Friday, September 11, 2020

Performance Piece: Billie Lourd, "Scream Queens: Sorority Row" (2015)

The performer: Billie Lourd

The performance: Playing Chanel #3 (A.K.A. Sadie Swenson) in the first season of Scream Queens, originally subtitled "Sorority Row" (2015)

Why her?

Ryan Murphy's Scream Queens came and went: Premiering in the fall of 2015 with much hype, then getting cancelled at the end of the following year after two brief seasons with little fanfare. However, almost four years after its conclusion, the series has managed to live on with a cult following including yours truly. Scream Queens connected with me in a way that I never expected, what with its surprisingly clever references to films both horror and not, humor and mystery that resonated with me, and a memorably offbeat set of characters that carried the show even through its weaker points. While there are several standouts in Scream Queens's first season ensemble, a surprising scene stealer turned out to be one of villain protagonist Chanel Oberlin's (Emma Roberts) minions: Chanel #3, played by up and comer Billie Lourd.

Billie Lourd as Chanel #3 in Scream Queens

Lourd's Chanel #3 appeared minimally in the series's two part series premiere. She's shown mostly enjoying the perks of being a part of Chanel's self-named posse while, for the most part, carrying out Chanel's orders. However, during the course of season one, the audience learns a lot more about Chanel #3 as she deals with the growing body count that the Red Devil killers rack up on campus: She's an heiress to a frozen food company (something that has caused her to develop disordered eating), yet is also the illegitimate daughter of Charles Manson. She falls for sorority pledge Sam (Jeanna Han) and comes to term with being pansexual or, to paraphrase her own words, "just loving love." And, despite being one of the coolest girls in school, she gradually reveals herself to be quite the oddball. This quirky behavior includes believing that she is being haunted by the ghost of "Dead Gay Boone" (Nick Jonas), constantly wearing earmuffs due to her belief that a psychotic former lover will cut them off if he ever sees her ears again, and believing she lacks empathy (despite evidence to the contrary, more on that below), which results in her speaking in complete monotone for the entire series.

While the description of Chanel #3's character development sounds like a lot, and isn't even a complete description of what she goes through in the first season alone, it's all sold thanks to the raw and emerging talent of Lourd. Lourd, the daughter of iconic Star Wars star Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of musical legend Debbie Reynolds, proves she's up to the standard set by her family and uses her comedic abilities to make Chanel #3 stand out. Drawing upon Aubrey Plaza and Winona Ryder's roles from Parks & Recreation and Heathers respectively as her stated inspirations, Lourd makes Chanel #3 play against the others in a deadpan and increasingly sassy fashion. In one example, after Chanel #3 shares her fears about the "ghost of Dead Gay Boone" coming to exact revenge (which, in reality, is just said character getting found out after having faked his death) the young woman asks Chanel why her hands are shaking. After Chanel retorts that she probably got drunk, Chanel #3 insists that of course she got drunk, she had to get drunk to deal with being haunted by the ghost of Dead Gay Boone! That's only one of many occurrences of Lourd not only injecting Chanel #3 with some monotone sass, but displaying the comic timing to make Chanel #3's quirky humor land. More of which can be seen in the video below:

 Speaking of deadpan, special mention has to go to Lourd's ability to maintain monotone speech while conveying the script's desired emotion. There are several instances of Lourd managing to emote monotonously throughout this season: She expresses "rage and pissed off-ed-ness" towards Sam when the latter reveals Chanel #3's status as "Baby Manson" to the other characters. She channels a hilariously spooky tone when hosting multiple seances for the Chanels to contact Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande) from beyond the grave to probe her for answers regarding the killings. And, despite claiming to not have empathy, she adds a surprising depth to her discussion with Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin) about the two of them losing their love interests on the same night and ultimately agreeing to vow to try to never let it ever happen again. It's easy to imagine lesser actors simply forgoing emoting their dialogue when playing a character like Chanel #3 but, if it's not clear by now, Lourd doesn't take any easy routes with her character. She imbues Chanel #3 with contradictory emotions that makes her as much of a hypocrite as the other characters and, as a result, it's one of the more memorable instances of Scream Queens's brand of hypocritical humor.

 Perhaps the best example of Lourd's talent can be found in the first season finale: While the finale revolves around explaining how the final killer got away with their crimes and successfully framed the Chanels for the murders, it's Lourd who walks away with being the MVP of the episode. When Chanel #3 is accused of being a murderer, she is gaslit into believing she murdered Sam by being convinced of having secret alternate personality named Dirty Helen. While the plot point sounds mediocre on paper, Lourd plays Chanel #3 as being utterly (and hysterically, to the audience) convinced of this as the truth. To the point where she rues to Sam that she's sorry her secret other personality killed in what is a surprisingly sympathetic moment for the catty character. Lourd, despite only having a cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as her sole acting credit prior to the show, manages to convey a large range of emotions in this episode, bouncing from comedic to grieving to aroused when getting arrested by strippers turned policemen to, finally, accepting and pleased with her ultimate fate of being falsely convicted with her fellow remaining Chanels as murderers. When it comes down to it, it's ultimately Lourd's scope of talent that allowed for Chanel #3 to be one of the fan favorites of Scream Queens. As well as for Lourd, herself, to show that she is more than capable of living up to the expectations set by her co-stars and her famous family.

Chanel #3: She has the range

No comments: