While reading the reviews for Josephine Decker’s new film Shirley (out now on Hulu), there’s one phrase I saw multiple times: “career-best performance,” as in, “Featuring a mind-blowing, career-best performance from Elisabeth Moss, Shirley is a tour de force of imagination,” and, “Elisabeth Moss is having one hell of a year, topping her recent career-best performance in The Invisible Man with a transformative turn as Jackson.” These reviews are both on point and off the mark: Moss does give a career-best performance in Shirley, but she also gives career-best performances in Mad Men, Us, Her Smell, Top of the Lake, and The Invisible Man. Every Elisabeth Moss performance is a career-best performance. (Except The Kitchen. The Kitchen is bad.)
When was the first time you noticed Elisabeth Moss? For many, it was Mad Men, where she played secretary-turned-copy chief Peggy Olson, or maybe as President Bartlet’s daughter, Zoey, on The West Wing. But the actress has been part of your pop culture life longer than you realize. In the years prior to moving into the White House, Moss provided voice-work for Batman: The Animated Series and Animaniacs; escaped to Witch Mountain in, well, Escape to Witch Mountain; appeared in the small-screen remake of Gypsy; and made Hulk Hogan rescue her cat from a tree in Suburban Commando, her feature-film debut. She was an accomplished child star when she caught the attention of Aaron Sorkin. During her second audition for The West Wing, “I left and I thought, ‘Well, I guess that went OK.’ Then I got the part and later figured out when I met him that I had read with Aaron Sorkin,” she told the Wall Street Journal.
Moss was only 23 years old when she auditioned to play Peggy (“I don’t look anything like Peggy [in the tape]. I’m 23, blond, tan. I look like I just walked off of the beach”), a role that would take her from “Elisabeth Moss” to “Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss.” On a show full of great actors playing complex characters, including Jon Hamm as Don, January Jones as Betty, John Slattery as Roger, Christina Hendricks as Joan, and Marten Holden Weiner as Glen, obviously, it’s Moss who stands above the rest, with the possible exception of Vincent Kartheiser as Pete. (Don’t make me choose between “PIZZA HOUSE” and “NOT GREAT, BOB.”) She’s at the center of the show’s best episode, and the star of its most indelible shot. But while Mad Men will likely always be the project that Moss is most associated with, there’s a debate to be had over whether Peggy is her “best” role. Can you say that about anyone else in the main Mad Men cast?
Think about it this way: when Jon Hamm passes away, the first line of his obituary will read something like, “Emmy-winning Mad Men star Jon Hamm passed away at the age of 175 years old today” (it was nice of Paul Rudd to share his secret to not aging with his Midwest buddy). Same with Slattery and Hendricks — that’s not a knock on them as actors (he, like Hamm, is excellent on 30 Rock); it’s more, Mad Men was that good. It’s not every day you’re in all-time great show. But for Moss, her obituary role is a toss-up.
My favorite Elisabeth Moss performance is in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, where she plays Becky Something, a narcissistic, self-destructive, burnt-out rock star… who you still believe deserves redemption, for her daughter and for herself. It’s a difficult movie to watch, and Becky is a challenging character to spend two hours with, but Moss portrays her with a captivating rawness, making sure to never overplay her warts-and-all personality. I think about the piano scene once a month. It’s a gutsy, ugly (in a beautiful sort of way) performance that the Oscars ignored, despite Perry passionately campaigning on his star’s behalf. “[Moss] rigorously calibrated this whirlwind of maniacal insanity, sticking to the script while working off impulse and instinct. It wouldn’t be honest of me to pass up an opportunity to give this performance one final cheer from the sidelines and hope that it is seen as the once-in-a-great-while alchemical blend of writing, directing, and, most crucially, acting that it is,” he wrote to no avail, sadly.
Moss has actually never been nominated for an Oscar or Golden Globe, at least not for a movie role. She’s won two Globes for her TV work: Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film for Top of the Lake (“Why Top of the Lake is still Elisabeth Moss’s greatest role”) and Best Actress – Television Series Drama for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (“It’s clear that the phenomenal debut season owes its excellence to the career-best performance of Elisabeth Moss”), which has dipped in quality over the seasons, but it’s still worth watching for Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, and Alexis Bledel. (Never forget that Rory Gilmore was on Mad Men, where she met Peggy’s baby daddy Pete, played by Vincent Kartheiser, who she’s now married to. The only good celebrity couple? Discuss.)
Anyway, Moss is phenomenal in The Square (you’ll never look at a condom the same way), indies The One I Love and Listen Up Philip, and Us (the way she says “vodka o’clock” is chef’s kiss emoji), but she’s really shined in 2020. If she’s not in every scene The Invisible Man, she commands the Blumhouse horror flick like she is. It’s tough to play against literally nothing, but Moss is gloriously “committed” as Cecilia, who correctly believes that she’s being stalked by her abusive partner who everyone thinks killed himself. It’s an emotionally-draining performance, with all the internal distress that comes with not being believed for what you know is true, and physically demanding, too, in scenes where she’s being attacked by someone she can’t see. You also can’t see the monster in Shirley, Moss’ other foray into horror, but the demons are there.
You know the “[person’s name] that’s it, that’s the tweet” meme? Elisabeth Moss in Shirley, that’s it, that’s the tweet. She plays “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House author Shirley Jackson with a deliciously uneasy edge, whether she’s being provoked by her frail-ego husband who’s both her #1 fan and biggest tormentor (an equally great Michael Stuhlbarg), incapable of leaving the bed due to undiagnosed mental health issues, or feeding possibly deadly mushrooms to her younger house-mate Rose (Odessa Young); their relationship falls somewhere between outright contempt and bordering-on-romantic affection, although sometimes it’s both at the same time. Shirley is a refreshing take on The Tortured Genius trope, and aided by Decker’s experimental flourishes and Moss employing an impressive array of facial tics, you could probably watch it on silent and still understand Jackson’s emotional turmoil. You shouldn’t do this, though, because then you’d miss Moss saying, “I’m a witch.” I half-believe her.
With the shut-down in production due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Moss only has two upcoming projects on her filmography: Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Next Goal Wins, Taika Waititi’s soccer movie. It’s unclear who she plays in both films, but whoever the characters are, I’m sure she’ll give her next career-best performance.