony is drawn in and eventually overmatched. Their affair is one of those all-consuming lust connections that brings out the volcanic in both of them.

Sciorra is quick, alluringly vulgar and determined to locate the humanity in a basket case. Tony shows up very late to dinner one night, and Gloria blows up. Sciorra can do wounded. But she wounds, too. Here, she plays the sort of woman who'll grab the slab of beef she's just reheated and chuck it at the head of a mobster who's three times her size.

That's followed by Tony's chasing Gloria around her dining room and kitchen. He picks her up and throws her into a wall, slams her to the floor and chokes her. She uses what breath she has to beg him to finish the job, to kill her. That scene has an awful intimacy that was also one of the draws of the show. Almost no one matched James Gandolfini's intensity on that show. Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco obviously could. Sciorra did, too.

Watching her suffer with Tony Soprano, I didn't think much about Weinstein. I was more focused on the tang of Sciorra's realness (in 2001, she lost an Emmy for her Sopranos work to Sally Field) and how this reckoning with bad men has the tendency of upstaging the great work of women.

Sciorra's realness is part of her skill as an actor. It seems to reside in the marrow of her being. She makes me hope for her happiness, for her safety, and in something good and trashy - like that nanny movie or Whispers In The Dark (another light-bulb-on-the-fritz part, this time a bedevilled shrink) - for her revenge.

With her, the project of moviemaking always seemed complete: I felt what she felt. Her pleasure was pleasing. Her hurt hurt me. It still does.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'When a rising star suddenly fell off the map'. Print Edition | Subscribe