The Diver and The Pearl

 Posted by on August 28, 2010 at 9:00 am  Actors & Crew
Aug 282010

I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

– from “Diving into the Wreck”, Adrienne Rich

She is the kind of person who has always jumped.  She sees something she wants, that she thinks might be interesting, and she jumps.

But these days, January Jones dives.  It’s a deep dive, deeper than I think she expected to take, and it sends her to places even she doesn’t always understand.  When she asks questions — trying to clarify a scene where Betty sleeps with a stranger in a bar, for example — what she gets is not exactly what you or I would consider help.

“Stop thinking about anything,” Matt Weiner tells her. “It could be that the world is falling apart or maybe she’s just horny. She’s pregnant and she’s falling apart, so she sleeps with a guy. You don’t have to think about it.”

So not-thinking is what January does, and her not-thinking is memorable:  The young wife out in a bar, alone and secretly pregnant, tipsy from one drink, dragging her head against a wall as she heads for the ladies’ room.  I remember that head-drag better than I remember her fumbling assignation with the young man, moments later.  For all her terrible statements and impulsive lashing-out, Betty Draper’s silences impress me most.

January does not really have time to think.  As she told Interview Magazine in 2009, the cast receives scripts two days before they shoot.  She literally has 48 hours to ingest the things Betty Draper Francis will say and do in each episode.

And when she asks questions, she might get:  Don’t think.

“I’ve never been trained as an actress, so it’s all instinct,” January said, in that interview with Jack Nicholson. “I just let myself go into this kind of a free fall. Sometimes I feel scared, or out of my element—like everyone else knows what they’re doing but me. Maybe I function well with fear.”

She must.  January Jones does not do many interviews, and I can see why.  Type her name into Google, and this is what comes up:  January Jones accident.  January Jones walk of shame.  January Jones boyfriendMad Men, Emmy nomination, and Betty Draper do not appear among the top search terms.

I wonder how that feels to her.

But who knows?  Honestly, she might be nuts.  This is the person who “hurried up and finished high school” so that she could go to New York City to model.  Who left, fresh out of school, with two hundred dollars to her name.  This is the person who says things like, “I was eighteen.  There was no brave.”

How can a web site hurt someone who chooses to swim with sharks?

There are lots of things I want to know about January and her acting.  I want to know how she generates the moments that have stuck with me:  The woman in the living room, asking her husband if he hates her.  The young mother who chooses to hide her tears from her children — not when the President dies, but when she and their father are getting a divorce.  The grown woman, in labor, who sees her dead parents in a dream and is suddenly a child.  Or where January learned how a new mother feels, well enough to move with post-partum precision.  But what I most want to know I’d never ask:  Do the things people say hurt you?

I have come to see January as a woman who is, first of all, comfortable taking huge risks.  Second, she works hard:  in some kind of black-box, unrepeatable way.  Third:  she does not expect people to be particularly kind to her.  They haven’t really been before, and things haven’t materially changed now.  Despite the accolades of her castmates and many, many reviewers, despite the critical success of the show, January Jones continues to get … the press she gets.

Still, she dives.  Dives and dives and keeps plunging, to places the other actors on the show simply do not get asked to go.  Betty Draper Francis is now one of the most polarizing, if not the most hated character on television … still, down January goes.

When I was small, there was an exhibit at Sea World where you could pay money to send divers, dressed in filmy white, into a large tank to dive for oysters.  If the oyster your diver retrieved held a pearl, you got to keep it.  For me, watching the divers was the fun part.  The tank was room-size, and we stood at one side of it, watching the divers plunge in, arms at their sides until they reached the bottom.  Then they reached, chose an oyster, turned and headed like arrows to the sunlight.

All the divers were young women.  I don’t know why.  But I was a child, and from where I stood, it looked like they were flying.

It still does.

Dive, January.  Dive.


  30 Responses to “The Diver and The Pearl”

  1. Oh, I love it! Great post.

  2. Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone)… Javier Bardem, (Anton Chigurh) lauded performances for portraying ruthless villains. Good to see favorable review of January Jones skills.

  3. Wonderful post–thank you, Anne B.!

  4. Annie:

    I'd take your class any day. Where do I sign up?


    PS Tell Jim I'd like to buy a round and share stories about growing up. I'm sure he and I have very similar/funny experiences. If you join us, great. Don't blush if I ask for your autograph. Your biggest fan, FB.

  5. Wow, really good stuff! Thank you for writing it.

  6. Lovely post. The image of the oyster divers will stay with me for awhile.

  7. Superb, thank you!

    Ms. Jones has the advantage, and the curse, of being beautiful. Lesser actresses would have been tempted to lean heavily on that quality. I love that she seems to neither deny nor exploit her beauty in her performances. It just IS. So she gives us beautiful crazy Betty, and beautiful wounded Betty, and beautiful vengeful Betty and even beautiful ugly Betty (no pun intended) and everything in between.

    I think JJ is cool. I hope she chooses her film offers wisely.

  8. This was beautiful!

  9. Also, I googled the "walk of shame" thing. Who cares that she maybe had a one-night stand?! That seems pretty tame behavior for me, especially for someone who is single, gorgeous, and a Hollywood actor!

  10. Thanks, all, for your comments!

    Been a fan of January's since she was the first (the first!) of the Mad Men characters to make me laugh out loud, during the "we're playing spaceman" scene in Season One. Her line in that scene was so deadpan-unexpected. I loved her for it.

    Frank, I like to think that I am a good writing teacher. But I have not formally taught in a classroom setting since '98, and (like January) I never took classes in how to do it.

    If anyone ever wonders where a post like this comes from, the admiration of one person for another, the delight in watching something close to patterns emerge in what was once perfect stillness — it's from that. It's the self-taught watching the self-taught do her thing, and saying, I'll bet she can't even explain how she just did that.

    I love January. I wish her luck tomorrow night. Yes, I know she'll need it. But she takes my hopes with her when she goes. 🙂

  11. BTW, Frank:

    You're on. Let me figure out how to make it happen, okay?

    (Big fan of yours, too.)

  12. Anne B what a lovely tribute to the talented and unique JJ. I admire how she does hold her own with more experienced actors. She is a trooper and I wish her well at the Emmy's. Being nominated is an honor in itself. She has worked hard and she deserves it.

    Delivering a line like " Its just my people are Nordic" and making it seem natural requires skill.

    Great post.

  13. Beautiful post, Anne. I really enjoyed it and I have always loved January's portrayal of Betty. Somehow I "get" Betty although I know how unpopular the character is … maybe because my people are Nordic too.

  14. Annie:

    I can forward my contact info. to Deborah/Roberta and you can go from there. Let me know if that's what you want me to do.


  15. That was a beautiful post. I have a very soft spot in me for Betty and January because way back at the first episode I was not enchanted with this show, it was Betty that brought me back. I was fascinated by her and her shaking hands and came back for episode 2 just to see what was happening with Betty and I've never left the show since. Thank you for writing this Anne!

  16. I got hooked on MM when I saw that scene with Betty with her shotgun and the cigarette dangling shooting at the neighbor's pigeons.

  17. Dear January,

    Get some training. All the finest actors, from Katherine Hepburn to Emma Thompson, never stopped training. Instinct is only going to take you so far. It's why your audience is so divided on whether your art comes from you or your director.

  18. I am loving your blog. Thank you for this post. First time commenter here.

    I've always felt the viewers who "hate" Betty don't understand this show.

  19. I like the poem you linked to.

  20. In Japan, pearl diving is women's work. I don't know why – maybe the men are all off fishing or something.

    I remember reading that none of the Asian actresses hired as extras on You Only Live Twice knew how to dive. So, all the Japanese pearl-diving girls you see on screen are Diane Cilento (Sean Connery's then-wife) in various wigs and costumes.

  21. Anne … yes, yes, YES.

    Made me think back to Mark Kirby's article, "Oh, Betty!" in GQ Magazine's November 2009 issue:

    "'The guy I was dating when I first got to L.A. was not supportive of my acting,' she says. 'He was like, I don’t think you’re going to be good at this. So—fuck you! He only has nice things to say now—if anything, I should thank him. Because the minute you tell me I can’t do something, that’s when I’m most motivated.'

    "Mistake number one: doing what that skeptical boyfriend (as it turns out, a guy named Ashton Kutcher) did and doubt January Jones. Because she will be so pleased—resolutely, ruthlessly, perhaps a tad too gleefully—to prove your ass wrong."

    Another favorite JJ quote from that article:

    “I don’t have a lot in common with Betty,” she says. “but I’m very protective of her. I just feel like she’s trying really hard to make her life good, and make her marriage work, and it just seems hypocritical that when she slips up, people get mad. Because Don does it all the fucking time.”

    And my favorite quote from Mark Kirby:

    "For the first time, I can see why, in other interviews, she often comes off as distant: the aloof pretty girl, unfailingly polite but also self-protecting, a little more Betty Draper than the woman who, after her fifth round last night, picked up the digital recorder and announced: 'Dear men of America, I like beer, I like football. I’m probably the most interesting girl you’ll ever meet.'

    "It’s that January Jones—the queso-eating, Fargo-speaking, tobacco-chewing girl—who makes you scratch your head. Who shows you the kind of transformation a good actress undergoes. Who causes you to think, just like Jack Nicholson did: Is that really you?"

    I so want her to win.

  22. I love January as Betty. I think haterism comes into play with an unsympathetic character like Betty who's beautiful and stoic. When she found out Don was cheating a lot of people were throwing around the idea that she was going to have some feminist revelation and at that time I thought maybe she's a crap actress because I don't see it. I thought maybe it's January not showing me that Betty will eventually become a social worker or something. But in the end that's not the character. After seeing her background I can understand that Betty reviles the idea of asking for sympathy, that it would be wrong for her to expect it. So I really love what you said about not looking for kindness. Sometimes it's not 100% appropriate to ask for sympathy and it takes a certain kind of person to know that. It's harsh and old fashioned but that's how Betty was raised. I think she sees it as a value, not a flaw. Her times have changed as much as Don's have and we can see how inappropriate it is for her to try to instill the same kind of stiff upper lip crap in her kids as she was raised with but I don't think it's coming from an evil place. I think Betty recognizes that she is privileged and that asking pity is asking too much and that she doesn't conceive of alternatives and that's ignorance, not evil. I couldn't imagine anyone else playing Betty.

  23. less of me,

    That's my Feminist Literary Studies class kicking in. Any woman my age who was a liberal-arts major, studied in the United States, and doesn't know at least some Adrienne Rich … well, I haven't met that woman yet.

    I love AR. Can a patron saint be Jewish? If so, she might be mine.

    And Seymour, love your comment:

    'the minute you tell me I can’t do something, that’s when I’m most motivated.’

    That's a very familiar attitude. And a winning one. 🙂

  24. What a great post! A lot of people dislike Betty to the point where I think they underappriciate what January Jones must need to do to become her. Betty is a messed up woman but the complexities of the character really fascinate me. I feel like I need to watch that scene with Sally's therapist about fifty more times.

  25. I think the iciness that she brings to Betty is something that is really hard to do. There aren't many actresses I could envision playing that part so successfully. And yet, the iciness is a quality that is so essential in Betty, it has to be there.

    I do hope that this season the writers don't make Betty too "one-note," because in the past she has always had a great combination of vulnerability and coldness and the coldness shouldn't be the "only" thing we see. The bitterness that Betty is feeling right now is really understandable. I just don't want to see her become Mommie Dearest.

  26. I wouldn't worry *too* much about how she feels, or feel sorry for her. She's an Emmy-nominated actress on the most critically acclaimed show on TV. I certainly wouldn't want her feelings to get hurt, but criticism comes with the territory of being in the public eye. Some people think she's a good actress, some don't, and all have valid reasons for their opinions; that's the way it works.

    Personally, I can't help but wonder if another actress could imbue Betty with a bit more spirit and interest and personality. In the end, of course, it's a moot point.

    I dunno; I think a lot of fans have begun to take this show and everybody involved in it a tad too seriously. I do include myself in that group, by the way.

  27. Lovely post. I very much appreciate January.

    Don't ask me why, but I get the impression that MW isn't as sympathetic to Betty as a character AND January as a person. But what do I know.

    My fav JJ quote: "Jersey Shore!"

  28. There are times when I get that feeling, too, Mike, although I can;t always put my finger on it. There are times when I suspect some of the writers are working out some of their own mother issues and Madonna/whore complexes.

  29. Lovely post, Anne. Worthy of the Basket.

  30. Great post. I hate to think of Ms. Jones being maligned personally b/c people don't like her character, or her acting or want to nitpick about a few small things in her personal life that millions of us done ourselves. Big whoop. She sounds like a cool lady.

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